Artist: Penny Thompson, “Steve Biko” acrylic on canvas 2020
Written by Naomi Yanwube
In 1926, Dr Carter G Woodson, Jesse E Moorland and their associates at the ASALH founded negro history week, to draw attention to the need for schools to include African history within their curriculums as well as highlight the accomplishments of Africans. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s when the lack of African history within the American school curriculum could no longer be ignored, that colleges and universities across the country transformed the week into a Black History Month on campus
Over the past 94 years since its inception, black history month has also become synonymous with discussions surrounding race relations and while the racial oppression of African peoples receives a share of media coverage, the issue is far from reaching a conclusion.
The potentially toxic burden of race has been replayed across our screens as a form of a negative visual mantra to remind us that racial relations are at a critical juncture. We must therefore put such concepts under the microscope and understand the role they played in the past. This article highlights the legacy and accomplishments of Steve Biko.
The Father of Black Consciousness
Bantu Stephen Biko was born in Tylden on the 18th of December 1946, the third child of the late Matthew Mzingaye and Alice Nokuzola “Mamcethe” Biko. Later in his life, Steve Biko became an Anti-apartheid Black liberation and freedom fighter who concentrated his efforts on redeeming Africans from the clutches of the apartheid government’s white supremacy and racial segregation. He embodied the growing consciousness of black people by initiating the Black Consciousness Movement, securing his reputation as the anti-apartheid movement’s first icon.
“The fact that apartheid has been tied up with white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and deliberate oppression makes the problem much more complex. Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty, it kills.”
These words by Steve Biko give us a vivid picture of the intense, unrelenting state of affairs during the apartheid era in South Africa and a glimpse into a time when human rights were a privilege available mainly to Whites in South Africa.
Such level of coercion incubated several individuals who, despite the high risk of death, chose the path of liberator of the oppressed. Individuals such as Steve Biko is best remembered for empowering Black voices and encouraging Blacks to recognise their rights, dignity and self-worth. Biko endorsed a sense of Black pride similar to Césaire and Senghor’s ‘Negritude’, and for taking the liberation struggle forward and galvanising the youth movement.
An authoritarian political culture characterised apartheid based on baasskap (or white supremacy), which ensured that South Africa was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority White population. During the apartheid era of South Africa, there was also a system of legislation that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa.
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Steve Biko
When the all-white national party gained power in 1948 in South Africa, it incinerated a storm of additional racial prejudices and human rights violations. Under the inhumane system of apartheid, indigenous Africans were forced to live in separate areas and use isolated public facilities from the White minority in South Africa. Furthermore, the Natives Land Act (No. 27 of 1913), later known as the Bantu Land Act or Black Land Act, was one of the many laws that ensured the economic and social dominance of Whites before apartheid. The Act’s power was intensified under apartheid, and over 80% of the country’s land went to the minority White population forcing indigenous Africans to live in reserves.
The reason behind Steve Biko’s popularity included his unrelenting search for justice and the emancipation of his fellow compatriots. Biko’s death, whilst in police detention on the 12th of September 1977, was met with outrage. The outrage launched both domestic and international pressure calling for a public inquest by South Africa’s officials. Yet, it was not until 1997 when four former police officers, including Police Colonel Gideon Nieuwoudt, admitted to killing Stephen Biko. As Nelson Mandela said of Biko: “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”
Biko’s passing is universally recognised as a bitter blow to the liberation movement. He was an intelligent and unifying force in a time of despair. On the other hand, his death only enhanced the drive of new revolutionaries to play their part in the struggle for human rights of Black Africans across South Africa.
Apartheid – both petty and grand – is obviously evil. Nothing can justify the arrogant assumption that a clique of foreigners has the right to decide on the lives of a majority. Steven Biko
South Africa, forty-three years since Steve Biko’s death, has officially emancipated from the apartheid acts. Although the negative impacts of race discrimination are still persistent, the situation in South Africa has improved dramatically over the past decades. According to the 2018 report on race by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), 60% respondents across all races experienced an improvement and 21% experienced a deterioration. However, it would be remiss to ignore the racial tensions that continue to pour out of the media as nothing less than a stark reminder that there is still a long, long way to go. For example, South Africa is still a country where White farmers dominate 67% of arable farmland.
New generations are introduced to Biko’s work of securing freedom and democracy. The global community must ensure that his legacy is immortalised with consistent remembrance events and the continuation of his activities through chronicles like the Black History Month in the UK.
Bantu Stephen Biko biography timeline