Before Nelson Mandela there was Steve Biko. Actually, that’s something of a distortion: the two men were contemporaries, though Mandela was in prison at the time when Biko was active. Not only that, but the campaign to free Mandela from his South African prison went truly international only in the 80s, after Biko’s death.
Had it not been for the effects of apartheid on his career, Steve Biko would have gone into medicine as a career. After first being expelled from Lovedale school at Alice in the Eastern Cape (for political activities), he went on to St Francis College in Mariannhill, Natal, before going to the University of Natal – graduating in the “Non-European” section, of course. Having got involved in the National Union of South African Students, he started a separate union for black, Indian and mixed-race students, called the South African Students Organization, whose name was later changed to the Black Conciousness Movement (BCM). The new organization was characterized by a greater militancy among its members than in the ANC – indeed, BCM members tended to consider the ANC as being too ineffectual.
The apartheid government didn’t take kindly (to say the least) to challenges to its racist authority, and so Biko was kicked out of Natal University, and then in 1973 found himself “banned” by the government – ie he was officially silenced and legally prevented from forming or addressing meetings.
Not the kind of man to allow government oppression to hinder him, Biko continued with his activism, and in 1976 found himself at the heart of the Soweto Uprising. On 16 June that year a protest by members of BCM against the compulsory teaching of the Afrikaans language to black school pupils turned violent, with around twelve people killed. One reporter called it the worst racial violence South Africa had seen since the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. Biko was arrested, and spent over three months in solitary confinement. Even after his release the police continued to harass him, and he was arrested again at a roadblock in August 1977, and taken to the police HQ in Port Elizabeth, where he was beaten up. After being shackled, he was driven 600 miles to Pretoria prison on 11 September, and the following day he died, at the young age of 30. The official explanation at the time was that he had been on hunger strike, but very few believed it. The fact that over 10,000 people – many of them diplomats and commentators from all over the world – turned up to his funeral indicated that he was at the very least an innocent victim of state violence. Biko himself appeared to understand that his was a struggle that he might not survive, as he intimated in what turned out to be his last letter to his family:
I’ve devoted my life to see equality for blacks, and at the same time, I’ve denied the needs of my family. Please understand that I take these actions, not out of selfishness or arrogance, but to preserve a South Africa worth living in for blacks and whites.
Forty years after Steve Biko’s death, apartheid is no more, Mandela and the other heroes of the struggle against it were freed, and majority rule is now in place in South Africa. As the country staggers from one political corruption scandal to another, however, it is hard to believe that a South Africa yet exists that is worth living in for blacks and whites, as Biko had hoped. Unquestionably, the campaign for full equality and justice for all the country’s citizens must go on. In the meantime, however, it’s worth stopping for a bit to remember one of the most courageous campaigners who believed in such a dream. Ultimately, the lesson of Biko’s life is that one man’s example can inspire many more to follow, and take things further, as can be heard in Peter Gabriel’s song about the man:
You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher