Stephen Buntu Biko 1946-1977

Steve_BikoStephen Biko would have been 66 today. He was an anti-apartheid activist in the 60s and 70s, who founded the Black Consciousness movement which mobilized much of the South African black population. In 1968 he became the first president of the Black South African Students Association. Through writings and lectures, Biko worked to “break the chains of black oppression.” In 1973, the South African government banned him which meant he could no longer teach or speak publically, (could not speak to more than one person at a time). For the next 4 years, he was continually harassed by the police, yet he remained active politically including helping to establish a hospital for blacks outside his home district.  He continued to write and publish in an underground publication called Frank Talk.

Though he was not involved in the Soweto riots in 1976, his words and influence certainly helped to energize the black community and also helped to make the government’s response increasingly inflexible and violent.

On August 18, 1977, he was arrested and held in custody for 24 days where he was chained to a grill at night and left to lie in urine-soaked blankets, stripped naked and left in leg irons for 48 hours, and brutally beaten by police, which ultimately caused his death on September 12. This was made public 8 years after his death in response to intense international pressure to investigate the “mysterious” circumstances of his death.

Though philosophically there were many differences between his politics and those of the ANC, Biko has been embraced as one of the heroes of the anti-apartheid movement.

“Biko” by Peter Gabriel

September ’77
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

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
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are
watching now
watching now

“Senzenina” is the Zulu song sung at Biko’s funeral by some 10,000-15,000 people who showed up to honor him. Thousands of others were prevented from attending by police. The funeral became a powerful political rally. Senzenina means “What have we done?” and is South Africa’s anti-apartheid ballad.

lyrics to “Senzenina”

What have we done?
Our sin is that we are black?
Our sin is the truth.
They are killing us.
Let Africa return.

The first free elections in South Africa were held in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandella.

This entry was posted in politics, race, violence and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Stephen Buntu Biko 1946-1977

  1. Mrs. Chili says:

    I marked Biko’s birthday yesterday on my facebook, and I made sure that my former students knew about him, too. I fear his is one of the voices that will be forgotten; not many people pause to remember him anymore.

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