Book extract: Biko is beautiful


The legend lives on in quotes

On September 12 1977, apartheid police beat the seminal activist and Black Consciousness leader to death in a prison cell in Pretoria. To mark the 40th anniversary of his passing, some new books have hit the shelves, making it abundantly clear that Biko is as relevant today as he was during white rule

No Fears Expressed: Quotes from Steve Biko, edited by Millard W Arnold

Picador Africa

160 pages


This new compilation of quotes by Steve Biko is drawn from his written and spoken words, and covers a wide range of topics reflecting the philosophy of Black Consciousness, as well as the ever-present challenges confronting South Africans.

On black-white relations

One has to overhaul the whole system in South Africa before hoping to get Black and white walking hand in hand to oppose a common enemy. As it is, both Black and white walk into a hastily organised integrated circle carrying with them the seeds of destruction of that circle – their inferiority and superiority complexes. 

I Write What I Like (IWWIL), White Racism and Black Consciousness, p70

On black objectives

Above all, we Black people should all the time keep in mind that South Africa is our country and that all of it belongs to us.

IWWIL, Let’s Talk about Bantustans, p95

On fear

I am against the kind of fear that is there in Blacks – this bottled-up fear. In a sense, I am trying to get Blacks to look at issues more positively, and I am also against the kind of mentality that emanates from white society, which seeks to promote that fear in Black society.

The Testimony, p289

On remedies for apartheid

It never occurred to the liberals that the integration they insisted upon as an effective way of opposing apartheid was impossible to achieve in South Africa. It had to be artificial because it was being foisted on two parties whose entire upbringing had been to support the lie that one race was superior and others inferior.

IWWIL, White Racism and Black Consciousness, p70

On politics

Our belief was essentially that we must attempt to get people to identify with the central core of what you are saying rather than individuals. We must not create a leadership cult, we must centralise the people’s attention onto the real message that we carried.

The Testimony, p167

On the franchise

The attitude is a simple one: an open society, one man, one vote, no reference to colour.

The Testimony, p77

On the system

Granted that it may be more attractive and even safer to join the system, we must still recognise that, in doing so, we are well on the way towards selling our souls.

IWWIL, Fragmentation of the Black Resistance, p43

On whites

It is still a known fact that white people simply don’t know Black people and, in most cases, do not have the interests of Black people at heart.

IWWIL, The Church as Seen by a Young Layman, p62

On colonialism

…Blacks are still colonised even within the borders of South Africa.

IWWIL, Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity, p106

On police

It’s a fight. So if they had meant to give me so much of a beating, and not more, my idea is to make them go beyond what they wanted to give me and to give back as much as I can give so that it becomes an uncontrollable thing.

IWWIL, On Death, p174

On history

History works through people and we have availed ourselves to history to work through us.

The Testimony, p220

On black theology

It seeks to demonstrate the absurdity of the assumption by whites that “ancestor worship” was necessarily a superstition and that Christianity is a scientific religion.

IWWIL, We Blacks, p34

On poverty

In South Africa now, it is very expensive to be poor.

IWWIL, Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity, p107

On labour

…cheap labour has helped to make South Africa what it is today.

IWWIL, Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity, p107

On black students

…once the Black students want to do things for themselves, suddenly they are regarded as becoming “militant”.

IWWIL, Saso – its Role, its Significance and its Future, p4

Biko in brief

To understand me correctly, you have to say that there were no fears expressed.

The Testimony, p186


Two lucky readers can win themselves The Testimony of Steve Biko, No Fears Expressed and the anniversary edition of Biko’s classic text I Write What I Like.

To win, answer this simple question: In what city did Biko die? Send your answer with the keyword BIKO to 34217. Please include your name. SMSes cost R1.50

The Testimony of Steve Biko, edited by Millard W Arnold

Picador Africa

400 pages


The Testimony of Steve Biko documents the statements made by the anti-apartheid activist during the trial of nine students, who were called to the dock in 1976 for daring to aspire to a more just and humane society. Biko was a witness in their defence and the testimony he provided offers vivid insight into his humanity and his fierce, enduring politics. Most importantly, in the four and a half days he was in court, Biko gave South Africa and the world an understanding of the philosophy of the Black Consciousness Movement. The trial took place a little more than a month before the June 16 uprisings in Soweto, and Biko’s testimony was vital in inspiring the students who were protesting against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. In this excerpt, Biko is in conversation with David Soggot, senior counsel for the defence:

David Soggot: When you have phrases such as “black is beautiful”, now, would that sort of phrase fit in with the Black Consciousness approach?

Steve Biko: Yes, it does.

Soggot: What is the idea of such a slogan?

Biko: I think that slogan has been meant to serve and I think it is serving a very important aspect of our attempt to get at humanity. You are challenging the very deep roots of the Black man’s belief about himself. When you say ‘Black is beautiful’, what you are saying to him is: ‘Man, you are okay as you are; begin to look upon yourself as a human being.’ Now, in African life especially, it also has certain connotations, it is the connotation of the way women prepare themselves for viewing by society.

In other words, the way they dress, the way they make up and so on, which tends to be a negation of their true state and, in a sense, a running away from their colour. They use lightening creams, they use straightening devices for their hair and so on. They sort of believed, I think, that their natural state, which is a Black state, is not synonymous with beauty. And beauty can only be approximated by them if the skin is made as light as possible and the lips are made as red as possible, and their nails are made as pink as possible and so on. So, in a sense, the term ‘Black is beautiful’ challenges exactly that belief which makes someone negate himself.

The court: Mr Biko, why do you people then pick on the word black? I mean, black is really an innocent reference which has been arrived at over the years, the same as white. Snow is regarded as white, and snow is regarded as the purest form of water and so it symbolises purity, so white there has got nothing to do with the white man.

Biko: Right.

The court: But, now, why do you refer to you people as blacks? Why not brown people? I mean, you people are more brown than black.

Biko: In the same way as I think white people are more pink and yellow and pale than white.

The court: Quite [laughter]. But, now, why do you not use the word brown, then?

Biko: No, I think really, historically, we have been defined as Black people, and when we reject the term non-white and take upon ourselves the right to call ourselves what we think we are, we have got available in front of us a whole number of alternatives – starting from natives to Africans to ka***rs to Bantu to non-whites and so on – and we choose this one precisely because we feel it is most accommodating…

Soggot: Is your concern so much the restructure of the word ‘black’ in the world of linguistics … as to alter the response of black people to their own blackness?

Biko: It is certainly directed at man, at the Black man.

Soggot: And I think you were talking about your understanding of the black man’s own sense of inferiority and self-hatred and all that?

Biko: Yes.

Soggot: In the world of language, how does the black man figure, how does he feel?

Biko: Yes, I think this is another area where experiences of … well, let me say difficulties that I have experienced … We have a society here in South Africa which recognises, in the main, two languages, English and Afrikaans, as official languages. These are languages that you have to use at school – at university, I mean – or in pursuit of any discipline when you are studying as a Black man.

Unfortunately, the books you read are in English. English is a second language to you. You have probably been taught in a vernacular, especially during these days of Bantu education up to Standard 6. You grapple with the language to JC and matric, and before you conquer it you must apply it now to learn disciplines at university.

As a result, you never quite catch everything that is in a book, you certainly understand the paragraph … I mean, I am talking about the average man now, I am not talking about exceptional cases … You understand the paragraph, but you are not quite adept at reproducing an argument that was in a particular book, precisely because of your failure to understand certain words in the book.

This makes you less articulate as a Black man generally, and this makes you more inward looking. You feel things rather than say them. And this applies to Afrikaans as well – much more to English than to Afrikaans. Afrikaans is essentially a language that has developed here, and I think in many instances it is idiom, it relates much better to African languages, but English is completely foreign, and therefore people find it difficult to move beyond a certain point in their comprehension of the language.

Soggot: And how does this relate to the black man or, in particular, to the black students as inferiority?

Biko: An example of this for instance was again during the old days of Nusas, where [white] students would be something that you as a Black man experienced in your day-to-day life, but your powers of articulation are not as good as theirs.

Also you have amongst the white students a number of students doing MA, doing honours – you know, in particular quarters – highly articulate, very intelligent. You may be intelligent, but not as articulate. You are forced into a subservient role of having to say yes to what they are saying, talking about what you have experienced, which they have not experienced, because you cannot express it so well – this in a sense inculcates also in numerous students a sense of inadequacy.

You tend to think that it is not just a matter of language. You tend to tie it up also with intelligence in a sense. You tend to feel that that guy is better equipped than you mentally.

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