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Steve Biko: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Steve Biko is being honored with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 70th birthday. (Google)

South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977, is being honored with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 70th birthday.

“Black is beautiful. Steve Biko knew this fully well, and fought to spread this message across South Africa at the height of the apartheid movement in the 1960s and 1970s,” Google says about the Doodle. “On the 70th anniversary of Biko’s birth, we remember his courage and the important legacy he left behind. Thank you, Steve Biko, for dedicating your life to the pursuit of equality for all.”

Here’s what you need to know about Steve Biko:


1. Biko Was Born in Present-Day Eastern Cape & Was Expelled From a Prestigious High School Because of His Brother’s Political Actions

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A photo of Steve Biko that was held up at his burial. (Getty)

Stephen Bantu Biko was born December 18, 1946, in Tylden, South Africa, and was raised in Ginsberg, King Williams Town in what is now the Eastern Cape province, according to the Steve Biko Foundation.

His father, Mzingayi Mathew Biko, was a government clerk, and his mother, Alice Nokuzola “Mamcethe” Biko was a domestic worker at the homes of white families who lived in the area. Steve Biko was the third of four children. His father died when he was four.

Biko was sent to study at Lovedale High School, a prominent boarding school, joining his older brother, Khaya, but they were expelled because of his brother’s political actions, according to the Steve Biko Foundation. His brother was a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania and an activist.

After leaving Lovedale, Biko went on to graduate from St. Francis College, a Catholic school in Mariannhill, Natal. He then became a medical student at University of Natal Medical School at Wentworth, Durban, in 1966.

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2. He Founded the Black Consciousness Movement While in Medical School

Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement while in medical school, fighting against apartheid polices and encouraging pride in black identitiy and cultural heritage, according to Google.

He once said, “Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time.”

A biography written by the Biko Foundation explains the movement he started:

The primary aim of the organization was to raise black consciousness in South Africa through lectures and community activities. Biko concluded that the apartheid system had a psychological effect on the black population, which had caused Blacks to internalize and believe whites’ racist stereotypes. According to Biko, blacks had been convinced that they were inferior to whites, which resulted in the hopelessness that was prevalent in the black community. Biko preached Black solidarity to ‘break the chains of oppression.’

In 1972, Biko was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities. In 1973, he was banned by the apartheid government, which restricted him from speaking to more than one person at a time, and also disallowed him to speak in public, according to a Stanford University biography of Biko. He also could not speak or write to the media, and it was forbidden for others to quote anything he said, including in speeches or conversations.

Biko was forced to return home to King William’s Town and was barred from traveling outside it, but he began several grassroots campaigns there and his influence continued to spread, despite the government’s attempts to silence him.

He drew more attention from the government in 1976 for the role he and the Black Consciousness Movement played in the Soweto Uprising, when 20,000 students took to the streets in protest, and at least 176 were killed by police.

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3. He Died in Police Cusotdy While Naked & Restrained After Suffering a Major Head Injury During a Brutal Interrogation

Steve Biko's burial. (Getty)

Steve Biko’s burial. (Getty)

Steve Biko, then 30, was arrested August 18, 1977, at a police roadblock on terrorism charges, according to the BBC.

Biko had previously been arrested four times and was detained for several months at a time, according to Biography.com.

After his August 18 arrest, Biko was taken for interrogation in Port Elizabeth, in the southern tip of South Africa. Biko had been arrested on a terrorism charge that allowed for indefinite detention in solitary confinement for the purposes of interrogation, according to a Michigan State University project about apartheid.

Police claimed Biko suffered a head injury during a “scuffle.” It would later be revealed that Biko was beaten and tortured, and after suffering the injury, was chained for 24 hours before he was taken for medical treatment.

He was driven, naked and chained, to a police hospital in Pretoria, 700 miles away, where he died on September 12, 1977, the floor of a cell, according to History.com.

According to the BBC, his death sparked outrage as activists claimed the police had murdered him.

Two weeks later preliminary results from a post mortem examination revealed Biko had died from severe brain damage.

His funeral was attended by more than 15,000 mourners. Thousands more were barred from going by security forces. Twelve Western countries sent representatives to the service, which was conducted by the Right Reverend Desmond Tutu.

Biko’s contribution to the black fight for freedom from apartheid is often placed as second only to that of former President Nelson Mandela.

For decades, the government claimed Biko had either committed suicide or died as a result of a struggle with police, who were defending themselves.

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4. The Officers Involved in Biko’s Arrest, Beating & Torture Were Never Charged

Biko supporters gather at an unveiling of a statue in his memory. (Getty)

Biko supporters gather at an unveiling of a statue in his memory. (Getty)

The officers involved in Biko’s arrest, beating, torture and death were never charged. A magistrate found a lack of evidence to charge the officers with murder in 1978 after a 15-day inquest, citing the lack of eyewitnesses. The prosecutor announced shortly after that no charges would be brought, referring to the lack of evidence found by the magistrate.

Biko’s family was paid 65,000 rand ($78,000) in 1979 by the South African government as compensation for his death.

In 1997, five officers admitted to killing Biko during testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up at the end of minority rule and apartheid, according to the New York Times.

One officer testified that Biko had been lifted up by his interrogators and slammed head-first into a wall like a battering ram. The officers also admitted to covering up Biko’s death, and to not seeking medical treatment until at least 24 hours after his head injury.

The officers applied for amnesty and were denied, but a judge ruled in 2003 they would again not be charged because the time limit for prosecution had passed.

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5. Biko Is Survived by His 4 Children & His Legacy Is Celebrated Around the World

Biko's son, Nkosinathi is flanked by his mother Ntsiki Biko, right,  and an unidentified supporter wearing a T-shirt bearing Biko's portrait. (Getty)

Biko’s son, Nkosinathi is flanked by his mother Ntsiki Biko, right, and an unidentified supporter wearing a T-shirt bearing Biko’s portrait. (Getty)

Steve Biko was survived by his wife, Ntsiki Mashalaba, whom he married in 1970. They had two children together, a son, Nkosinathi, born in 1971, and a daughter, Samora.

He also had two children with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, another activist in the Black Consciousness Movement. Their daughter, Lerato, was born in 1974. Ramphele was pregnant at the time of Biko’s death and gave birth to their son, Hlumelo, in 1978.

Biko also had a daughter, Motlatsi, with a woman named Lorraine Tabane. Motlatsi was born in 1977.

Biko’s legacy has been celebrated around the world, with statues erected in his honor and streets renamed for him, in places including South Africa, Britain, the United States and Brazil.

Journalist Donald Woods wrote a book about his life and death, called Biko, which was later turned into the 1987 film Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington as Biko.

Biko was also honored in song, most notably by Peter Gabriel.

A Tribe Called Quest also had a song about Biko on their 1993 album, Midnight Marauders.

The 37th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture was given by activist and academic Angela Davis in September, according to the Mail & Guardian. Davis spoke about what Biko would say about the worldwide struggle by black people today:

The instance of the particularity of the black predicament is precisely that which is capable of yielding a robust universality. For most of our history, the category human has not embraced black people. Its abstractness has been coloured white and gendered male. If all lives mattered, we would not need to emphatically proclaim that ‘black lives matter’.

Our collective contribution towards dismantling the evil apartheid system should catapult us towards creating a space where there is universality in the struggle for the dignity and equality of all people in our country. It therefore becomes a new approach in the struggle – not the struggle by black people for a black cause but a struggle by all people for the black people and all others races who continue to suffer from the injustices of post-apartheid rule.

Biko, whose funeral was attended by thousands, is buried in the Ginsberg township cemetery in the Eastern Cape, in what is known as the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance.

Some of Biko’s writings were released in a book, I Write What I Like, a year after his death

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5 comments

  1. justice must be served ,,a man ,a father died ,, why the interrogators did not charged ?I’m not felling well about what has been done to Biko ,I put my self in his children’s feet ,and ask my myself so many questions withi no answers