As soon as they came to power in 1948 the National Party started the policy of apartheid in South Africa. Two years earlier in 1946 Steven Bantu Biko had been born. His progressive thinking father was studying to be a lawyer and encouraged Steve and his three siblings to also study hard in order to succeed.
Steve’s schooling coincided with the 1953 Bantu Education Act which enforced separate schooling for non-white Africans. It legalised the idea that black Africans were subservient to whites, so the level of schooling only readied them for manual labour. The acts author Verwoerd said at the time ‘There is no place for them (the Bantu) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”
Steve Biko attended Lovedale, an exclusive boarding school where Kahya his brother was also studying before Kahya was arrested and jailed for 9 months for belonging to the Pan Africanist Congress, a banned political association. Steve was questioned and although they found no wrong doing he too was expelled. This started his fervour against the authorities.
Biko attended the University of Natal to study as a doctor. Initially he was involved with
the National Union of African Students; although supposedly multi-racial the Union was centred around the largest, white only universities so other ethnic groups were mostly ignored. In response Biko helped set up the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in 1968 and was elected its first President. He ignored his studies due his increased political activities and eventually he was thrown out of University.
SASO’s doctrine was of Black Consciousness, aiming for political and social improvements for the oppressed black people of South Africa. The SASO became the Black Consciousness Movement. Then to include adults Biko set up the Black Peoples Convention, by 1972 both had become formidable political forces. Biko was increasingly more dangerous to the authorities and in February 1983 he was ‘banned.’ Being banned meant he couldn’t talk to more than one person at a time, nor speak to the public or media. It was now an offence to quote anything Biko said or wrote. He was restricted to the Eastern Cape his place of birth having to report to the police weekly.
The next few years saw increased protests culminating in the events of June 16th 1976 known now as the Soweto Uprising. It was initially a peaceful demonstration by students from schools and colleges protesting at a new law forcing black Africans to be taught in the Afrikaans language. Afrikaans in the words of Desmond Tutu was the ‘language of the oppressor.’ So instead the black majority spoke English. Police set attack dogs loose against the students who stoned the dogs to death in defence. The police started shooting back leaving 23 dead on the first day. Over the next few days at least 150 more protestors were killed. The next six months saw strikes and violent protests across South Africa leaving hundreds dead. The rand devalued, the economy wobbled, Government was worried!
Although not at Soweto, Steve Biko was arrested in August 1977 under the Terrorism act. Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’ recounts how five officers brutally interrogated Biko for 22 hours in police room 619, Port Elizabeth leaving him in a coma. Then they left him chained to a window grille for days. On September 11th 1977 he was bundled naked into a car, dying the next day in a prison hospital. The police claimed Biko had died due to being on hunger strike, yet the autopsy found massive injuries on to his body and head. A good friend of Biko’s, journalist Donald Woods managed to gain access to the morgue and photograph his friends fatal injuries.Woods wrote the book Biko and then fled the country with his family. Richard Attenborough turned this into the film Cry Freedom.
Even with all the physical evidence the police officers who beat him were never convicted,
as there were apparently ‘no witnesses.’ Though in 1979, the Govt. agreed to pay thousands in damages to Biko’s family. Then in 1985 the hospital doctors were ruled to have behaved disgracefully in their so called treatment of him shortly before he died. The five police officers later admitted the killing and applied for amnesty through the Truth and Justice Commission but this was refused in 1999.