By Carl Niehaus
Forty-one years ago on the fateful day of the 12th of September 1977, one of the greatest sons of our South African soil, Bantu Stephen Biko, passed away because of the vicious torture that he was subjected to by the security police of the apartheid regime. Forty-one years ago on the fateful day of the 12th of September 1977, one of the greatest sons
of our South African soil, Bantu Stephen Biko, passed away because of the vicious torture that he was subjected to by the security police of the apartheid regime.
Bantu Stephen (Steve) Biko, was the pre-eminent exponent of the Black Consciousness
Movement during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. As a medical student at the University of Natal, he became deeply frustrated that the student anti-apartheid organisations, such as the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), were dominated by white liberals, rather than blacks (especially Africans) who were the victims of apartheid.
Comrade Steve Biko, with captivating intellectual grasp and relentless revolutionary clarity,
understood that no white person regardless of how ‘well-intentioned’ even so-called white
liberals could not remotely comprehend the black experience exacted at the hand of a racist apartheid oppressive hand, Biko’s persuasive conviction extended itself to further demonstrate that even when white liberals attempted to oppose apartheid, they at surface level merely reacted to the pain and oppression of black South Africans often in subliminal an insultingly paternalistic manner. His rationale, therefore, led that on the basis of this undeniable reality of white liberals’ inability to comprehend and when they attempt to, their whiteness impressed upon them to prove paternalistic. On this score, Biko insisted that black people had to organise themselves independently, and thus he took the lead in establishing the South African Student Organisation (SASCO).
Membership of SASCO was only open to black South Africans, which included African Coloured and Indian fellow South Africans, who shared a common humanity. Throughout comrade Steve Biko insisted that SASCO had to operate independently from white liberals. However, Biko’s’ prism of blacks organising themselves from a common black experience, did not automatically translate into anti-white racism. SASCO’s Black Consciousness ideology, of which comrade Steve Biko was the most vocal and articulate exponent, was influenced by the African American Black Power Movement and the writings of Franz Fanon.
However, while it developed in tandem of exchange with the USA based Black Power movement of the 1960’s who had the likes of a Stokely Carmichael, William Cleage and others as part of the leadership it also drew on the international experience of especially black liberation struggles and the African diaspora. It must, however, be clearly understood that Black Consciousness was first and foremost rooted in the liberation struggle of black South Africans. The movement at a fundamental level campaigned for an end to apartheid and the transition of South Africa towards a universal suffrage and a socialist economy. It organised Black Community Programmes (BCP’s) and focused on the psychological empowerment of black people. Comrade Steve Biko’s epistemology had as diaphragm the essence of a re-imagined blackness that starts with a new psychology, a means how black people think of themselves. That re-thinking had as principle aim the power that Black people exercise to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea he expressed by popularizing the slogan “Black is beautiful”, which was first used by John S. Rock, an African-American abolitionist who was the first black person to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. (Rock paraphrased the term “Black is Beautiful” during a speech back in 1858).
In 1972 he was involved in founding the Black People’s Convention (BPC) to promote Black
Consciousness ideas among the wider population. Comrade Biko insisted that in the liberation struggle against racism and apartheid only black South Africans could liberate themselves. His clarion call was: “Black man you are on your own!”. He wrote: “The basic tenant of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity.” True to the visionary foresight and intellectual prowess Biko’s words remain relevant to this hour for our South African situation, then when he wrote it almost half a century ago.
As always, the apartheid regime could not tolerate the intellectual frame, revolutionary grit,
credible defiance and strong challenge that comrade Biko presented to the racist apartheid
state, he, therefore, became a natural and obvious viciously targeted leader of our liberation. He was declared a ‘subversive threat’ and placed under a banning order in 1973 that severely restricted his freedom of movement with the intention to curb his political activities. During the period that comrade Biko was banned, he was several times detained without trial, and also received many death threats. However, his indefatigable revolutionary spirit did not allow himself to be intimidated and with great courage and immense risk to his personal safety continued with his political activities
In August 1977 he was once more detained, and the racist security police proceeded to torture him severely as it dehumanised gallant fighters for the cause of our freedom. It is important, now 41 years later that we do not allow the lapse of time to erase from our collective memory what was done to one of the brightest and courageous leaders of our struggle for liberation. As we remember, these recollections must also ensure that we do not relax or falter in our continuing struggle against white racism and for the full liberation of black (especially African) people.
At Walmer Police Station where comrade Steve was first detained he was kept naked and
manacled for 20 days before being transferred to the notorious Sanlam Building in Port
Elizabeth. The brutality of apartheid’s prime evil in the debasement of a common humanity is no more pronounced than how apartheid’s regime thought they could strip Biko naked and by so doing strip his courage, well they know and we know apartheid failed dismally.
When he arrived at the Sanlam Building the security police told him to remain standing. After a while, he sat down. That was when one of the policemen, Captain Siebert, grabbed him and pulled him back onto his feet, and the most inhumane graphics and horrible abuse and torture commenced. Comrade Steve in a sense wanted to sit down, no different to Rosa Parks a decade or so earlier that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the South of the USA. Parks in Ebonics explained her choice to sit with the words that reverberate through decades of struggle, “my feet are tired [sic]’ during a time when blacks in the USA had to stand while whites were allowed to sit in the public buses. Sitting down was an act of basic human resistance to the inhumanity and hurt of racist degradation and humiliation.
On 6 September comrade Steve sustained a massive brain haemorrhage. Due to the assaults and torture, that comrade Steve was subjected to he suffered at least three brain lesions occasioned by the application of severe force to his head. The cause of his death was severe bleeding on the brain.
In their amnesty application to the Truth and Reconciliation Communion (TRC), the policemen who killed comrade Steve tried to evade spelling out what exactly had happened in the same way that they had during the original Biko Inquest in 1977. Therefore, sadly, up to today the details are not fully known. However, they admitted that after comrade
Steve had suffered a brain injury, they still kept him in a standing position.
They shackled his hands and feet to the metal grille of the cell door. The police noticed that he was speaking with a slur, but did not relent and continued with their interrogations and
It must be remembered that equally complicit in comrade Steve’s murder were three doctors involved in the case, the district surgeon Dr Ivor Lang, the chief district surgeon Dr Benjamin Tucker and Dr Colin Hersch, a specialist from Port Elizabeth.
On September the 7th, one day after comrade Steve suffered the brain haemorrhage, the police called in Dr Lang. He, in a bizarre sense, found nothing wrong with comrade Steve, despite the fact that he found him in a daze with a badly swollen face, hands and feet. Although confronted with undeniable evidence that he was being tortured, and instead of acting in accordance with his Hippocratic Oath to serve and protect human life, Dr Lang alleged that comrade Steve was “shamming”. Apartheid always had doctors-of-death.
Lang’s more senior colleague, Dr Benjamin Tucker, was called in for his opinion on what should be done. Tucker suggested that comrade Steve had to be taken to the hospital, but the police strongly objected, and Tucker also subordinated his Hippocratic Oath to their wishes.
Although Dr Lang was acutely aware of comrade Steve’s condition, he recommended that
comrade Steve be driven 700 kilometres to a prison hospital in Pretoria. By the 10th of
September comrade Steve’s condition had deteriorated alarmingly. The following day, on the 11th of September, the police put comrade Steve in the back of a Land Rover and drove him for more than twelve hours from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria – naked, manacled and unconscious.
On September the 12th Steve Biko a 30-year-old died, in the words of advocate Sydney
Kentridge, who presented the Biko family during the inquest into his death, “a miserable and lonely death on a mat on a stone floor in a prison cell”.
The minister of justice and the police, Jimmy Kruger, issued a statement and blatantly lied that comrade Steve Biko had died from a hunger strike. Addressing a National Party Congress, Kruger proclaimed to laughter: “I am not saddened by Biko’s death, and I am not mad. His death leaves me cold.”
Comrade Steve Biko’s death may have left the racist fascist Jimmy Kruger “cold”, but his death by torture, at the hands of the police, robbed South Africa of one of our most gifted leaders, and can never leave any black South African cold or untouched.
Forty-one years later the struggle for the full liberation of black South Africans is far from over. While much has been achieved, and we now live in a democratic South Africa with the
democratic universal franchise, we cannot rest while the economy of South Africa is still
overwhelmingly controlled by White Monopoly Capitalist (WMC) companies. Nor can we
tolerate that over 80% of the land is still in the ownership of the white descendants of the
colonists who stole it at gunpoint from the indigenous African people.
This gross historical injustice must be redressed by ensuring the expropriation of robbed and stolen land, without compensation. In acknowledging this urgent need the African NationalCongress (ANC) concurs with the essential message as contained in comrade Biko’s writings in I Write What I Like, which was published posthumously a year after his tragic death.
The essence of what comrade Steve still communicates to all of us from the pages of that
anthology is contained in the following quote: “Whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior. For all of us, this means that South Africa is not European but African”.
What message then does this gallant son of the African soil communicate to us? Biko, who as a youth dared to think, inspires and tangibly communicates a message to a democratically free youth in 2018 that message remains – intellectual power will always trounce brute force -.
He tells us today what he told us in the 70’s that the duty to free the African remains intrinsically that of the African, for the African. He reminds us it’s the obligation of all of us is to think and re-imagine a new future beyond the first steps of political freedom. A freedom born from the persuasion of contesting thoughts for the betterment of our society.
Yes, Biko insists that such thinking propels and propagates us all to work in organising
ourselves. Meaning when we afford ourselves to think, the natural outflow of our thinking must resonate and manifest in concomitant action as propelled by such thinking. In this regard, a relevant subject of namely, the decolonisation of our tertiary institutions is merely the start, what must flow from this is a clearly articulated and cogent articulation of what these institutions must consist in didactic expression. It demands new thinking that is borne from the premise of a future we have imagined despite the challenges and anomalies of what apartheid and a democracy equally left us in heritage.
The African National Congress, the entrusted leader of society, in humility dips our collective revolutionary spear in the sacred spilled blood of one of the greatest martyrs of our struggle for liberation, and having done so we raise the very same spear again in committing ourselves to continue with the struggle until South Africa is truly and fully liberated from all vestiges of European and white domination. May the spirit of Bantu Stephen Biko, inspire us to work for what we think, to organise for what we believe and to prove unrepentant in our stance and resolute in our conviction.
We dare not rest until Biko’s cohort of black South Africans (and especially Africans) are truly in charge of the economy of our country. Until we are collectively the owners of our land and can determine our future without any shackles of white mental and/or material slavery.