Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Memory of Steve Biko

Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in Apartheid era South Africa is perhaps the most famous martyr of anti-Apartheid movement. With his writings and political work, this young intellectual changed the whole outlook of the anti-Apartheid struggle by motivating the oppressed Black people of South Africa to think that "Black is Beautiful." He ceaselessly campaigned to establish a grass root organization while helping the Black people to emancipate them from the sence of inferiority vis-a-vis the Whites. Arrested on August 18, 1977, he was murdered by the police less than a month later, on September 12.

Born in 1946 in King William's Town in Eastern Cape, young Stephen Bantu Biko began his education in the backdrop of the Bantu Education Act of 1952 which was aimed at restricting education opportunities for Black people. However, Steve was able to enter the University of Natal. There he joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). However, the NUSAS was based on the white universities, there was almost no chance of a Black person rising to its leadership. Also, Biko recognized the need for a more grass root movement. It was with these in mind that he created the South African Students Organization (SASO). The SASO adopted a new pro-black and radical doctrine that became known as "Black Consciousness" which by Biko defined as the "cultural and political revival of an oppressed people."

Within a few years, by 1971, Black Consciousness had spread out far and wide and to incorporate adult elements to it, Biko created the Black People's Convention (BPC). Also, they started Black Community Programmes.

One tactic of the Apartheid regime to contain their opponents was to 'ban' them, thereby restricting their movement to a small area. By 1973, Biko and some of his colleagues were banned. However, their ideas had spread, inflaming the oppressed Black people. When the government introduced Afrikaans as the medium of academic instruction in schools, the Black people erupted at Soweto on June 16, 1976. Violence gripped the country for several months.

Although the BCM played a large role in the Soweto uprising, the ultimate beneficiaries were the African National Congress (ANC). The BCM faced harsh measures of the regime which arrested a number of their leaders. On August 18, 1977, the security police arrested Steve Biko and held at Port Elizabeth. Following his transfer to Pretoria, he died on September 12. He was nearly 31.

Police maintained that he died of a hunger strike. But, the truth was revealed later, largely by the efforts of Donald Woods and Helen Zille, the current leader of Democratic Alliance and Premier of Western Cape. It was found that Steve Biko died of severe brain damage.

Much international attention was generated by the death of the young leader. His funeral on September 25 was a day of protest with 15,000-20,000 people attending and many more prevented by the police from doing so. A dozen Western countries sent their delegates, which was a rebuke of the apartheid regime.

The memory of Steve Biko is still alive although his ideas were different from those of the ANC which has ruled South Africa since 1994. Ten years after his death, Richard Attenborough made the film "Cry Freedom" based on the books on Biko written by his old friend Donald Woods. After years of campaigning against the doctors who treated him in the last days, his supporters had reason to cheer when Justice W G Boshoff, said in a landmark judgment that there was prima facie evidence of improper or disgraceful conduct on the part of the doctors in a professional respect. After the fall of apartheid, five policemen involved with his death were not given amnesty by the Truth Commission but charges were never brought up against them.

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