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."

  • Thando - 2007-09-12 09:42

    I love this man, it is pity he passed before I was born. He was very intelligent. I wish we could have some more Steve Biko's in future.

  • marcello - 2007-09-12 12:08

    you can kill him but not his idea.those behind his deaf wasted time,his alive.Bravo Biko is here to stay.30years of tears change into celebration. Let"s live it on and on viva Biko.

  • welston - 2007-09-12 12:23

    Good article thanks... Are our kids being taught about this great man? Everyone should know about him....

  • Andy - 2007-09-12 12:37

    What a sad, sad story!

  • Alphonzo Viss - 2007-09-12 12:55

    Biko's Orientation towards life forsaw the "Apartheid Curse" that blacks would find themselves in ,the demage Apartheid Education caused and worse the colonisation of even the most educated of blacks , Apartheid is NOT OVER BY A LONG SHORT !!!.He live through the foundation

  • Thandi - 2007-09-12 13:31

    He must go down has the greatest man in history who was proud of being black. He will never be forgotten in History he will always be talked about in the next 30 years.

  • Nomfundo Mfuleni - 2007-09-12 13:47

    In did God created the beautiful intellegent man.He was the South African "Abraham".He might be dead but,his still speaking.What a greatful rolemodel,stand on what he believes.We need to be like Steve Biko.Stop pointing fingers to each other.But making the input to have a great South Africa.

  • ayanda ntsho - 2007-09-12 13:54

    i found myself asking some though questions...steve was 30 when he died, at such an age and having had (and still having) such an impact on the world, what are we doing wrong as the youth of today...? at 25 he had been arrested and held on solitary confinement - what is wrong with us.. compare a 19 year old today with the equivalent of steve biko; what is wrong with us...?

  • ayanda ntsho - 2007-09-12 13:57

    i smell a rat, perhaps these are not linked...but the two doctors who examined him said he died of naturatl causes - the cricket sa doctors who examined loots bosman said he needs a rest for 6 weeks - any linked between the two...? why are our journalists not asking these questions...?

  • Xolela ka- Kenene - 2007-09-12 14:06

    Is there anything happening within the King Williams Town area and the township where he grew up if not what is the problem and the SBF is doinng anything about that?

  • Nick - 2007-09-12 14:15

    I`m about the same age as his son and really glad and relieved I was young during that terrible period in SA. I`m sure Biko will be remembered for decades as someone who stood up and faught for what was right and it`s a pity he isn`t around to see the free country SA has become.

  • Phillip - 2007-09-12 14:20

    Long live the spirit of Bantu. A true warrior indeed. You paved the way to South africa's independency through your dedication against the struggle.

  • Silo - 2007-09-12 15:13

    At 30, he had accomplished so much. He focused his youthful energies in making a difference in his world. Now we all can be Bikos in our unique ways by understanding the challenges imposed on us by our context and take encouragement from him in finding solutions. What a role model! What a man! What a son!

  • zz - 2007-09-12 15:26

    while death is not pleasant, did Biko want to bring about a South Africa where little white innocent children and innocent old white people and innocent whites are killed out of hand by bastard blacks ?

  • zwelethu oliphant - 2007-09-12 15:46

    Your legacy lives on. Although we were not there but i understand the sacrifice you did for me to be proud of being black.AMANDLA to you Sir.

  • Lwando Scott - 2007-09-12 15:51

    I am touched by all these messages for our greatest leader. I feel that we as young people do not understand the importance of the work done by Biko. Every South African household should have a copy of I write what I like. As great as Biko's work was, sadly it was not finished. On this day, I can't help by wonder, what would Mr. Biko say if he wake up and look at the state South Africa is in. I wonder what he would say?

  • Nimalan Pillay (UAE), and true South African's - 2007-09-12 17:02

    Farewell again, brother!

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