Steve Biko, why is he still relevant in South African politics today?


Amongst the top 100 greatest South Africans to ever lived and inspired people, Biko’s name ranks 13th on the list compiled by 100 inspirational people and the global icon such as Nelson Mandela who top the list.

In September 2004, a list was released with thousands of South Africans who took part in a nationwide poll to determine the top “100 Greatest South Africans” and Steve Biko’s name popped up.

On December 18, 1946, in the rural township of Ginsberg, Eastern Cape, the fearless anti-apartheid activist was born and named Bantu Stephen Biko and was brutally killed in the police custody by the oppressors on September 12, 1977. The founder of the anti-apartheid movement (Black Consciousness Movement), was at the forefront of grassroots during the hard times of apartheid era fighting for the freedom of the country.

Apart from his role in politics, during 1960-1964 Biko studied Medicine at the non-European section, St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal. The college had a liberal political culture and it is whereby Biko developed a growing political consciousness. He became particularly interested in the replacement of South Africa’s white minority colonial government with an administration that reflected the views of the country’s black majority.

Biko is also popularly known by his most inspirational book entitled “I Write What I Like” the book in which some of the words are still quoted even at this moment in the contemporary South African politics.

In his book, Biko reveals that his interest to have created the Black Consciousness Movement was inspired by notable heroes such as Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella and Kenya’s Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. He also added that he admired the PAC’s “terribly good organisation” and the courage of many of its members, but that he was not convinced by its racially exclusionary approach, instead believing that members of all racial groups could unite in opposition to the government.

What role did he play in the South African politics?

Without no doubt, Biko is the most influential character in the field of politics apart from the struggle icons such as Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani, Walter Sisulu, Chief Albert Luthuli and another political activist in the history of South Africa. His genuine ideas and strategies made him a liberal and the connoisseur towards the white oppressors.

Biko played a very crucial role to students during the times of Bantu Education system that was adopted by the apartheid government to oppress black people to not see green pastures of education. This angered Biko and led him to be involved in the National Union of South African Students, he felt that black, Coloured and Indian students needed their own body.

This led to the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) which at a later stage became the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko said he adopted to this movement due to the oppressed mind black people suffered from the whites.

“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time,” said Biko.

Biko together with the activist, Onkgopotse Tiro and a group of young students created a Black Consciousness Movement, to give more focus on young school pupils, this came after the ANC and the PAC were banned from 1964 till 1989, following the arrests of their leaders.

In February 1973 Biko was banned from speaking in public gatherings nor to address the crowd, as it was claimed that he was influencing a civil war. However, he ignored the call and continued to fight till his death.

Biko shared the same political ideology as Mandela, his vision was to see South Africa as a rainbow nation with blacks and whites living together, and without no white minority and the black majority as he stated in one of his interviews. But his ideology was criticised by some members of the BCM for his friendships with white liberals.

What role did he play in the Soweto Uprising’s June 16?

June 16 is the most reckoning day in the history of South African massacres, in whereby hundreds of students were brutally killed and thousands were tortured, injured and attested.

Despite his restrictions orders, Biko initiated the rally together with various students movements to send a strong message to the apartheid government about their dissatisfaction of the treatment received as students.

The march went as planned on the 16th of June in 1976, but ended in a very tense and emotional sadness situation when the police brutality took place against demonstrating students. At a later stage following the investigations behind the masterminds of the occasion, the then government targeted Black Consciousness activists and Biko as the main person behind the uprising.

Biko was arrested at a police roadblock on August 27, 1976, and held in solitary for 101 days. Stripped and manacled for 20 days he was taken to the headquarters of Security Police in Port Elizabeth.

Badly beaten he was shackled to a grill before being taken on a 600-mile journey to Pretoria, where he died shortly arriving at the prison on September 12, 1977.

Why is he still relevant, and how could he have changed lives of students in this era?

The global icon, Nelson Mandela has described Biko as “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa” adding that the Nationalist government “had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”

Biko could have been the greatest leader in the post-apartheid era. And most importantly students were Biko’s first priority, free education in tertiary institutions it was gonna be a possible goal.

He supported the idea of unifying South Africa’s black liberationist group in order to concentrate their efforts in overthrowing apartheid. In his words, “I would like to see groups such as the ANC, PAC, and Black Consciousness deciding to form one liberation group”. To this end, he began reaching out to leading members of the African National Congress (ANC), PAC, and Unity Movement.

Before his death, Biko was on the verge to meet the leading ANC figure, Oliver Tambo. His clandestine negotiations with the PAC were primarily through intermediaries who exchanged messages between him and Robert Sobukwe.


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