His black consciousness movement focused on making people responsible for their own liberation
Steve Bantu Biko was a giant of the struggle against South Africa’s white minority rule and arguably its most famous martyr. But he was never a member of Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).
Born in Tylden, in the Eastern Province (now Eastern Cape), on 18 December 1946, he was academically gifted but ran up against policies designed to thwart black education. He rebelled, was interrogated by police and expelled from school, giving him what he described as a “strong resentment toward white authority”.
At university Biko formed the South African Students Organisation, raising awareness of how black students suffered compared to their white counterparts.
His black consciousness movement focused on making people responsible for their own liberation. He said: “The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth … This is the definition of black consciousness.”
In 1973 a government order banned him from leaving his home of King Williamstown. It was at a clinic there that Biko, who was married, met and fell for the resident doctor, Mamphela Ramphele. They had two children, one of whom died in infancy.
In August 1977 Biko was arrested at a roadblock and detained in prison. His brutal treatment, culminating in being driven naked in the back of a police van over a huge distance, led to his death on 12 September. Jimmy Kruger, the police minister, said: “I am not pleased nor am I sorry. Biko’s death leaves me cold.”
In Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom, which portrayed Biko’s friendship with the journalist Donald Woods, Biko was played by Denzel Washington.
The ANC government has been criticised for claiming too much credit for South Africa’s struggle history and neglecting figures such as Biko. But last year it presided over the opening of a Steve Biko Heritage Centre in King Williamstown.