South Africa // The Eastern Cape //

Steve Biko and Black Consciousness

Steve Biko’s brutal interrogation and death while in police custody triggered international outrage and turned opinion further against the apartheid regime.

Steven Bantu Biko was born in 1946 in King William’s Town. His political ascent was swift, due to his eloquence, charisma and focused vision. While still a medical student at Natal University during the late 1960s, he was elected president of the exclusively black South African Students’ Organization (SASO) and started publishing articles in their journal, fiercely attacking white liberalism, which they saw as patronizing and counter-revolutionary. In an atmosphere of repression, Biko’s brand of Black Consciousness immediately caught on. He called for blacks to take destiny into their own hands, to unify and rid themselves of the “shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude”. From 1973 onwards, Biko suffered banning, detention and other harassment at the hands of the state. In 1974, he defended himself in court, presenting his case so brilliantly that his international profile soared.

Barred from leaving King William’s Town, Biko continued working and writing, frequently escaping his confinement. In August 1977 he was detained and taken to Port Elizabeth where he was interrogated and tortured. A month later he died from a brain haemorrhage, after a beating by security police. No one was held accountable. He is buried in King William’s Town. The polished, charcoal-coloured tombstone sits midway through the graveyard, among the large patch of paupers’ graves. To get there, take Cathcart Street south out of town (towards Grahamstown), turning left onto a road signposted to the cemetery, after the bridge (just before the Alice turn-off to the right).