38 years after Steve Biko's death

Last week marked the 38th anniversary of the killing of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. No one has been charged for his murder. Did Biko die for nothing?

Cause of death

"Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury,” it was stated in the Committee’s investigation of Biko's, born Stephen Bantu Biko, death. The investigation opened twenty years after the killing of Biko.

A “scuffle” erupted between Biko and another policeman the morning of September 6 the Port Elizabeth security claimed.

“It appeared more probable that Mr. Biko had been attacked because the officers had been offended by his ''arrogant, recalcitrant and non-cooperative attitude, particularly exemplified by his occupying a chair without their permission to do so,'' the committee responded.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was established in 1995 by ANC and was lead by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who later also was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Committee investigated political apartheid crimes undertaken in South Africa and abroad between 1960 and 1993. However, for transfer of power, the outgoing apartheid government had demanded that the Committee had to grant amnesty to people making full confessions of politically motivated crimes during apartheid.

Self-fulfilled prophecy

“It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” Steve Biko’s now famous quote became a self-fulfilled prophecy when he devotedly began the fight for the rights of Black people.

He had already been expelled from his first school, Lovedale, in the Eastern Cape for 'anti-establishment' behavior, something he said gave him a "strong resentment toward white authority". Transferred in 1966 to the University of Natal Medical School twenty-year-old Biko studied to become a doctor, at the university’s Black Section. He was active in student unions but noticed quickly that the white dominated unions had no interest in addressing the needs of Black students. In response to this, Biko co-founded in 1969 South Africa’s Students’ Organization (SASO). "The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves," he said. The exclusively Black student association provided legal aid, medical clinics and developed cottage industries for disadvantaged Black communities.

Biko co-founded in 1972 the association Black People’s Convention (BPC) that addressed social problems around Durban. With Biko as the first elected president the association grew steadily, gathering together 70 different black consciousness groups and associations and thus becoming one of the most important figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Biko co-founded the same year the Black Community Programme (BCP) in Durban, even more convinced that Black people could not rely on support from the white in their liberation.

"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."

This statement was too radical for the African National Congress, ANC that took a stand from Biko whom they thought to be too provocative. The party is however after Biko’s death accused of using the martyr in their campaign posters for its own political gain.

The university expelled Biko in 1972 due to his political activism.

Political censorship

But by this time, over 41 branches of the BPC were in existence spreading the ideology of Biko. Biko himself was by 1973 banned by the Apartheid regime from any political engagement. He was restricted to his home area in the Eastern Cape which unable him to work with the BPC in Durban. Biko nevertheless continued to work for the BPC and helped set up the Zimele Trust Fund that assisted political prisoners and their families.

The ban furthermore meant that Biko was forbidden to write or speak in publicly. He was not allowed to address to the media representatives or to speak to more than a person at a time.

Undercover Biko continued to fight, violating the banning order. In August 1977 he drove with his associate Peter Jones to Cape Town to meet with other anti- apartheid fighters. On the way home, the police at a roadblock stopped the two men. Immediately recognized they were arrested under Section 83 of the 1967 Terrorism Act, which allowed the police to keep them in indefinite detention without trial for the purposes of interrogation in solitary confinement.

Claimed hunger strike

From the confessions it was revealed that the policemen had punched Biko, beaten him with a hosepipe and slammed him into a wall so that he collapsed. The police later shackled him upright to a security gate with his arms spread out ("spread-eagled") and his feat chained to the gate. They left him chained like this for a day. A doctor examined him the following day but did not record any injuries what so ever.

Biko would come to fall in and out of consciousness for days, still naked and chained to the grill. On September 11 the police transported him more than 500 miles across the country to get medical care at Pretoria Central Prison. Biko was lying naked and shackled in the back of a police van throughout the night ride.

He died in a police cell before he was taken to the hospital. He died on September 12, at the age of 30, from brain damage. Not a hunger strike like the police claimed.

No responsibility

“Despite the inquest finding no person responsible for his death, the Commission finds that, in view of the fact that Biko died in the custody of law enforcement officials, the probabilities are that he died as a result of injuries sustained during his detention,” it was stated in the Committee’s report.

News of Biko’s death led to protests worldwide. U.N.-imposed arms embargo. The South African police continued to deny responsibility. No one has been charged for the killing of Steve Biko.

Was it better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die?

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm