We are currently in the continent of Africa. The country located furthest south is called South Africa. It is the year 1948. A law promoting Apartheid has just been passed. A majority of the country’s population is black; however, the minority of the population has just passed a law that will oppress the majority of the population for almost half a century. How does this happen? What is Apartheid? Apartheid is a legalized racial institution that serves the main purpose of degrading blacks economically, mentally, physically, and educationally. This results in the majority of the population believing that they are sub-human and not good enough, while the minority group continues to prosper from the cheap labor of the majority group. This belief system did not begin in 1948. It was only legalized in 1948. Blacks have been seen as inferior by whites since their first interaction in South Africa in the year 1652 (Class Notes). The Whites (English and Dutch) imposed a religion on the blacks in which the Messiah was white. The white religion created by Whites helped them justify the inhumane treatment of Blacks. They believed that Blacks were descendants of Ham, son of Noah in the Bible, a man cursed into slavery for sinning. The Bible never uses any words regarding race concerning Ham, however the Whites later interpreted that and other Bible passages to fit their justification of the inhumane treatment of blacks. As the Whites encountered Blacks on their expeditions to the “New World” (as in, new to Whites, notwithstanding a millennia of thriving empires on the continent of Africa before the rise of Western Europe), they began to spread the idea of white supremacy, while using their guns to dominate the defenseless locals. The man with a loaded gun is more likely to beat a man with sticks and stones. Over time Blacks, dispossessed of land and natural resources, then commodified as cheap labor, unintentionally internalized and passed down the belief of being inferior to whites from generation to generation. After 300 years of received oppression from the white race, the blacks began to see themselves as inferior.
Steve Biko was a black South African and advocate of anti-apartheid. He is known for spreading the liberating idea of Black Consciousness. He attended local primary schools and went on to study medicine in college. He was among the few blacks that attended college during that time and one of the first to study medicine. While in college, he became overwhelmed with the daily struggles of being a Blackman in South Africa. Blacks were being harassed daily because the law required them to carry a passbook which contained personal information such as name, date of birth, and photos. It was legal for any white person to harass a Blackman by asking for his pass (Class Notes). If the Blackman did not have his pass, he could be fined and more likely, imprisoned. Even before legalized Apartheid economic apartheid had been firmly entrenched in the migratory labor system, which permitted only unskilled work for Blacks.
Typical is the scale applying to Black mine workers who were paid 1/15th of what a white worker was paid. (Class Notes). Steve Biko strongly disagreed that the white power structure was inevitable. He believed that Blacks needed to rediscover their identity as people who can achieve great things. He believed that before a Blackman could liberate himself from the shackles of white oppression, he must first acknowledge that, “The type of Blackman today has lost his manhood. He accepts the white power structure as inevitable, deep inside, his anger melts at the accumulating insults, but vents it on his fellow men in the township and the property of black people” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). He further believed and stated that, “The Blackman has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox, bearing the yolk of oppression with sheepish humility (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). “The black child is taught to hate his history.
A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine, they’ll always live in the shadow of a more successful society.” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). The blacks needed a sense of pride in themselves. They needed something to empower their inner thoughts. They needed to somehow disregard every negative thing that they had been taught by white society, and a distorted history taught by whites. In 1953, the Bantu Education Act had been passed. This law ensured that Black children had separate but inferior educational opportunities to whites (South African History Online, 2018). Schools under this system prepared blacks for unskilled labor such as washing clothes, cleaning dishes, and other domestic labor activities. Classrooms were overcrowded with ratios with the student to teacher range of 46:1 and 58:1 average (South African History Online, 2018). The Bantu education system prepared Blacks for menial, unskilled and working class jobs and left no hope for anything greater. The skewed education system gave Whites an unfair advantage in life from birth, through school and after school education. Biko rejected this circumstance.
Black consciousness was a practical ideology that aimed to awaken Blacks to their mental, psychological and intellectual right to be positive and productive thinkers. “Black Consciousness seeks to give positivity in the outlook of the black people, it works on the knowledge that white hatred is negative, to amass the anger of Blacks into purposeful and directional opposition, basing its entire struggles on the realities of the situation, to ensure a singularity of purpose in the Black struggles (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). In other words, Black Consciousness was not about turning against whites, it was about educating blacks as to how to turn their hatred of white oppression into mind-liberated action. In Biko’s articulation and writings, he foresees a role for white people in the Black Consciousness movement. White liberals, who aspired to help Blacks, believed that black oppression was wrong and felt that at some future date blacks should be treated as equals (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). However, as Biko and his peers experienced it, white liberals lacked the sense of urgency that the blacks had towards relief from their oppression under Apartheid.
Whites weren’t willing to work menial jobs, stop using segregated facilities, or defend blacks at protests when the police arrived. At the end of the day, they were white, and still had the white privilege, and thus the choice to get involved in politics or not. Steve Biko believed that the white man’s role in the movement was to educate their white brothers that the history of South Africa must be re-written at some point. The white man should educate other Whites that Blacks were humans not sub-humans. Biko stated that, “They should serve as a lubricating material so that as blacks change the gear of trying to find a better direction for South Africa, there should be no grinding of noises of metal, but a free and easy movement which would be characteristic of a well looked after vehicle” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). Biko believed that Blacks were just as good as whites and that neither was superior. The Black Consciousness movement aimed at empowering the weakened minds of the oppressed by reconstructing their misinformed sense of identity.
Steve Bantu Biko was born in King Williams town in the Eastern Cape Province, the third of four children. His parents were Xhosa. Steve’s father, a police officer, passed away when he was four. He grew up poor with a single mother who worked hard to support four children by herself. Witnessing the daily struggles that his mother had to undergo as a black woman in South Africa hustling to provide for her children, Steve became interested in political activism. Poverty and an absent father at home was the common lot for black families in South Africa at the time because the migratory labor system, established with the onset of industrialized mining in the late 1800s took men of working age to the mines in the cities, leaving behind their families in the townships (Class Notes). Apartheid laws following in the direction and thrust of the 1913 Natives Land Act removing African farmers from fertile lands and appropriating their livelihood in cattle, together with the migratory labor system whereby Blacks were paid a pittance but had no right to strike or organize Unions, followed by legions of laws restricting movement and access to education and skills, ensured that Blacks became increasingly impoverished (Class Notes). In 1965, when Biko was attending college, he noticed that there was no real black participation in the school clubs.
The clubs were majority white and the black opinions were not being heard. About 27,000 of the students were white and 3,000 were black (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). Notwithstanding the reality of white to black population figures for 1965 stood at 1:4 (Population of South Africa.) In this ratio and given the relative subjugation of Blacks in every area of life, it was difficult for black opinions to be heard, and was impossible for black students to gain leadership roles. Biko wanted a student union in which Blacks could obtain leadership roles and have their opinions heard. In the early 1960’s, many attempts had been made to create non-white student unions. The University Christian Movement (UCM) in 1967 gave Blacks a greater chance of coming together. At a UCM conference in the summer of 1968, 40 blacks agreed on the need for a formal national representation of a black student organization (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). In 1968, the South African Student Organization was formed (SASO). In the year 1969, Steve Biko was elected president of the club. The white students feared that SASO was a militant organization. Biko responded by stating its purpose. He stated that the role of SASO was “To crystalize the needs and aspirations of the non-white students and to seek to make known their grievances. To put into effect programs designed to meet the needs of the non-white students and act on a collective basis to solve problems that beset the centers individually.
To heighten the degree of contact, to make the non-white students accepted on their own terms as an integral part of the student community. To establish a formal identity among the non-white students to ensure that they are always treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. To protect the interest of the member centers and to act as a pressure group on all institutions and organizations for the benefit of the non-white students. To boost the morale of the non-white students to heighten their own confidence in themselves and contribute largely to the direction of thought taken by the various institutions on social, political and other current topics” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). In other words, the aim of SASO was not to promote black visibility, their main objective was real black participation. This was revolutionary because real black participation was an absolutely new and radical thought for that time. Blacks had been accustomed to whites doing all the teaching and talking, while Blacks did the listening and learning. Blacks weren’t considered qualified enough to teach a non-black person. White liberals wanted to be a part of this movement but Biko recognized the subtle prejudice of even the white liberal response, stating that: “White liberals accuse blacks of being racist when they want to do things for themselves” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). He stated that blacks were in the position that they were in because of the color of their skin.
He believed that blacks did not need to depend on whites, they were equal. Blacks did not need a white man as a go-between in this battle. He put it this way, “Teachers fight their battles, garbage men do the same, no body acts as a trustee for another, somehow, when blacks want to do their thing, the liberals detect an anomaly” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). Biko was a radical and powerful thinker who wasn’t afraid to state what he believed was true. Blacks needed to accomplish things on their own, and they could do so without the guidance of a white man. Black Consciousness was all about blacks seeing themselves as capable of achieving a full potential that was not limited by the low and subservient expectations of the white society. Steve Biko could see past the shadow that a white supremacist society had casted on minds of blacks. Biko knew that Blacks had been mentally enslaved over hundreds of years by the misinformed, distorted history of South Africa. Biko wanted to remind the black man of “His complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth” (Biko and Stubbs, 1979). Black history must be rewritten for blacks to regain pride in themselves. Blacks needed to know the truth of how their ancestors resided peacefully in South Africa before the arrival of the foreign white man.
Blacks needed a positive history, one they could derive pride from. Black Consciousness was spreading like a wildfire in South Africa during the 70’s. By the year 1973, the South African government had categorized Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement as a threat. In the year 1976, the Soweto Uprising was a major demonstration of Black Consciousness. Black students were tired of being oppressed through inferior education. When whites required black students to speak and learn Afrikaans in school, it negatively affected their academic performance, so the black students planned a peaceful protest against the unfair educational system. “When high- school students in Soweto started protesting for better education on June 16th, 1976, police responded with teargas and live bullets” (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018). The Soweto Uprising which continued the rest of 1976 saw almost 400 casualties, detailed at (South African History Online, 2018). Images from these tragic events with many unarmed and defenceless school children injured shocked the world and the international community. The idea of Black Consciousness had captivated the minds of the Black youth and must be stopped.
The government attempted to censor Biko’s influence and message by placing a banning order, which prevented him from leaving King Williams town. In 1977, Biko broke the banning order by traveling to Cape Town where he planned to meet a unity movement leader by the name of Neville Alexander to discuss some problems that were occurring in the Western Cape (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018). Alexander refused to meet with Biko because he feared that the police had been watching them. On his way back home, Biko was arrested near Grahamstown, about 80 miles from Biko’s home. Section 6 of the 1967 Terrorism Act allowed the police to detain Biko without a trial (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018). Biko was then placed in cell in which he would endure brutal conditions. “On the morning of September 6, what would be described by the policeman as a ‘scuffle’ erupted between the policeman and Biko.
Daniel Siebert led the interrogation, flanked by Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Rubin Marx, and Johan Beneke. Amidst the physical struggle, the policemen punched Biko, beat him with a hosepipe, and ran him into a wall, after which he collapsed. The policemen then shackled Biko upright to a security gate with his arms spread out (‘spread-eagled’) and his feet chained to the gate, in a crucifixion position. They left Biko chained to the gate (later laying him on the floor) and did not call for a doctor for 24 hours” (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018). Inhumane treatment, torture and neglect of detained Blacks by police officers was very common during Apartheid, a system which the United Nations, eventually in 1974 called “a crime against humanity.” Biko’s treatment while in prison was by no means unique; it was, however, highly publicized – after his death - because of his being such an influential and high profile figure in the anti-apartheid struggle. On September 7th, even though Biko had suffered from major body injuries after this event, Dr. Benjamin Tucker and Dr. Ivor Lang examined Biko’s body and allowed him to be, “Kept in the cell, naked, chained to the grill, and did not record any external injuries” (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018). After tests on Biko were performed by a physician later, the tests revealed that Biko had a “Blood-stained cerebrospinal fluid’, which indicated possible brain damage. Dr. Tucker then suggested that he must be admitted to a hospital. (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018).
“ On September 11, the security police decided to transport Biko approximately 700 miles away to Pretoria Central Prison, through the night, lying naked on the floor of a small truck. Biko died shortly after his arrival in Pretoria” (Overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, 2018). After it was declared that Biko needed to be transported to a hospital, it took them four days to act on it. This illustrates the lack of urgency and level of neglect towards the lives of blacks. Helicopters existed in 1977 but they were not considered when it came to saving the life of a black individual. Instead, a van ride lasting about 700 miles that would significantly increase Biko’s chances of fatality was the choice. They had created banning laws to restrict the ability of anti-apartheid activists to travel; created laws to punish a person for their skin color and daring to demand freedom and equality. Mostly, they wished to silence the messenger of message of Black Consciousness.
The words of Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” capture the immediate impact of Biko’s well-targetted struggle against Apartheid: “You can blow out a candle, But you cannot blow out a fire, Once the flames begin to catch, The wind will blow it higher.”(“Biko”) So, Black Consciousness was not limited to Steve Biko -- killing him wouldn’t kill the movement – the youth took forward the torch and made South Africa ungovernable, eventually forcing the Apartheid regime to be dismantled. Black Consciousness is a liberating and awakening ideology that will continue to live long after Biko’s death. Biko knew that the struggle was against a white supremacist system and psychological dysfunction that says skin color has something to do with a person’s value and worth. Biko said to white journalist, Donald Woods, who was instrumental in uncovering the truth about how Biko died: “we must remember that we are in the struggle to kill the idea that one kind of man is superior to another kind of man.”
Today, the number of Blacks in schools in South Africa has significantly increased. After the end of Apartheid in 1994, a large portion of the black population in South Africa remains impoverished. Many black children are unable to attend college because of their financial situation. The lasting effects of Apartheid such as poverty continue to prevent many blacks from achieving Black Consciousness, which is an “envisioned self which is a free self” ( The Conversation, 2018). In 1993, Dr. Mamphela Ramphela, the mother of 2 of Biko’s children, stated that “The struggle is not about fighting for the right to be poor, or for the right to mediocrity, it is about improving the quality of people’s lives” (Keller, 2018). As long as black oppression exists the need for Black Consciousness will always exist.
This article forms part of the South African History Online and Principia College Partnership Project