Remembering Steve Biko


Thirty years ago today, on 12 September 1977, Steve Biko, the charismatic leader of Black resistance to Apartheid, succumbed to injuries inflicted by the South African Police whilst being held in detention.

Biko was detained a month earlier, on 18 August, under the Terrorism Act, which allowed South African police to hold a person for an indefinite period without access to a lawyer or notification of family and friends.

Biko was held and beaten in police custody in Port Elizabeth. When it became apparent that he would die, his torturers drove him 1200km in the back of a Land Rover to Pretoria Central Prison, where he succumbed to his wounds.

Steve Biko

Biko was the founder and first President of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1968 and was elected the first President of the Black People’s Convention (BPC) in 1972. The BPC brought together over 70 different Black consciousness organisations, which became known as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

Biko also helped establish the Black Community Program (BCP), for which he worked.

Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977. He was the 45th person to die in detention under the Terrorism Act. He was 30 years old at the time of his death.

I met Steve Biko at the urging of Desmond Tutu (then Bishop of Lesotho) and Donald Woods, who was then Editor of the East London Daily Dispatch.

This occurred some months after my arrival in South Africa on 2 July 1976, to take up an appointment as Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy in Pretoria. I was the first diplomat in South Africa to meet with Biko.

My initial meeting with him was in King Williams Town on 13 January 1977.

Biko struck me as a natural leader, a person who would be elevated within what ever company he kept.

Our discussion lasted four hours. I sent a long record of the conversation back to Canberra. These are a few excerpts:

I met Biko, who is tall, good looking, and quietly spoken at his suggestion we drove out of town to a quiet and secluded area of the surrounding veldt. He said the BCP office was bugged.

During his recent detention, the security police had referred to conversations which had taken place there. Biko mentioned that one of the ‘the group’ working at the BCP office, Mapetla Mohapi, had been taken into custody in August 1975 and was found dead in his cell a few days later from the post mortem it appeared that Mohapi had been killed by the Security Police

we discussed the current political and economic situation in Australia. [Biko] was well informed and questioned me closely on the events which had led to Whitlam’s dismissal. I asked why he had such an interest in Australia, and he replied that, together with the Scandinavian countries, Britain and the US, Australia was a country to which he looked to see how things were being done on a broad range of issues in particular how the process of democracy was evolving to cope with the demands of technology

Biko led the discussion throughout and commenced by giving a brief thumbnail sketch of what he felt would be the likely course of events in southern Africa.

Nine months later, Biko was dead, but over that period we had quite a bit to do with each other. I was able to secure embassy funding for the BCP library in King Williams Town. It was an important political gesture. The Australian Embassy was the first to give a donation to the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa.

In his book Biko, Donald Woods wrote, ‘ Steve [Biko] told me he had taken a liking to Bruce and had been completely candid with him. I might add that the feeling was mutual, and that Bruce became a firm friend of us both.’

This contact and funding took place against a background of hostility by the Australian Ambassador toward Black South Africans and indifference on the part of other political officers at the embassy, with the exception of my predecessor, Di Johnstone.

Biko’s funeral was held in King Williams Town on 25 September. It was held at a local sports stadium with over 20,000 mourners and hundreds of armed police. Black anger was palpable. The world was outraged all the more so when the Minister for Police, James Kruger, told a ruling National Party meeting that Biko’s death left him cold.

Less than a month later, on 19 October, the South African Government banned 18 organisations. Seventeen were Black Consciousness organisations, the other the Christian Institute, which because of its humanitarian activities on behalf of Blacks was regarded by the South African Government as a communist organisation.

An inquest into Biko’s death was set for 14 November 1977 in Pretoria. As expected, the inquest found that Biko’s injuries were the result of a scuffle and that, ‘the death cannot be attributed to any act or omission amounting to a criminal offence on the part of any person.’

Over the next two years that I was in South Africa, the Police State went into lockdown and Black Opposition politics became even more difficult and fraught with danger.

Despite the best endeavours of the Apartheid Regime, pressure from the rest of the world increased after the 1977 bannings and death of Biko. The World Council of Churches (WCC), the World University Service (WUS) and a range of other anti-apartheid organisations increased their activities. In time, sporting sanctions were imposed, followed some years later by financial sanctions.

Through Dr Beyers Naude, a wonderful Afrikaner minister of religion and head of the Christian Institute, I was conscripted to take money donated by the WCC to the dependants of political prisoners living in the Eastern Cape. The banning of the Institute had very little influence on his activities.

I was in demand because I had diplomatic immunity and could travel without hindrance. I took information (letters), money and people around the country and across the border. Many, many others around the world and inside South Africa of different religions, cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds worked very hard, took risks and sometimes sustained a great deal of harm to bring an end to Apartheid.

In the light of all this, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find excuses for the current South African President, Thabo Mbeki, as he prevaricates over intervention in Zimbabwe and about implementing the universally accepted treatment of AIDS.

Mbeki left South Africa to study in the UK in 1962 at the age of 20. He stayed overseas for the next 30 years fulfilling a number of different roles for the ANC, including representing South Africa in a number of African countries. In 1977, at the time of Biko’s death, he was the ANC representative in Nigeria; an appointment which, amongst other things, required him to spend time on the diplomatic circuit.

The ANC was funded by benefactors overseas including the Soviet Union. Later, when change appeared inevitable, it was funded by multinationals, including Shell, mindful of the need to secure their future in South Africa.

Both Mbeki and the Black resistance movement in South Africa were recipients of assistance from a wide variety of sources. Without this assistance, the ending of Apartheid would have taken longer and been much bloodier.

Having been the recipient of generous assistance himself, it is difficult to understand why Mbeki, in a position to alleviate the suffering of neighbouring people, does nothing. You would think his expressed desire to be the pre-eminent leader in Africa would demand it.

Against this crisis, all other words and pron
ouncements, such as the importance of African unity, amount to pompous posturing. When considered in conjunction with the cruel denial of the cause of AIDS and senseless methods of treatment, enshrined in South African health policy, Mbeki has no right to call himself a compassionate man far less a leader.

To sack the Deputy Minister of Health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge for doing her job and caring for the needs of the South African people whilst protecting the corrupt Minister for Health, Tshabalala-Msimang and endorsing her quackery indicates a weak and vacillating man prone more to bullying than bravery.

Steve Biko would be horrified to see his sacrifice and that of all those who died or were injured in the struggle against Apartheid reduced to such a cruel legacy.

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