BCM: The Story of Steve Biko (Black History 365)

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Nelson Mandela was a significant figure in South African history, especially during the apartheid era in the country which cost him his freedom for 27 years. However, as much of a prominent figure Mandela was, Steve Biko brought forth a philosophy of black consciousness to South Africa that was much needed. In this entry of Black History 365, I’ll be presenting the story of South African civil rights activist Steve Biko. 

Born December 18, 1946, Steve Biko was a South African activist who pioneered the philosophy of Black Consciousness in the late 1960s. The founder of the South African Students Organization (SASO) in 1968, Biko put a lot of his efforts into representing the interests of Black students at the then University of Natal (later KwaZulu-Natal). Moreover, SASO was a direct response to the stagnation and inaction of the National Union of South Africans in representing the needs of Black students. 

Biko was an instrumental figure when it came to instilling a pro-black mindset that caused the South African government to see him and his followers as defiant and hostile. His experiences were filled with adversity at the height of Apartheid and the frustrations he felt living in those conditions drove his philosophy and political activism. For example, he had witnessed police raids during his childhood and had to endure living through the brutality and intimidation the Apartheid government was notorious for. In regard to this, the objective of Biko’s philosophy focused primarily on liberating the minds of Black people who had been relegated by an oppressive government that viewed them as inferior to white power structures. Furthermore, Biko saw the power struggle in South Africa as “a microcosm of the confrontation between the third world and the first world”. 

The philosophy of Black Consciousness 

The Black Consciousness Movement grounded itself on race as a determining factor in the oppression of Black people in South Africa, which was in response to racial oppression and dehumanization of Black people under Apartheid. Biko defined “Black” as not being limited to Africans but also including Asians and “coloured” (South Africans of the mixed race including African, European, and/or Asian origin). The movement’s goal was to incorporate Black Theology, indigenous values, and political organizations against the ruling system. 

Liberation of the mind was the primary weapon to bring forth a fight for freedom in South Africa, defining Black consciousness as an internal-looking process, where Black people coalesce and strive to regain the pride stripped away from them by the Apartheid system. Additionally, his philosophy presented an emphasis on the positive retelling of African history, which had been extremely distorted and denigrated by European imperialists in an attempt to form their colonies. Biko’s writings would state the mindset needed for the movement to be successful and how history is crucial in the development of black South Africans. He said the following… 

“At the heart of this thinking is the realization by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” – Steve Biko 

According to Biko, there were necessary steps that needed to be taken toward restoring dignity to Black people which involves elevating the heroes of African History and promoting African heritage to deconstruct the misconception of Africa being a dark continent. In addition, Black consciousness seeks to extract the positive values within indigenous African cultures and make it a standard with which Black people evaluate themselves. This would be the first form of resistance toward imperialism and Apartheid. Biko believed that by galvanizing around the concept of black consciousness, black people can seek to produce an outcome where unity is the only option, and with that, they’ll stop seeing themselves as appendages to white society. 

In Apartheid South Africa, the mission for Black consciousness aimed to unite citizens under the main cause of their oppression. Biko’s philosophy implemented messages from Christianity into the concept of Black consciousness, but it needed to be taught from the perspective of the oppressed so it could align with the journey of Black people’s self-realization. According to Biko, Black theology must preach that it’s a sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The fight for freedom is salvation. Not to mention, adapting Christianity to African values and belief systems is at the core of doing away with “spiritual poverty”. 

In 1972, Biko founded the Black People’s Convention as a subsidiary organization for the Black Consciousness Movement, which had begun gaining ground through universities across the nation. One year later, he and eight other leaders of the movement were banned by the South African government, which limited Biko to his home in King William’s town. He would defy the banning order by continuing to support the convention which led to several arrests in the following years. 

On August 21, 1977, Biko was detained by South African police and held in the eastern city of Port Elizabeth, where he was brutally tortured and interrogated. By September 11, he was found naked and chained to a prison cell door. Due to the excessive beatings he had taken, he died in a hospital cell the following day as a result of brain injuries sustained by the police. The details surrounding his torture remain unknown, but Biko’s death has been understood by many South Africans as an assassination. 

In closing, Black consciousness transcended a movement, it was a philosophy deeply rooted in African Humanism, for which Biko should be heralded not only as an activist but as a philosopher in his own right. His legacy remains deeply relevant today that emphasizes resistance and self-determination in the face of widespread oppression. 

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