II - The Life of Steve Biko

From the book: No.46 - Steve Biko by Hilda Bernstein, 1978, South Africa

Stephen Bantu Biko was born in King William's Town, in the Cape Province of South Africa, in 1946. After matriculating he went to Natal University to study medicine in 1966. Initially he involved himself in the activities of the National Union of South African Students(NUSAS), but he and others felt increasingly that white liberals dominated NUSAS. In 1968 the all-black South African Students' Organisation(SASO) was formed with Biko as its first president.' When we broke away to form an exclusive black movement', Biko stated, 'we were accused of being anti-white. But with many more whites at university, the non-racial students' union was dominated by white liberals. They made all the decisions for us. We needed time to look at our own problems, and not leave them to people without experience of the terrible conditions in the black townships or of the system of Bantu education'.

Together with other SASO office-bearers Biko travelled the country, visiting black campuses and propounding the emergent philosophy of black consciousness. They defined 'black' as including not only Africans, but Coloured (mixed-race) and Indians””all those designated 'non-white' by the apartheid state. At the end of his third year at university he was expelled for his political activities. He was under constant surveillance and harassment from the security police. But in the same year he was instrumental in forming the Black Peoples' Convention(BPC), as an umbrella political movement for groups sharing the ideas of 'Black Consciousness'.

In 1972 Biko started working for the Black Community Programmes in Durban; among its projects was Black Review 1972, an analysis of political trends. Black Review was subsequently banned, and in February 1973 Biko himself, together with other officials of SASO and BPC, was served with banning orders. Banning orders are designed severely to restrict the activities and lives of those on whom they are served. Biko was immediately banned from all the organisa­tions with which he had been associated, and he was restricted to King William's Town for the next five years””that is, he was not permitted to leave the confines of the town. A banned person is also prohibited from being at any meeting, and a meeting takes place as soon as the banned person talks to two people together. This meant that not only could Biko no longer work in the organisations he had helped to found, but he could not meet to have discussions with others. Friends could come to visit him, provided only one person came at a time, and provided they themselves were not banned. (Banned people may not communicate with other banned people.)

Banned people also may not write for publication, nor may anything they say be quoted. There are other restrictions placed on banned people, usually prohibiting them from entering various buildings, such as any court, educational institutions, the offices of newspapers and other publishers, and similar places. Biko was also refused a passport to attend a conference to which he had been invited by the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Germany. Life for a banned person is full of tensions and requires constant alertness. The homes of banned people are normally visited frequently by the security police. If Biko were to be in a room with his wife at a time when a friend walked in, he was liable to be arrested for breaking his bans. In fact the banned person must become his own jailer. But because bans require a total withdrawal from all social and political activities, a total retirement from any involvement, many banned people seek ways to work in spite of the difficulties.

Biko's restrictions only increased his determination to work among his own people. He knew the needs of the black community, and he believed in self-help. In 1975 he founded the Zimele Trust Fund to help political prisoners and their families, and the Ginsberg Educational Trust for the purpose of assisting black students. In that same year the government acted against the young black militants by taking many into detention. Biko was one of those arrested; he was held for 137 days without charge or trial. Restrictions on him were increased at the end of the year, when he was pro­hibited even from associating with the Black Community Programme. But he still managed to do some work. He became Secretary-General of the Zimele Trust Fund in 1976, and in that year, at the congress of the Black People's Convention in Durban””a congress he could not attend because of his banning orders””Biko was elected Honorary President of the organisation.

Thus Biko remained active despite the many bans, and his prestige, particularly among young activists, was high. During the disturbances following the police massacre of Soweto students in June 1976, Soweto leaders demanded that the government negotiate the country's future with three black leaders”” Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, imprisoned for life on Robben Island; the late Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, living under restrictions in Kimberley; and Steve Biko.

Biko was arrested and detained many times. He was first charged with breaking his banning orders in 1974; he was acquitted. Thereafter he was arrested and charged several times on different counts, including various allegations that he had broken his banning orders and a charge of obstructing the course of justice by persuading witnesses in a political trial to change their evidence. In August 1976, at a time of mass demonstrations against apartheid throughout the country following the Soweto massacres, Biko was arrested together with a reporter from the East London Daily Dispatch; he was held in solitary confinement for 101 days. His bans prevented any statement or account of his detention from being published. Once again, in March 1977, he was arrested, detained, and then later released. And again in July 1977, arrested, charged and released on bail.

Arising out of the revolt of school children against Bantu Education that began in Soweto in July 1976, many pupils and students, their ages ranging from 17 to 24 years, had been arrested in Port Elizabeth and charged under the security laws with conspiring to commit sabotage, and to hinder the police during demon­strations. In one case, 31 students were each sentenced to five years' imprison­ment. When Biko was arrested in July 1977, it was on a charge of defeating the ends of justice in a case involving other school students. The State claimed that Biko had instructed seven students to say they were forced to make false statements to the police. In his judgment the magistrate found the evidence given by the accused 'was certainly far more satisfactory than that of the State witnesses'. There were cries of Amandla! (Power) and clenched fists salutes from the crowded public gallery in the court when Biko was discharged.

Some charges against Biko were still pending at the time of his death, including one of breaking his banning order when he entered an educational institution to write an examination (he was studying law by correspondence), but Biko was never convicted of any crime while he lived. He was never arrested for inciting violence, never accused of it. The police waited until he was dead to make their wild accusations. Then they said they had documents to prove Biko was a terrorist, planning sabotage, murder, and riots in the streets. 'They do not accuse people””they accuse documents', wrote Donald Woods. 'I could write documents myself and say that the Prime Minister had just become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party'. Finally, August 1977. Biko was arrested once again. Together with a friend and BPC activist, Peter Jones, he was stopped in a car at a roadblock and taken into custody in Port Elizabeth.

The fate of Peter Jones is not known. At the time of writing, he is still in detention.

No.46 - Steve Biko

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