We remember in September Steve Biko ” I write what I like “

On 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in a prison cell in Pretoria. The announcement of Biko's death by the South African government the next day sparked international and national protest. Steve Biko was not the only person to die in detention at the hands of the South African security police; yet, because of Biko's prominence as a charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, his case captured the attention of many South Africans and people throughout the world.


Biko's death in detention illustrates the brutality of the security police during apartheid and the state's hand in covering up torture and abuse of political detainees. Biko's case also demonstrates the collaboration of non-governmental institutions with apartheid and, furthermore, that not all South Africans accepted or were satisfied with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.


Biko was a founding member of the South African Student Organization (SASO), an exclusively black student organization that stressed the need for black South Africans to liberate themselves psychologically and to become self-reliant in order to fundamentally change South Africa. The formation of SASO in 1969 marked the beginning of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). This movement re-energized resistance to apartheid in the 1970s and spawned a number of other political and community development organizations. In 1973, the government banned Biko to his home area, King William's Town in the Eastern Cape. Despite this restriction, he continued his political work as a key figure in the BCM and helped implement several community projects.

In August 1977, Biko and his associate, Peter Jones, drove to Cape Town (violating Biko's banning order) to meet with members of other liberation movement organizations. On their way back through the Eastern Cape, the police stopped Biko and Jones at a routine road block near Grahamstown. When the police recognized the two men, they arrested them under Section 6 of the 1967 Terrorism Act that allowed indefinite detention without trial for the purposes of interrogation in solitary confinement. The police interrogated them at security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth about their alleged involvement in distributing "subversive" pamphlets in the area. Biko died on September 12, at the age of 30, from brain damage sustained after a physical struggle with his interrogators, inadequate medical care, and inhumane treatment. (Peter Jones was released 533 days later, in February 1979, after solitary confinement and torture.)

The Port Elizabeth security police were known for their brutality. On the morning of September 6, what would be described by the policeman as a "scuffle" erupted between the policeman and Biko. Daniel Siebert led the interrogation, flanked by Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Rubin Marx, and Johan Beneke. Amidst the physical struggle, the policemen punched Biko, beat him with a hosepipe, and ran him into a wall, after which he collapsed. The policemen then shackled Biko upright to a security gate with his arms spread out ("spread-eagled") and his feat chained to the gate, in a crucifixion position. They left Biko chained to the gate (later laying him on the floor) and did not call for a doctor for 24 hours.

Body of anti-Apartheid leader Steven Biko  in a makeshift  morgue before his burial. Biko died September 12th from beatings after his arrest by South African police.  Pretoria, South Africa, September, 1977
Body of anti-Apartheid leader Steven Biko in a makeshift morgue before his burial. Biko died September 12th from beatings after his arrest by South African police.
Pretoria, South Africa, September, 1977

District surgeons employed by the government, Doctors Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang, examined Biko on September 7. Biko was weak, spoke unclearly, and had external injuries on his face and head. Despite evidence of neurological damage, the doctors allowed Biko to be kept in the cell, naked, chained to the grill, and did not record any external injuries. A further test by another physician (a lumbar puncture that should show brain damage) was reported as normal though it "[revealed] blood-stained cerebrospinal fluid (indicating possible brain damage)." ("Health Sector," Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 4: Institutional Hearings) When Biko's condition did not improve and he lapsed into semi-consciousness, Dr. Tucker recommended that Biko be admitted into a hospital. On September 11, the security police decided to transport Biko approximately 700 miles (1100 kilometers) away to Pretoria Central Prison (without any medical records), through the night, lying naked on the floor of a small truck. Biko died shortly after his arrival in Pretoria.

When Minister of Police, James Kruger, announced Biko's death, he claimed Biko had died following a hunger strike. Many people questioned this report and, when evidence from a post-mortem examination suggested Biko had died from head injuries, Kruger withdrew his earlier explanation. Kruger's initial announcement of Biko's alleged hunger strike resembled the bizarre reports of other deaths in detention. During periods of militant resistance (in the 1960s, late 1970s, and mid-1980s) the number of deaths in detention increased; these cases were explained by the state as suicides by hanging with the detainee's clothing, head injuries after falling in the shower or other accidents, and 'natural causes.'

“At the time of his death, Biko had a wife and three children for which he left a letter that stated in one part: “I've devoted my life to see equality for blacks, and at the same time, I've denied the needs of my family. Please understand that I take these actions, not out of selfishness or arrogance, but to preserve a South Africa worth living in for blacks and whites.”
Steve Biko

“What Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce real black people who do not regard themselves as appendages to white society. We do not need to apologise for this because it is true that the white systems have produced through the world a number of people who are not aware that they too are people.”
Steve Biko,


Barney Pityana spoke to Steve Biko for the last time on August 15 1977. A few hours later, Pityana was arrested. It was alone in his cell some time later that Pityana learnt of Biko’s death, reading in a newspaper wheedled from his guard the chilling pronouncement of justice minister Jimmy Kruger that Biko’s death “leaves me cold”.

In his National Arts Festival Winter School lecture , 30 Years On: The Legacy of Steve Biko, Pityana dexterously balanced the personal and the political, and eloquently demonstrated why the former so often constitutes the latter. As a friend and intellectual confrère of Biko, and a fellow leader in the Anglican student movement and the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) that Biko propelled into life, Pityana is uniquely placed to shed light on the foundations and formation of Biko’s thinking.

Pityana—now vice-chancellor and principal of the University of South Africa—offered an incisive primer into Biko’s influences, interactions and legacy, as well as acknowledging Biko’s influences on him.

He said Biko introduced him to writers such as Fanon and Malcolm X and “a wide range of political situations outside South Africa”. Biko offered the young Pityana “particular ways of looking at South Africa” as well as “a consciousness of self and possibilities”.

Biko’s “maverick interpretation of colonial and missionary history of South Africa” was the precursor to his critique of the missionary churches in his I Write What I Like essays.


Crucially, “Black consciousness began to be conceived within the womb of the religious societies and organisations; this is a very significant factor that gets lost.” In passing, Pityana noted an analogous omission, in Luli Callinicos’s biography of Oliver Tambo, where there is “no acknowledgement of the formative influence of religion on Oliver Tambo”.

Pityana’s despair about the state of the Anglican Students’ Federation, of which he was president, was to bring him and Biko together as founding ideologues and roommates. Invited to a Saso conference in what was then Natal, Pityana was surprised to learn that he was to be elected Saso president, as arranged by Biko. It turned out that Biko wished to concentrate on his studies, and thought Pityana’s expulsion from the University of Fort Hare was a fortunate conjunction.

The upshot was that Pityana did not take up the scholarship waiting for him at Durham University, instead staying on to share Biko’s room for a year.

“He had infectious enthusiasm and loyalty to all of us,” said Pityana. “Every issue was under debate through long nights. This was the formation of ideas. After discussions, when everyone had gone off to sleep, he would write out the results, which became the papers in I Write What I Like.”

What is telling about Pityana’s recollections is the collective nature of the endeavour. “I think this is what leaders do. Ideas are shaped and formed by a collective; they are never the product of a single person.”

Indeed, such was the nature of the inquiry into the fundamentals of black consciousness that Biko’s cadre had extended dealings with Rick Turner—later assassinated by the apartheid regime—and his acolytes, among them Halton Cheadle and Charles Nupen.

“There was a group around Rick Turner who considered themselves radicals. The discussions with them were very important. We said, ‘White people cannot fight the struggle for us. The time for white liberals is gone.’ As a young black group, we were very clear on how whites diminished the struggle of black people. But we were still very appreciative of the intellectual discussion.”

Black consciousness

The result of this contestation resulted in the “main idea” of the black consciousness movement: “That it is oppressed people themselves who will be active in the struggle for their liberation.”

“We had to stop those speaking on our behalf—the liberals in Parliament and the newspapers. Liberals ... could not think beyond the manifestation of evil, couldn’t think that black people had a vision for the country. We said, ‘Black consciousness does not end with apartheid. It begins with it.’”

Pityana said that his favourite Biko essay, Black Consciousness and the Quest for Humanity, provided “the moral framework for a future South Africa” with its notion that “something about being free people, liberated people, is inherent in us”. The essay was a counterpoint to prevailing apartheid and liberal dogmas in showing that “black people had discernible visions and workable strategies”.

Pityana brushed aside “silly” speculation of whether Biko would have been South African president had he not been murdered. But he did speak at length on Biko’s legacy. Most important were his “humanity, a level of inherent trust in our people to cure, the possibility to think beyond what confines, and the possibility of humanity”. Black consciousness “produced a cadre not bound by finance and structures, and pushing the bounds of possibility”.

Elaborating on the personal, Pityana pointed out Biko’s “loyalty to friends and capacity to bring out the best in you, not because he was better than us; often he was worse”.

Next was Biko’s way of “listening and engaging, enabling others to express their own thinking and ideas even if they were way beyond you and your thinking at the time”. This sensitivity, Pityana argued, was akin to Amartya Sen’s definition of the intellectual: to give voice to those who don’t have, to give effect to the inner minds of others and to what they need in their lives.

“Consciousness is not sufficient in itself. It must be manifested in making people’s lives better,” he emphasised.

Then there was Biko’s capacity to develop and deliver critiques independent of prevailing norms. “Our post-liberation national consciousness and culture needs to be independent in outlook and critique,” said Pityana. “But it must also be unselfish to look beyond ourselves and see what can be done collectively.”

This collective galvanisation is key to two “big questions” that Pityana raised, and which he believes can be addressed by applying Biko’s ways of thought and action.

The first question is how South Africa can develop an education system to rival that of Zimbabwe, which “holds together even now”. Pityana declared that “philanthropy is not a dirty word” and added, in a riff on Marx, “it is just taking out of what you have and giving to others”.

The second question is about leadership. Pityana asserted that those who went to Saso formation schools have a better idea of society, and that dedicated training of leaders is essential for South Africa. In focusing on leadership, Pityana perhaps touched on the very question that he had earlier declined to discuss. By noting what might be missing in the echelons of contemporary South African leadership, he reminded his audience of what could still be: collective South African humanity thinking beyond confining neo-liberal structures.

This article was taken from the Mail & Guardian and The Death of Stephen Biko overcoming apartheid.

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