“You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire,” Peter Gabriel sings in his song, “Biko”. The singer also offers this hope: “Once a flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher.” Who was Biko, or Steve Biko, the subject of Gabriel’s song? How did his life, and death, brought the world’s attention to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement?
What Was Apartheid?
In 1948, fearing the changes the postwar world might bring in a country with a large black majority, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party instituted the system of apartheid to deny black Africans the right to participate politically at any level.
The government also decreed that certain urban areas would be restricted by race. It then forcibly removed Black South Africans from areas that the regime designated as being for whites only.
The African National Congress condemned and protested apartheid through peaceful—albeit unlawful—demonstrations.
Taking a cue from Mahatma Gandhi’s example of civil disobedience, which he’d developed while living in South Africa years before, boycotts, demonstrations, strikes, and nationally coordinated work stoppages were carried out, under the guidance of Nelson Mandela.
Emergence of Student Organizations
Mandela was facing a trial in April 1964 on charges of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the South African state. And, with his imprisonment, an important element of the freedom struggle now shifted to underground student organizations, such as the National Union of South African Students, which initially took the lead.
Primarily a white liberal organization, the National Union of South African Students was committed to a racially integrated society, and accepted black students as members. By the late 1960s, however, some black members would chafe at the group’s domination by white students. One of the dissidents was Steve Biko, who proposed forming a separate group for black students: The South African Student Organization (SASO).
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Biko’s “Black Consciousness”
In 1970, it split from the larger student union to become independent, with Steve Biko as its president.
Biko’s “Black consciousness” ideology reflected the idea that disenfranchised peoples could claim power if they rejected impotence and inferiority. The white government viewed Biko’s black pride theme as seditious and SASO leaders faced repeated harassment by police.
Biko and the Soweto Uprising
The tension exploded after the government decreed that all South Africans needed to learn the Afrikaans language in school. Derived from the original Dutch colonizers, the hated language, and its forced use in the classroom, made education more difficult for black children who didn’t know it. And the new measure seemed like a fresh insult to a subordinated people.
In June 1976, high school students in Soweto protested the new educational decree, encouraged by Biko’s South African Student Organization. Between 10,000 and 20,000 youths gathered to march peacefully. They carried signs challenging the language decree and sang native African hymns. Police responded by shooting into the crowd.
One photo shows a mortally wounded 13-year-old boy in the arms of another young man who is running in the hopes of saving the child’s life. But such hope is clearly misplaced. Compounding the heartbreak, the victim’s sister runs alongside them. The dying boy was one of nearly 200 officially reported deaths in what became known as the Soweto Uprising.
That one dramatic photograph hardened international opinion and inspired more black Africans to become activists for freedom. The Soweto Uprising proved to be a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. Another was the murder of Steve Biko.
In summer 1977, 30-year-old Steve Biko, who was no stranger to police, was arrested for the last time. He’d broken a banning order against him and traveled to Cape Town. On his way home, he was taken into custody and held without a trial. Biko refused to answer police questions. So, he was beaten with a hose and slammed against a wall.
The officers chose not to get him medical attention even though he was badly injured. Instead, they handcuffed him and threw him into the back of a police van where he died. His naked body was dumped 500 miles from the prison.
At first, the official story was that he’d died during a hunger strike. Other details emerged to refute that account. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that five police officers admitted what happened.
Repercussions of Biko’s Death
Outrage over Biko’s death in detention spread around the world. Pressure mounted both diplomatically and economically. The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to declare a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. And artists such as Peter Gabriel brought to a new and broader audience the human indignities and lack of basic rights that black South Africans were subjected to.
Buoyed by international support, several African groups began to coordinate their efforts. The multiracial United Democratic Front organized boycotts, demonstrations, and strikes. And a campaign to liberate political prisoners cast a special focus on Nelson Mandela. Exiled leaders of the African National Congress lent their efforts as well, promoting the Free Nelson Mandela campaign to a global audience.
Following nationwide protests, the apartheid system finally ended and reforms were introduced to end the country’s apartheid laws.
Common Questions about Steve Biko and South Africa’s Anti-apartheid Movement
The system of apartheid denied Black Africans the right to participate politically at any level. The government also decreed that certain urban areas would be restricted by race.
Steve Biko was the president of the South African Student Association, part of the black consciousness movement of the 1970s. Biko’s “black consciousness” ideology reflected the idea that disenfranchised peoples could claim power if they rejected impotence and inferiority.
In summer 1977, Steve Biko was arrested: He’d broken a banning order against him and traveled to Cape Town. On his way home, he was taken into custody and held without a trial. When he refused to answer police questions, he was beaten with a hose and slammed against a wall. The police handcuffed him and threw him into the back of a police van where he died. His naked body was dumped 500 miles from the prison.