Steve Biko

[After everything that has gone on with the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford III — along with the release of the torture report — I’ve decided to reprint a slightly edited article I wrote three months ago on the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death. It goes along with South African comedian Trevor Noah, and his appearance on The Daily Show about how we’ve managed to create an apartheid state without having to enact explicitly racist laws. We do it all with heavy doses of implicit racism. —FM]

Steve BikoOn this day in 1946, the great political activist Steve Biko was born. He worked against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the late 1960s, he helped to form South African Students’ Organization and was its first president. By 1972, his political activities were so successful that he was thrown out of college. And the following year he was “banned” by the South African government. That meant he was forbidden from speaking to more than one person at a time. And he was confined to his township. And he could not write for or speak to the media.

Let us take a step back from this. In the United States at this time and for another decade and a half, conservatives in the United States spoke of apartheid South Africa as though it were the shining light of democracy in Africa. According to these conservatives, the rulers of South Africa were the modern incarnations of the Founding Fathers. But we all know what was really going on. The rules were white, so it didn’t matter what they did. And the oppressed were black, so it didn’t matter what was done to them.

Despite these restrictions, Biko continued to organize. The Soweto Uprising was highly successful, and was put down by the regime with its characteristic restraint by setting dogs on the school children and then shooting them. At least a couple hundred where killed and over a thousand wounded. After this, the regime decided that they really needed to go after Steve Biko, even though he was not directly involved.

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a check point under a law that ought to sound familiar to Americans who have been paying any attention to events in America over the last several decades, Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967. He was tortured for 22 hours. This resulted in Biko slipping into a coma. Then he was chained to a window grill for a day. Just short of four weeks later, he was transported 700 miles to a prison that had hospital facilities. He died the next day — 12 September 1977. Wikipedia provides the following tragic but entirely typical conclusion, “The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head…” You know: the police never do anything wrong. And they can never be held accountable regardless, “After a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder because there were no eyewitnesses.”

The one good thing about Biko’s death was that it really did publicize just how awful the apartheid system was. Over 10,000 people came to Biko’s funeral. So he was a martyr to the cause that he had worked his whole adult life for. So I can see the beauty in his life and ultimate sacrifice. But it mostly just fills me with rage.

Nevertheless: happy birthday Steve Biko!


Here is Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko”:

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