Keeping Steve Biko alive

2007-09-12 09:18

Cape Town - Nkosinathi Biko was six years old when his father died. Thirty years later, he still remembers the man who flew kites with him in the garden and founded the Black Consciousness Movement that changed South Africa.

Steve Biko, an icon in the anti-apartheid movement, died in the custody of security police on 12 September 1977. He was arrested and held in Port Elizabeth for interrogation - then carted 1 200km to Pretoria, naked in the back of a Land Rover. He died shortly after of massive head injuries sustained while "slipping in the shower on a bar of soap" - alone and still naked, on the floor of a cell in Pretoria Central Prison.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported in 1997 five former members of the South African security forces had admitted to killing Biko. No charges were brought against the five.

Nkosinathi will never forget the moment he was told of his father's death. "I remember being told by a friend of my father: the family's raucous uncle. We were on the way to King Williams Town station to pick up my mother and he broke the news in his usual boisterous way - with a couple of pats on the shoulder," he said in an interview with the Mail and Guardian.

Time with the family

Four years before his death, Biko was banned by the apartheid government, prohibiting him from meeting with more than one person at a time.

"Because he was banned before his death, [the family] got the opportunity to interact with him more than before, when he travelled extensively for his work," Nkosinathi said in an interview with Monterey County Weekly. "I remember him teaching me how to fly my first kite."

The ban also prevented Biko from publishing his writing, where he outlined and expounded the Black Consciousness philosophy. "The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves," he said, in a letter to SRC presidents as part of his work with the South African Students' Organisation (Saso), which he co-founded.

But after his death, priest and spiritual mentor to Biko, Aelred Stubbs went out of his way to collect Biko's writings and keep them safe. He edited this collection in the widely published book, I Write What I Like.

The book contains a selection of Biko's writings from 1969, when he became the president of Saso, to 1972, when he was prohibited from publishing.

'A sense of expectancy'

Stubbs said in a personal memoir in the book that he came to realise that Biko and others "had the key to the future in South Africa... [and] that I was almost uniquely privileged in having gained their confidence".

Of Biko, he wrote: "I remember so well the physical presence of Stephen at that time. Tall, and big in proportion, he brought to any gathering a sense of expectancy, a more than physical vitality and power... But his soul was in his eyes, which were brown liquid and infinitely expressive."

He described Biko as having "a burning inner spirit which filled his limbs, so that he always met you with his own powerful presence".

In 1965, Biko, then a 19-year-old Roman Catholic schoolboy, wrote to Stubbs seeking help in understanding some aspects of Catholic doctrine, according to the Telegraph. Over the next 12 years they met regularly, and Biko always described Stubbs as his "Father in God" and leant heavily on him for guidance.

Although Biko was married to Nkosinathi's mother, Ntsiki, he had a stormy and passionate relationship with one of the co-founders of the Black Consciousness Movement, Mamphela Ramphele, as outlined in her autobiography Across Boundaries. Ramphele, now a high-profile businesswoman, medical doctor and academic, was pregnant with Steve's son and banished to a remote area in the northern Transvaal when she heard of his death.

She was destroyed by the death of the most important man in her life and was not to fully recover from it until 10 years later, according to her autobiography. In 1978, she gave birth to Biko's son, Hlumelo, which means "the shoot that grows from a dead tree trunk".


The Steve Biko Foundation, run by Nkosinathi, has planned a series of events to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Biko's death. The highlight of these is an address by President Thabo Mbeki at the University of Cape Town on Wednesday.

Former president Nelson Mandela, delivered the address 10 years ago at the 20th anniversary of Biko's death. He quoted Biko, saying: " His hope in life, and his life of hope, are captured by his resounding words: 'In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift - a more human face'."

Instead of mourning his death, the country will celebrate what he died for. As Biko famously put it: "It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die."


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