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Stephen Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977) was a noted anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. Since his death in police custody, he has been called a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower black people, and he was famous for his slogan "black is beautiful", which he described as meaning: "man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being". Despite friction between the ANC and Biko throughout the 1970s the ANC has included Biko in the pantheon of struggle heroes, going as far as using his image for campaign posters in South Africa's first non-racial elections in 1994.


Biko was born in King William's Townmarker, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. He was a student at the University of Natal. He was initially involved with the multiracial National Union of South African Students, but after he became convinced that Black, Indian and Coloured students needed an organization of their own, he helped found the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) in 1968, and was elected its first president. SASO evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Biko was also involved with the World Student Christian Federation.

Ntsiki Mashalaba, Biko's wife, was also a prominent thinker within the Black Consciousness Movement.

Ntsiki and Biko had two children together: Nkosinathi and Samora. He also had a daughter with Lorraine Tabane, named Motlatsi, born in May 1977 and a son, Hlumelo, with Dr Mamphela Ramphele (a prominent activist within the BCM), who was born in 1978, after Biko's death.In 1972 Biko became honourary president of the Black People's Convention. He was banned during the height of apartheid in March 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, was restricted to certain areas, and could not make speeches in public. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations. Biko was a Xhosa. In addition to Xhosa, he spoke fluent English and fairly fluent Afrikaans.

When Biko was banned, his movement within the country was restricted to the Eastern Cape, where he was born. After returning there, he formed a number of grassroots organizations based on the notion of self-reliance, including a community clinic, Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund (which helped support former political prisoners and their families), Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund.

In spite of the repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organising the protests which culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 16 June, 1976. In the aftermath of the uprising, which was crushed by heavily armed police shooting school children protesting, the authorities began to target Biko further.

Death and aftermath

On 21 August, 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabethmarker security police in the Police Room 619 (sometimes numbered as 6-1-9), including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a day. On 11 September, 1977 police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked, and began the 1 500 km drive to Pretoriamarker to take him to a prison with hospital facilities. However, he was nearly dead due to the previous injuries. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September. The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike. He was found to have massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors. Then journalist and now political leader, Helen Zille, along with Donald Woods, another journalist, editor and close friend of Biko's, exposed the truth behind Biko's death.

Because of his fame, news of Biko's death spread quickly, opening many eyes around the world to the brutality of the apartheid regime. His funeral was attended by over 10,000 people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from the United Statesmarker and Western Europe. The liberal white South African journalist Donald Woods, a personal friend of Biko, photographed his injuries in the morgue. Woods was later forced to flee South Africa for England, where he campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko's life and death, writing many newspaper articles and authoring the book, Biko. On hearing the news of Steve Biko's death in police custody, South African Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, simply declared in a speech that the incident "left him cold".

The following year, on 2 February 1978, the Attorney General of the Eastern Cape stated that he would not prosecute any police involved in the arrest and detention of Biko. During the trial, it was claimed that Biko's head injuries were the result of a self-inflicted suicide attempt, not those of any beatings. The judge ultimately ruled that a murder charge could not be supported partly because there were no witnesses to the killing. Charges of culpable homicide and assault were also considered, but because the killing occurred in 1977, the time limit for prosecution had expired.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created following the end of minority rule and the apartheid system, reported in 1997 that five former members of the South African security forces had admitted to killing Biko were applying for amnesty.

On 7 October, 2003 the South African Justice Ministry officials announced that the five policemen accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted, because there was insufficient evidence, and because the time limit for prosecution had elapsed.

Stephen Biko authored a book titled: I Write What I Like.

In 2004, he was voted 13th in the SABC3's Great South Africans.

Influences and formation of ideology

Like Frantz Fanon, Biko originally studied medicine, and, like Fanon, Biko developed an intense concern for the development of black consciousness as a solution to the existential struggles which shape existence, both as a human and as an African (see Négritude). Biko can thus be seen as a follower of Fanon and Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more multi-racialist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Islandmarker, and Albert Luthuli who were first disciples of Gandhi.

Biko saw the struggle to restore African consciousness as having two stages, "Psychological liberation" and "Physical liberation". The nonviolent influence of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. upon Biko is then suspect, as Biko knew that for his struggle to give rise to physical liberation, it was necessary that it exist within the political realities of the apartheid regime, and Biko's nonviolence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction. Thus, Biko's BCM had much in common with other left-wing African nationalist movements of the time, such as Amilcar Cabral's PAIGC and Huey Newton's Black Panther Party.

Biko's relevance in the present

In the present post-Apartheid South Africa, Biko is now revered across the political spectrum despite their obvious ideological differences. Many of these people see Biko's philosophy as no longer relevant after 1994.

However, many present-day social movements, activists, and academics continue to stress the relevance of Biko's black consciousness. This includes a strong critique of voting by academic Andile Mngxitama who has said that if Biko were alive today, he would not be supporting any political party, would not even vote, but would be marching with the social movements against government.


Biko's name has been honoured at several universities. Locally, the main Student Union buildings of the University of Cape Townmarker are named in his honour and each year a commemorative Steve Biko lecture, open to all students, is delivered on the anniversary of his death. Internationally, the Oxford Road campus of the University of Manchestermarker is named in his honour, and the student union building is named the Steve Biko Building. Ruskin College, Oxford has a Biko House student accommodation. The bar at the University of Bradfordmarker was named after Biko until its closure in 2005. Numerous other venues in Students Unions around the United Kingdom also bear his name. The Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative has a house named after Steve Biko, themed to provide a safe, respectful space for people of color. A street in Hounslowmarker, West London, is named "Steve Biko Way". At the University of California, Santa Cruz, there is a section of dormitories named "Biko House" located in the Oakes College Multicultural Theme Housing. The Pretoria Academic Hospital was renamed the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in 2008. Durban University of Technology has acknowledged Steve Biko’s contribution to South African Society by naming its largest campus after him. A bronze bust of Steve Biko was unveiled in Freedom Square on this campus as a tribute to him.

References in the arts


  • Benjamin Zephaniah wrote a poem entitled, "Biko The Greatness", included in Zephaniah's 2001 collection, Too Black, Too Strong.
  • "The Compound Arcane" is a poem written in 1975 by Jack Hirschman, subtitled Hommage to Steve Biko, which is published in The Arcanes. This poem is notable by the fact that it was composed prior to Biko's death, yet already the poet was inspired enough by Biko's life to recognize him as a martyr.

Theatre, film and television

  • In 1978, Malcolm Clarke recounted Biko's story in a documentary called, The Life and Death of Steve Biko.
  • 1979 play entitled The Biko Inquest, written by Norman Fenton and Jon Blair. In 1985, a television adaptation of the original stage play was created, directed by Albert Finney and originally aired in the US through HBO in 1985.
  • In 1987, Richard Attenborough directed the movie Cry Freedom, a biographical drama about Biko starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline.
  • In the Disney channel movie The Color of Friendship, Biko's death is used as a plot turner in breaking the two teens apart.
  • In Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, while Brian Potter is on Crimetime and is grabbed by a following interviewee he makes a reference to Biko.
  • Within the Star Trek canon, the USS Biko is named in his honour.
  • In the manga and anime Planetes, a presumably co-lateral descendant, James Biko, is the navigator of the Werner von Braun Jupiter Explorer.


Biko has been the subject of many tributes in many different genres of music, including rap, hip hop, jazz, reggae and rock

  • In 1978, Peter Hammill on his album: The future Now in the song : A motor bike in Afrika was the first to mention Biko (after his death) in England.
  • South African improviser, composer, and bandleader Johnny Dyani (Johnny Mbizo Dyani) recorded an album entitled Song for Biko, featuring a composition (written by Dyani) of the same name.
  • Tom Paxton released the song, "The Death of Stephen Biko", on his 1978 album, Heroes.
  • Christy Moore sang a song about Biko called, "Biko Drum", which makes several reverences to the South African hero. The song was written by Wally Page.
  • The A Tribe Called Quest 1993 album, Midnight Marauders, includes the song, "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)." In which Biko is only mentioned in the 20 second chorus.
  • Biko is referenced in the Public Enemy song "Show 'Em Whatcha Got" on the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
  • Steel Pulse released the song, "Biko's Kindred Lament", on their 1979 album, Tribute to the Martyrs.
  • Beenie Man's 1997 album, Many Moods of Moses, contains a track entitled "Steve Biko."
  • German singer Patrice sings about Biko in the song "Jah Jah Deh Deh" off his album How Do You Call It?.
  • Dead Prez's album Let's Get Free references Steve Biko in the track "I'm a African"
  • Tapper Zukie released the song "Tribute To Steve Biko" on his 1978 album "Peace In The Ghetto", on the Frontline Records label.
  • Peter Gabriel tells the tale of Biko in Biko, on his 1980 album Peter Gabriel (alternatively known as Melt, for the cover art), released in 1980. Gabriel sings: "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". During the reign of South Africa's apartheid government, Gabriel often closed his concerts with the song, encouraging the audience to sing with him. Even in his Latin America Tour in 2009, Gabriel closed his concerts with the song. The song was performed at Woodstock 1994 and appears on the concert album of the same name. The song has been covered by many artists, including The Flirtations, Joan Baez, Robert Wyatt, Simple Minds, Manu Dibango, Black 47 and Ray Wilson
  • Dave Matthews wrote the song "Cry Freedom" in honour of Biko.
  • Dirty district have a song based on the murder of Steve Biko, titled "Steve Biko", on their debut album, Pousse Au Crime et Longueurs de Temps .
  • Randy Stonehill sings about Biko in the song "Stand Like Steel" on his 1989 album Return to Paradise (produced by Mark Heard).
  • Sweet Honey in the Rock's 1981 album, Good News, contains tracks entitled "Biko" and "Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto", which compares Biko's death to that of Chileanmarker musician Victor Jara and was covered by Billy Bragg in 1992.
  • System Of A Down recorded a song entitled "Biko" onto one of their early demo tapes.
  • Simphiwe Dana's second album is called 'the one love movement on bantu biko street'
  • Stevie Wonder mentions the struggle in South Africa and Steven Biko in a tribute concert to Bob Dylan in his song "Blowing in the Wind"
  • Willy Porter mentions Biko in his song entitled "The Trees Have Soul". "Even Stephen Biko knows, the trees have soul".
  • Johnny Clegg mentions Steve Biko, also Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett in his song, Asimbonanga, about the Apartheid and Nelson Mandela.
  • Wyclef Jean compares Biko's horrific events to the ones of Amadou Diallo in his tribute song name "Diallo" in the album "The Ecleftic: Two Sides of a Book".
  • Banda Bassotti Figli Della Stessa Rabbia
  • Lowkey's 2009 album Dear Listener references Steve Biko in the track "I Believe"
  • Singer - songwriter Kris Kristofferson mentions him on the song called Mal Sacate. Kristofferson sings: They killed so many heroes / Like Zapata (presente!) and Fonseca (presente!)/and Sandino (presente!) and Guevarra (presente!)/ and Steve Biko (presente!)/ but they can never kill the human spirit in Nicaragua.
  • Senegal's Youssou N'Dour mentions Steve Biko in his song New Africa
  • The Scottish rock band Simple Minds's song "Biko" is about Steve Biko
  • The U.K. band Bloc Party has a song named "Biko"
  • Saul Williams mentions Biko along with other notable figures such as Buddha, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Khalil Gibran, Shiva in the song Coded Language.


Numerous works have paid homage to Steve Biko, and keep awareness of him alive. These include:

Homage to Steve Biko—Bester, Willie. [4793]

Who killed Steve Biko? -- Ashton, Tony. [4794]

See also


  1. See, for instance, Rian Malan's book My Traitor's Heart
  2. SA editor's escape from apartheid, 30 years on M & G
  3. Account of homicide accusations against the police in The Independent (of London)
  6. Tapper Zukie - Peace In The Ghetto

Further reading

External links

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