The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Biko, Steve (1946–1977)

  • Hesham ZakaiEmail author
Living reference work entry


Steve Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in King William’s Town, South Africa. A prodigiously talented thinker and speaker, his life is a symbol of the sacrifices made when national liberation movements are confronted by the forces of history that seek to repress and subjugate them.

They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.

(Nelson Mandela quoted in Somerville 2002)

It is both sad and timely to reflect that many of the leaders on whose vision and bravery anti-colonial movements are built do not live to see the fulfilment of their struggle. Stephen Bantu Biko is one of those leaders. A prodigiously talented thinker and speaker, his life is a symbol of the sacrifices made when national liberation movements are confronted by the forces of history that seek to repress and subjugate them. But if his life is a symbol for sacrifice, then so too is it a symbol for the liberatory maxim articulated by Burkina Faso’s late revolutionary president Thomas Sankara: ‘While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas’ (Kasuka 2013: 294–295).

Steve Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in King William’s Town, South Africa. King William’s Town is situated in the Eastern Cape, which is home to the greater proportion of one of the country’s largest population groups, the Xhosa people. Biko was a Xhosa, a status that he shared with fellow antiapartheid icons Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa chief, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose father was Xhosa.

Yet his heritage also positions him in a more complex anti-colonial trajectory. The Eastern Cape was the ground on which were fought the Frontier Wars, a century-long period of battles between the Xhosa people and colonial settlers that began in 1779. It comprised nine separate wars, varying in brutality, and interspersed with oases of calm. Ultimately, the wars, which came at great cost to the indigenous population, culminated in the annexation of Xhosa lands and entrenchment of British colonial rule. Nonetheless, the anti-colonial tradition of the Xhosa people was firmly fixed both in the history of resistance in the Eastern Cape and in the psyche of the resistance movement that the Eastern Cape would go on to produce; including Biko, who has been described as a ‘Xhosa prophet’, albeit problematically, given that this is both an essentialist and messianic description (Mangcu 2014: 11). Xolela Mangcu, whose indepth biography of Biko provides a brilliant conspectus of his politics and proliferates the process of correcting his relative absence from the public consciousness, tackles this problematisation: ‘Steve Biko was as much a product of South Africa’s multi-ethnic political heritage as he was a child of the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape’ (ibid.).

Biko lost his father at a young age and was raised by his mother, who worked as a domestic servant employed by white families in the town in which he and his three siblings grew up. It is difficult to envisage that the racist servitude to which his mother would have been subjected did not influence the political ideology of the young Steve Biko during his early years.

In 1963 he joined Lovedale Institution where his older brother was also studying. After his brother was arrested and jailed for one year on suspicion of belonging to the military arm of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a black nationalist political party, the police questioned Biko. Arrests such as this, Biko would go on to say, led to ‘some kind of political emasculation of the black population’, with the result being that blacks were discouraged from articulating their political and economic aspirations (Biko 1987: 143). Unshackling blacks from this mental and oral incarceration was an integral part of Biko’s pioneering Black Consciousness ideology.

Following police questioning, Biko was not arrested but did find himself expelled from his school. His expulsion meant having to temporarily give up his studies, which he resumed when he joined a Roman Catholic boarding school. Close friendships with a nun and priest here paved the foundations for his later ideas on Black Theology.

After graduating from his boarding school, Biko won a scholarship to study medicine, which he pursued at the University of Natal, where he first became involved with student politics. It was also where the conclusions Biko had initially drawn from his brother’s arrest were to become manifest.

Opposition from blacks to their treatment by the government at the time was diminishing, Biko felt, and their participation in the struggle was becoming increasingly marginalised by white-dominated organisations like the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The cosmetic make-up of these organisations was unlikely to change given the significantly higher number of white students who were able to attend university in apartheid South Africa. Thus, these ostensibly multi-racial organisations paradoxically reproduced the racial inequalities in South African society and led Biko to notice a recurring pattern: ‘Whites were in fact the main participants in our oppression and at the same time the main participants in the opposition to that oppression’ (ibid.). Biko’s disavowal of multi-racial organisations like NUSAS stemmed, then, from the recognition that such bodies represented not the interests of the black minority amongst their membership but the liberal white majority. They were representative of the existing structural forms of race-privilege in such organisations, and the ordering of dissent in ways that were, in reality, ambivalent to the consciousness project Biko was trying to create. For blacks to advance their political struggle, they must first seize control of it.

Accordingly, in 1968, the golden year for political and social movements across the world, Biko led the founding of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO). A structure had been put in place that would restore to blacks the inalienable right to commandeer their own fight against apartheid. SASO can be seen as the first formalisation of the Black Consciousness Movement in that it exalted the virtues of black solidarity and placed pride in blackness at the heart of the political spectrum. No longer did black students have to rely on white spokespersons to articulate their suffering, nor did they have to accept the structural stifling of their demands for equality. Blacks began to associate much more readily with each other, setting them on course for the psychological emancipation with which Black Consciousness is synonymous.

Here Biko engages with the sentiment of the Pan-Africanist pioneer of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement Marcus Garvey, whose hope was that blacks would ‘emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because while others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind’ – a political ideal popularised by Bob Marley’s iconic Redemption Song (Garvey 1990: 791). In order for blacks to free their bodies for themselves, Black Consciousness demonstrates, they must first free their minds.

It would be wrong, if fathomable, to assume that Biko advocated total segregation. On the contrary, he recognised that the success of South Africa’s anti-colonial movements would depend to a large extent on their ability to ultimately transcend ethnic boundaries. However, all movements are shaped by the conditions in which they are created and the political challenges they address. SASO’s politics of distancing itself from existing establishment liberal white organisations was a necessary response to a climate in which blacks were made to feel inferior and whites, thus, correspondingly superior. Much more reflective of SASO’s race politics and the Black Consciousness Movement as a whole was its welcoming right from the start of coloured and Indian activists, overcoming existing barriers in the process. As Biko’s long-time friends Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana state, ‘Black Consciousness sought to unite the “non-whites” into a socio-political block recognized as “blacks”’ (Biko 1987: xxvi). In this way the Black Consciousness Movement helped not only to organise but to define ‘black’ as a broad coalition of the non-white oppressed, recognising it was not just Africans who suffered from unjust material conditions. The Black Consciousness Movement’s broader black solidarity also distinguished it from some of the narrower elements of both the PAC and the African National Congress (ANC).

As SASO expanded, its following diversified to incorporate a wider representation of blacks beyond the relatively educated university demographic. This drive was boosted by a practical outlook and applied language that focused on the needs of ordinary Africans, avoiding the trap of an aloof discourse disconnected from society at large that similar organizations had fallen victim to. This trajectory culminated in the creation by black communities in 1972 of the Black People’s Convention (BPC), which expressly excluded whites, and took Black Consciousness as its central philosophy. Black Consciousness extolled the virtues of blackness, including all aspects of its history and culture. In order to be able to do this, the Black Consciousness Movement argued, the black community had to rid itself of the palimpsestic remains of centuries of oppression, enslavement, and subjugation; such a process of psychological liberation could only be undertaken by black communities themselves. This is what distinguished the Black Consciousness Movement from the more compromising approach of Nelson Mandela, for example, who placed greater hope in multi-racial struggle.

The reach of Black Consciousness extended further still when Biko joined the Black Community Programmes (BCPs), which focused on the social and economic empowerment and independence of black communities. The BCPs established health centres, disseminated literature, supported the families of political prisoners, and built schools and crèches – all of which sought to improve the material welfare of blacks while increasing their self-reliance. This was in part driven by a belief that individual mental liberation could not be satisfactorily reached prior to changing circumstances.

Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement represented the convergence of these three aforementioned organisations: SASO was the radical student body that was instrumental in setting political direction; the BPC was the wider body in society that brought people together; and the BCPs were the self-help welfare arm. It was a holistic approach that reflected Biko’s understanding of society and the need for systemic change if emancipation were to be achieved. In an interview with a European journalist on his vision for an egalitarian society, Biko outlined the BPC’s road to meaningful change as ‘reorganizing the whole economic pattern and economic policies’, including the redistribution of wealth (Biko 1987: 149). Moreover, he had a prescient warning for his fellow activists: ‘If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie’ (ibid.).

The effectiveness of Black Consciousness caused the apartheid establishment to be unnerved, and they instigated a crackdown on its members in the first half of the 1970s. Leaders of the movement were arrested, while Biko was initially confined to his hometown before being banned from further work with the BPC in the mid-1970s. By that point, however, he had spread the influence of Black Consciousness far and wide across South Africa. The increasing militancy of black communities, linked to this dispersion, found its sharpest expression in the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The principal spark for the protests was the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which made compulsory the use of Afrikaans as a medium for teaching in schools. The rebellion to this was a reflection of the increasing consciousness and determination of the young followers of the Black Consciousness Movement to assert their own history and identity.

Biko’s death came after a period of heightened harassment by the state. However, he remained defiant throughout and refused to cease his political organising, knowing that the movement for liberation was gathering pace. He was arrested and detained under the Terrorism Act in 1976 and again the following year. On 18 August 1977, while travelling with a comrade, he was stopped at a roadblock. The police did not recognise Biko, while his friend, Peter Jones, refused to reveal his identity – despite the dangers he knew this entailed. Sensing the danger his friend was putting himself into, it was Biko who came forward and revealed himself to the officers. They promptly took Biko and Jones away to separate stations. Jones’s bravery came at a cost of repeated beatings and torture; Biko’s came at a greater cost. At the police station he was stripped naked and badly beaten, resulting in a brain haemorrhage on 6 September. Despite his rapidly deteriorating condition, he was kept in prison for days, before being driven – shackled and naked – to a prison hospital hundreds of kilometres away. He died in a prison cell in Pretoria on 12 September 1977. The apartheid government tried to suppress news of what had really happened to Biko – a brutal assassination at the hands of the state – but his murder resonated around the world and galvanised the fight for freedom.

Those who die fighting for freedom are never truly murdered, only martyred. That is not to romanticise their deaths but to exalt their lives, as it returns us to the maxim with which we began: states can kill individuals but not the effects of their ideas on the lives of others. The Black Consciousness that Biko represented lived on to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa – an anti-colonial and anti-racist victory for which Stephen Bantu Biko will forever be remembered.

Biko’s hope to bring together the BPC, ANC and PAC is evident in the collection of his writings I Write What I Like. He believed that a united front would create the most formidable challenge to apartheid. Mandela has suggested that it was in the run-up to a meeting with the then-leader of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, to progress this hope that Biko was killed. The prospect of that triumvirate forming a coalition against apartheid alarmed the apartheid government. It is that sentiment which lay behind Mandela’s assertion in the epigraph to this chapter: in order for apartheid to live, Biko had to die. As an individual, his magnitude equalled that of the armoured apartheid nation he confronted; and so his murder equalled the creation of a martyr, his physical destruction, a stride towards the political destruction of the very state that carried it out.


  1. Biko, S. (1987). Our strategy for liberation. In A. Stubbs (Ed.), I write what I like: Steve Biko. A selection of his writings. Oxford: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  2. Garvey, M. (1990). 1 October Speech by Marcus Garvey. In R. A. Hill (Ed.), The Marcus Garvey and universal negro improvement association papers, volume III November 1927–august 1940. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  3. Kasuka, B. (2013). Prominent African leaders since independence. Dar Es Salaam: New Africa Press.Google Scholar
  4. Mangcu, X. (2014). Biko: A life. London: I.B. Tauris & Ltd.Google Scholar
  5. Somerville, K. (2002). Row Clouds Biko Anniversary, BBC News Online, Accessed 15 Jan 2014.

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK