An African hero: Biko - the forgotten martyr

Thirty years after he was murdered in police custody, the South African activist remains a thorn in the side of the ANC and a stark reminder of a more radical approach to dealing with apartheid and its aftermath

I met Steve Biko once. His miserable death on the floor of a South African prison cell, 30 years ago today, still lay a few years in the future. So did his friendship with the white newspaper editor, Donald Woods, resulting in the book and film, Cry Freedom!, which made him an icon. But if the name of Biko became a thorn in the side of the white regime, today's commemorations will be equally uncomfortable for South Africa's black majority government.

In the early 1970s, few whites had heard of Steve Biko. I had, because I was covering "alternative" politics – such stirrings against apartheid that white liberals and their allies in other communities could get away with – for a South African newspaper, The Star. However it was anything but a full-time assignment.

Never did the grip of apartheid seem as complete as it did then. Nelson Mandela had been locked up on Robben Island for the best part of a decade; in the all-white parliament, the lone dissenting voice was that of Helen Suzman. Blacks could only practise politics in the "homelands" created for them in the poorest, most arid parts of the country.

A handful of organisations such as the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), of which I had been a member not so long before, sought to keep the non-racial flame alive. But the enforced segregation of the universities, and the sheer gulf between the daily lives of whites and the rest, made it increasingly difficult to find any common ground. To the horror of the well-meaning whites at the head of Nusas, their black counterparts began to accuse them of holding back the cause of black empowerment through paternalism and unconscious racism.

At the forefront of those levelling the charge – which many of those liberals might now admit had considerable truth – was a young activist called Steve Biko. A former leader of strikes and sit-ins at his segregated medical school near Durban, he had quit his studies and formed the South African Students' Organisation, which excluded whites. Now he was coming to Johannesburg for a conference where the split with Nusas would become final, and I hoped to interview him about his espousal of Black Consciousness, which argued that blacks had to overcome the feelings of inferiority instilled into them, the "oppression within", before they could deal with whites as equals. "It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life," he explained in 1971.

Had I understood the concept better at the time, I would have realised that there was no chance of getting Biko to talk to a paper like The Star, which in his view shared all the faults of the whites in Nusas. But just to encounter him, or watch him glowering at an exam-room table behind a cardboard sign bearing the name "Saso", was to feel his charisma. Tall, handsome, articulate – "Why do you call yourself black, when your skin is brown?" a judge once asked him. "Why do you call yourself white, when you are actually pink?" he shot back – he bore himself with rare confidence that showed no hint of any "oppression within".

The apartheid government of Prime Minister John Vorster should have realised immediately that Biko was a threat, but all it saw was his call for blacks to work separately from whites. In its glee at the discomfiture of Nusas and similar organisations, it gave Saso room to operate. By 1973 it realised its mistake, and "banned" Biko, confining him to his hometown in the eastern Cape and prohibiting him from writing or speaking in public and anyone else from quoting his words. But it was too late: when first the students of Soweto, then black townships across the country, rose up in 1976, the Black Consciousness movement was their inspiration. It had filled the vacuum left by the African National Congress, most of whose leaders were jailed or in exile.

If the townships revolt undermined the myth of white omnipotence, Biko's death destroyed any claim the regime had to morality. Not only was he beaten unconscious while being detained without trial in Port Elizabeth, he was then carried nearly 1,000 miles in a police van, naked and in a coma, to Pretoria, where he died of a brain haemorrhage on 12 September, 1977. The police minister, Jimmy Kruger (memorably played by John Thaw in Cry Freedom!) claimed Biko had been on hunger strike, telling parliament: " His death leaves me cold."

That added to international revulsion against South Africa. In 1980 the singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel had a world hit with Biko, in which he sang: "You can blow out a candle/ But you can't blow out a fire/ Once the flames begin to catch/ The wind will blow it higher." His words referred equally to the resistance inside the country and the pressure by Western publics on their governments to withdraw support for the apartheid regime.

For the first time countries began imposing sanctions against South Africa, starting with the UN Security Council mandatory ban on arm sales to the country. Cry Freedom! in 1987, with Denzel Washington as Biko and Kevin Kline as Woods, gave Steve Biko the same kind of international name recognition as Nelson Mandela. So why is it that Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, never mentions the name of Steve Biko once?

After he became president, Mr Mandela made some amends, saying on the 20th anniversary of Biko's death: "That he was indeed a great man who stood head and shoulders above his peers is borne out not only by the testimony of those who knew him and worked with him, but by the fruits of his endeavours.

"History called upon Steve Biko at a time when the political pulse of our people had been rendered faint by banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment. Repression had swept the country clear of all visible organisation of the people. But at each turn of history, apartheid was bound to spawn resistance; it was destined to bring to life the forces that would guarantee its death.

"It is the dictate of history to bring to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people."

Although Mandela claimed in the same address that the ANC welcomed Black Consciousness from the early 1970s "as part of the genuine forces of the revolution", an unhappy schism has existed.. More than a decade earlier the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had split from the ANC in protest at the desire of Mandela and his peers to work with all races in South Africa. The Black People's Convention, which Biko founded as an umbrella movement of Black Consciousness groups, threw in its lot with the PAC in post-apartheid South Africa, and has ended up on the political margins, with scarcely any representation in parliament.

If Biko were alive today, it is quite possible, given his charisma, that he would be the leader of a far more vigorous opposition to the ANC government than the existing one. Instead, the ANC successfully co-opted most of his following. As a martyr, however, he remains potentially unsettling: the commemorations of his death have included an international conference at the University of Cape Town (UCT) examining his politics and relevance to modern-day South Africa, touching on politically sensitive issues such as land transfers and black economic empowerment. Organised by the Steve Biko Foundation, it is part of a series of events across the country which the SBF has named 30:30 – 30 years since his death, and his age when he died.

His son Nkosinathi, who manages the Foundation, was just six at the time of Biko's death. "In his short life he made a tremendous contribution not only to the political freedom of South Africa, but to the mental liberation of black people worldwide," he said. "In popular culture, he is a very powerful symbol of hope, an icon of change. He helped to articulate our understanding, our own identity that continues to resonate in young South Africans to this day. His ideas have a real influence well beyond the political field, in cultural organisations, in research organisations and in churches."

Not enough, according to Premesh Lalu, an associate professor at the University of Western Cape. While it was important to remember Biko's death, said Mr Lalu, "I personally think there is much more to be said about Biko and done with Biko's thoughts." To an ANC government vulnerable to left-wing accusations that it has pursued rigidly orthodox capitalist economic policies that have not done enough for the masses, it is not an entirely comforting thought.

There is disenchantment among young South Africans, who see the country's leaders embroiled in scandal and a new black elite growing richer while most blacks find it harder and harder to keep up with inflation.

Though most of the wearers are too young to remember him, Steve Biko's face, given a Warhol-style treatment, has become a popular icon on T-shirts recently. Nkosinathi rejects any suggestion that this might be trivialising his memory, arguing: "He is one of the attractive symbols of popular culture. Not just here but on the streets of New York, Brasilia and Liverpool, he is someone who resonates well." Kopano Ratele, a researcher with the University of South Africa's Institute of Social and Health Sciences, agreed, saying: "People who were teenagers or in their twenties in the 1970s still remember Biko with nostalgia, and they credit him for giving them a sense of pride in themselves."

It will be interesting to see how President Thabo Mbeki, whose obsession with maintaining control of the ANC and the government is entirely at odds with the kind of grass-roots activism for which Biko stood, will reconcile these contradictions tonight when he delivers the eighth annual Biko Memorial Lecture, which will bring the conference at UCT to a close. Mr Ratele is in little doubt. If Biko were still alive, he said, he would be disappointed to see his ideas compromised by poverty and inequality. " If you are unemployed and poorly-paid and you see the rich blacks, of what use is your pride?"

Additional reporting by Ian Evans in Cape Town

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