Steve Bantu Biko (1946-1977)

Steve Bantu Biko 1946-1977

Mandela was released the year I was born so, for me, the struggles of Apartheid have always been from the past, a part of history. They are something of stories from my mum about protests during Springbok tours to New Zealand. Thumbtacs on the pitch in 1981 if I remember correctly.

It was during two trips to Durban that I saw that although the Apartheid regime was over, inequality remained common place. It is said that you can tell the state of a society by the condition of its children. The children surviving on Durban’s streets continue to tell a tale of a society with swathes of poverty and a, particularly within areas of black society, a breakdown of family.

It was in Durban, through conversations with Tom and Mandi Hewitt, that I learnt about Steve Biko. 

Umthombo, a NGO founded by Tom and Mandi, offers alternatives to street life for many children in Durban. They offer a safe space through their drop-in centre. It is there that they work toward reintegration from the streets to a stable home through various transformative activities such as surfing along with accommodation and food.

So why does Umthombo have a mural of Steve Biko prominently displayed on its wall?

It’s not just because Biko is seen as a hero and martyr by many in South Africa, particularly within the Xhosa community to which he belonged, but also because he pointed to an idea bigger than his own life and death- the idea of Black Consciousness.

Biko saw the dire state of the black community of South Africa. It was a community forced to undergo the indignity of perpetual adolescence, men being called ‘boy’ regardless of age, required to carry their pass to buy tobacco from the local shop- a humiliation no white man would have to endure. Forced to spend what little money they had on goods from white companies: electricity, shoes, plus tax, they were trapped in poverty.

But, Biko wrote, ‘material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills.’ (1987:30) It wasn’t merely being deprived of material possessions that crippled the black community but it was not even being able to cry to God because he belonged to the white man. Their black God was gone, shown to be inferior by the white God, only used to serve the white man. Biko thought that it was this crippling combination of both material and spiritual want that prevented the black community from gaining emancipation. He wrote,

‘as long as blacks are suffering from inferiority complex- result of 200 years of oppression- they will be useless as co-architects of a normal society where man is only for man’s sake.’ (1987:22)

Biko saw Black Consciousness as the only means to rescue Christianity away from it being an imposed white religion, only propagated to maintain the subjugation of the black community. He saw Black Consciousness as the only way to rescue them from feeling like God’s unwanted step-children.

The role of Black Consciousness was to ‘pump back life into his [the black man’s] empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.‘ (1987:31). Essentially, before the black communities of South Africa could look outwards to change their surroundings, they had to first look inwards and change their view of themselves.

Once that change of understanding had occurred, away from ‘black is bad’ to ‘black is beautiful’, the community was able to look at its surroundings and assess the influence the lie of Apartheid had had on them. Biko identified the linked issues of education and history. They had both been influenced by this lie and had then, in turn, perpetuated this lie.

Education, in its current form came with the first European missionaries to South Africa. Because of its European root, Biko paid attention to its effects. Not only did the missionaries teach of a different God, a white God, they also bought with them lessons on ‘hygiene, good manners and other such vague concepts’ (1987:104). These lessons may seem harmless enough, indeed they may on one level appear to have benefited the indigenous peoples of South Africa but the missionaries did not consider the effect they would have of the indigenous cultures and societies. Respect for elders is the primary virtue in the majority of African societies. The teaching of the white European missionaries was not done with the sensitivity required to not have adverse effects. Instead Biko saw it as responsible for the loss of respect from the child to their parent within South Africa’s black community. This was because the teachings on hygiene and other such matters taught children to disregard their family’s teachings. ‘Who can resist losing respect for his tradition when in school his whole cultural background is summed up in one word- barbarism?’ (1987:104). Biko saw this trait to have continued into the teaching in school during Apartheid.

Black Consciousness aimed to eradicate this view of the indigenous cultures of South Africa. Because this teaching of a European and ‘scientific’ way to live was taught above the African and ‘barbaric’ culture the African child had learnt to hate their heritage. In order to rectify this, Black Consciousness sought (and many would say, continues to seek) to rewrite South African history and reread the lost voices of South African heroes. Biko wrotes, ‘ a people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine.’ (1987:32)

Examples of rediscovered voices include that of King Shaka, remembered for uniting the Zulu people and bringing about reforms. During Apartheid, he has painted as a tyrant, but now, post-Apartheid, Durban’s international airport is named in his honour.


I always find it a strange disconnect reading and writing about Steve Biko. My life as a white European woman could not be further from his. It would be trite to go on with a ‘what we can all learn from Steve Biko’ section as though his life and death is a carcass to be picked at. His sacrifice, along with other individuals, brought about a tremendous and unthinkable change is South Africa. That is enough.

But, it is natural to read into our own context. Ever since I first heard about him I have admired Biko’s bravery and depth of understanding of the, frankly theological, causes behind the Apartheid regime. The main lesson I have drawn from reading his letters and speeches is to look below the surface of day-to-day oppression. To ask questions about the causes of the current state of affairs. I believe that it was the depth of thinking that made his efforts so effective.

So to finish with a quotation from the man himself. The man who, aged 30, was killed in police custody. He said:

‘It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.’

All Biko quotations are from: I Write What I Like. ed. Aelred Stubbs, Heinemann 1987

The image of Biko is from

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