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South Africa Holiday: Steve Biko

Bantu Steven Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in Ginsberg, a township outside King William's Town. Thirty years later, he was dead after being severely beaten while in police custody. Probably the best known leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, Biko is one of the greatest martyrs of the anti-apartheid struggle.

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Steve Biko's philosophy was that political freedom would only be achieved if blacks stopped feeling inferior to whites. This formed the heart of the Black Consciousness Movement. He believed that black people should lead the fight against apartheid.
Biko, who became more and more outspoken, gave up medical school to devote himself to the struggle. Frustrated by the multiracial Nusas, he and his colleagues founded the South African Student's Organisation (SASO) in 1969. SASO was involved in providing legal aid and medical clinics, as well as social upliftment programmes in black communities.
But the black students, under his leadership, argued that they were black before they were students and that a black political movement should be formed. Finally, in July 1972, the Black People's Convention (BPC) was founded. The BPC effectively brought together about 70 different black consciousness groups and associations.
His movement came into its own in the mid-1970s when the liberation movement appeared to be faltering, with many ANC leaders in jail or exile.

Visit Biko's grave

Steve Biko was buried in Ginsberg cemetery. To reach the grave, follow Cathcart St south of King William's Town and turn left down a dirt track that is signposted to the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance.
In 1973, he was banned by the apartheid government. Under the ban, Biko was restricted to his hometown of King Williamstown and he was prevented from writing or saying anything about black consciousness.
On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested while travelling home from a political meeting with his friend Peter Jones. He was detained in Port Elizabeth for 26 days under the Terrorism Act.


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According to testimony given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, "Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation on 7 September 1977, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury."

Film: Cry Freedom

Richard Attenborough's ambitious 1987 epic, Cry Freedom, is seen as an overview of conditions in South Africa at the height of apartheid.
Denzel Washington memorably plays Biko, a former student leader who founded the Black Consciousness Movement in 1969 and gave up medical training to devote himself to the struggle.
Biko's message inspired a generation. He is portrayed in the film is as a charismatic leader in the model of Martin Luther King.
But though the film does tell Biko's story, it is essentially aimed at white audiences and as such concerns itself more with the story of Donald Woods.
Woods, played by Kevin Kline, was part of a group of progressive South African journalists which helped establish truthful and objective press, exposing the crimes of apartheid.
Cry Freedom tells the story of how Woods' friendship with Biko roused his political consciousness.
Woods eventually had to flee to Lesotho on New Year's Eve 1977, dressed as a priest, after Biko's death.
By 11 September 1977, Biko had slipped into a semi-conscious state. The police doctor recommended that he be transferred to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1,200km to Pretoria in the back of a Land Rover.
A few hours after arriving at Pretoria Central Prison on 12th September 1997, Biko died from brain damage, alone and naked in his cell. He was 30 years old.
The police first claimed he had starved himself to death while on a hunger strike. They later changed their story to say Biko had hit his head against a wall in a scuffle. Finally, 20 years later, the police admitted before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that they had killed Biko.
Biko was buried in the Ginsberg cemetery just outside King William's Town on 25 September 1977.
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