Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)

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Biko’s imprisonment, death and the aftermath

In the wake of the urban revolt of 1976 and with prospects of a national revolution becoming apparent, security police detained Biko, the outspoken student leader, on 18 August 1977. He was thirty years old and was reportedly extremely fit when arrested. He was detained in Port Elizabeth and on 11 September moved to Pretoria Central Prison, Transvaal (now Gauteng). On 12 September, he died in detention - the 20th person to have died in detention in the preceding eighteen months.

A post-mortem was conducted the day after Biko’s death, at which his family was present. The explanation given by the Minister of Justice and Police, Jimmy Kruger, was that Biko died while on a hunger strike. This explanation was not sufficient for observers and people close to Biko. The medical reports received by Minister Kruger were not made public.

As Biko was the twentieth person to die in police custody, a number of newspapers did their own private investigations and learned that Biko died from brain injuries. Their investigations also revealed that Biko was assaulted before he was transported to Pretoria without any medical attention. Three South African newspapers carried reports that Biko did not die as a result of a hunger strike.

Kruger took one of these papers, the Rand Daily Mail to the South African Press Council to lodge a complaint after it had published a front-page story claiming that Steve Biko had suffered extensive brain damage. The Star, another daily press, came out in support of the Rand Daily Mail and pointed out that newspapers would continue to write about the circumstances surrounding Biko’s death because the police were found to be responsible.

The World and Weekend World newspapers also continued to cover reports about the death of Biko. The two newspapers augmented earlier reports by pointing out that Biko was not the first person to die while in detention. Moreover, all these deaths happened under mysterious circumstances. In addition, the Johannesburg Sunday Express said that sources connected with the forensic investigation maintained that brain damage had been the cause of death. In Britain, it was learned from South African sources that fluid drawn from the victim’s spine revealed many red cells - an indication of brain damage.

A photograph of Biko lying in his coffin was taken secretly just before the funeral, and sent by an underground South African source to Britain. This was seen as added proof that the anti-apartheid student activist had been beaten to death while in prison. Kruger claimed that he had never fired any police officer for brutality or any related misconduct, and he strenuously denied the beating of Biko in an interview with the American Time magazine.

Biko’s brutal death made him a martyr in the history of Black resistance to White hegemony. It inflamed Black anger and inspired a rededication to the struggle for freedom. Progressive Federal Party parliamentarian, Helen Suzman, warned Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, that “The world was not going to forget the Biko affair,” adding, “We will not forget it either.”

Kruger’s reply that Biko’s death “left him cold,” echoed around the world. A widespread crackdown on Black student organisations and political movements followed. Just before the Biko and deaths in detention inquest, police honed in on the remaining Black Consciousness resistance organisations.

In the process, two of Biko’s White friends, the Reverend Beyers Naudé and Donald Woods were banned, and Percy Qoboza, editor of The World, was banned for allegedly writing exaggerated articles about the manner of Biko’s death. Prime Minister Vorster then called an election, and a large majority of White voters called for Vorster’s Nationalist Government to remain in power to face the formidable challenge of a distinctly polarised Black population.

An international outcry, and condemnation of South Africa’s security laws led directly to the West’s decision to support the United Nations (UN) Security Council vote to ban mandatory arms sales to South Africa (Resolution 418 of 4 November 1977). The South African problem had been on the international agenda almost from the start of the United Nations, and was acknowledged as an international “problem” by the Western powers after Sharpeville in 1960.

It was also kept on the agenda through sustained Afro-Asian diplomatic efforts that were conducted under the auspices of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Institutional pressure on the Western powers “to do something” about South Africa was intensified after the Soweto riots in 1976, particularly following the death of Steve Biko in police custody.

These events led to a new round of Security Council meetings and a mandatory arms embargo – the first time that action had been taken against South Africa under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Codes of conduct for Western businesses operating in South Africa were also introduced, due to a newspaper campaign in Britain that accused Western businesses of profiting from Apartheid by paying their workers below subsistence wages.

In South Africa, urban conditions for Blacks continued to deteriorate, as large numbers of impoverished Bantustan inhabitants – now ignored by the labour recruiters – bypassed influx control mechanisms in their search for employment. Consequently, informal settlements outside the cities became overcrowded as the state halted the provision of new urban housing. Transport also deteriorated and discontent mounted among both workers and the unemployed.

At the same time, the relative success of the workers’ strikes and other institutional shortcomings inspired the Black Consciousness Movement. The United States Congress also called for a probe into Biko’s death. The congress sent a letter of request to the South African Ambassador, Donald B Sole, in the USA. The letter requested that an international panel of experts be established to investigate the death of Biko. The letter’s demands were not limited to Biko’s death, as it also requested an investigation of South Africa’s detention practices. Moreover, the letter stated that the death of Biko highlighted South Africa’s human rights record and would add to the country’s further isolation.

SASO, the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) and the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) were defunct by the end of 1977. The principal leaders were either in jail, in exile, or dead. The establishment of new movements drawing on the experiences of 1976 was needed, with the immediate task of constructing a new unified ideology.

Although many people were still nervous about political activity following the 1977 crackdown on BC organisations, the Azanian Peoples’ Organisation (AZAPO) was formed in 1978 as a successor to the proscribed Black Consciousness structures. It was an attempt at further espousing and re-inventing the Black Consciousness philosophy, which Biko bequeathed to South Africa. It launched a student wing, the Azanian Students’ Organisation (AZASO), made up of university students. AZAPO and AZASO therefore filled the organisational vacuum in the townships created by the banning of the ANC, PAC and the BCM. At this stage, no obvious conflict between the new groups and the ANC tradition existed.

Last updated : 31-Jul-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 10-Jun-2011