Remembering SA liberation icon Steve 'Bantu' Biko


Colleta Dewa

Johanesburg - On Friday, 14 September President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the Steve Biko Memorial lecture at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.

The annual lecture is in memory of one of South Africa’s most influential and brave liberation heroes, Steve 'Bantu' Biko who passed away on 12 September 1977.

Biko became a target of the apartheid regime due to his political activism at a very young age.

 He became a member of various organisations that were fighting for the emancipation of the black majority.

 Biko was a strong and dedicated student activism leader.

He was a member of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), South African Student Organisation (SASO), Black Peoples' Convention and the organisation most identified with him, the Black Consciousness Movement.

SASO was formed in 1968 when Biko and his friends broke away from NUSAS which was biased towards white students.

“When we broke away to form an exclusive black movement, we were accused of being anti-white. But with many more whites at university, the non-racial students' union was dominated by white liberals. They made all the decisions for us. "We needed time to look at our own problems, and not leave them to people without experience of the terrible conditions in the black townships or of the system of Bantu education,” said Biko in 1968.

Ramaphosa was also a member of SASO.

Biko, however, became more attached to the Black Consciousness Movement which instigated a social, cultural, and political awakening in the country in the 1970s.

The movement became so relevant and filled in the gap after most anti-apartheid organisations such as the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress had been virtually silenced by government repression.

The philosophy of the Black Consciousness Movement redefined “black” as an inclusive, positive identity and taught that black South Africans could make meaningful change in their society if conscientised or awakened to their self-worth and the need for activism.

 The movement emboldened youths, contributed to the development of Black Theology and cultural movements, and led to the formation of new community and political organisations such as the Black Community Programmes Organisation and the Black People’s Convention.

In February 1973, Biko, together with other officials of SASO and BPC, were served with banning orders.

Biko was immediately banned from all the organisations which he had been associated with, and he was restricted to Kingwilliam's Town for five years.

The apartheid system governed that a banned person was prohibited from being at any meeting, meaning he could not talk to two people at the same time.

Biko was then drawn away from the organisations that he had found as well as the people whom he had worked with.

“Colonialism, missionaries, and apartheid had made the black man a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity,” said Biko.

The Black Consciousness Movement became so influential that the leaders clashed with police on a daily basis.

After the 1976 student uprisings, police harassment, detentions, and bannings increased and led to the arrest and death of many political activists.

Four Black Consciousness Movement activists died between 1972 and 1977 as a result of the actions of South African security forces.

They include Mthuli ka Shezi, who was pushed onto a train track in 1972, Mapetla Mohapi, a SASO organiser who was killed in the Kei Road police station in 1976, Tiro who was killed in a bomb blast in Botswana and Biko, who died at the hands of the security police in 1977.

Biko’s death sparked international outrage as the apartheid government denied that he had died due to severe torture by security officers.

 They argued that Biko died of hunger as he had embarked on a hunger strike.

However, it was revealed that he suffered brain hemorrhage after he was tortured in prison.

He died at the age of 31 and apartheid police were again criticised for blocking many people who wanted to attend Biko’s funeral.

Biko was arrested and detained many times before his death.

In 1974, he was charged with breaking his banning orders but he was acquitted.

 He was then arrested and charged several times on different counts, including various allegations that he had broken his banning orders and a charge of obstructing the course of justice by persuading witnesses in a political trial to change their evidence.

In March 1977, he was arrested, detained, and then later released. And again in July 1977, he was arrested, charged and released on bail.

Some charges against Biko were still pending at the time of his death.

Police came up with accusations of terrorism, planning sabotage, murder, and riots in the streets after Biko had died.

However, during his political activism, he was never arrested for inciting violence.

A hospital in Pretoria has been named after Steve Biko.





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