On August 18, 1977 Steve Biko was arrested in Cape Town. He died on September 12 1977 after severe torture. 

Source: South African History Archives (SAHA)

Steve Biko's ideologies still relevant and alive

On August 18, 1977 Biko and his colleague and comrade, Peter Cyril Jones were arrested at a roadblock after they had travelled to Cape Town to lend their weight in an effort to get all political organisations fighting for liberation to agree on a broader program of co-operation. They were tortured severely and Biko sustained a massive brain haemorrhage.

On the 11th of September, Biko was transported to Pretoria central prison, a twelve-hour journey, naked in the back of a police van without a medical escort.

Biko died the next day, on the 12th of September 1977, an eventuality he never feared, hence his infamous quote: "It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die."

Biko, a fierce anti-apartheid activist, believed that the best way for black folks to emerge victorious in the struggle against apartheid was for them not to succumb to the white man's suggestion that being black is the colour of inferiority. Biko realised that 'the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.'

Bantu Stephen Biko was born on the 18th of December 1946 in the Eastern Cape. After primary and secondary schooling he enrolled for a medical degree where he was expelled due to his involvement in anti-apartheid activism. Throughout his political career, he was subjected to gruesome beatings, harassments, arrests, detentions, and banning orders by the notorious security forces of the apartheid government.

Liberation before education: the legacy of Steve Biko

Stephen Biko, political activist and ideological leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), was only thirty years old when he died in detention under mysterious circumstances on 12 September, 1977. His political career was brief, but had a profound impact on the liberation struggle. He espoused the philosophy of black consciousness, linking identity politics and social action.

Biko first became involved in liberation politics through the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) while attending medical school. His views on black identity and pride led to the formation and expansion of the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) in the late 1960s. Biko served as both the president and publicity secretary for this body, which served as the nucleus of the BCM. He founded the Black People's Convention (BPC) and was banned by the South African State in 1973. This new movement empowered a generation of young black South Africans, fuelling revolutionary events, including the 16 June 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Biko's prolific writings, political lobbying, and his community activism drew the attention of the Security Police, and he was detained on numerous occasions. His life was adversely affected in many ways, including expulsion from the University of Natal in 1972, his first banning in 1973, and, ultimately, his death in detention on 12 September, 1977. He is regarded as a martyr of the liberation struggle. His 18 August 1977 detainment included severe torture at the hands of security police. He was interrogated for twenty two hours, and beaten until he suffered brain damage. He was chained to a window grille and denied medical attention for his injuries. His injuries did not improve, but it was only on 11 September that he was taken to Pretoria for medical attention, but he died shortly after his arrival.

J.T. Kruger, then-Minister of Justice, denied that police had abused their internationally renowned detainee, arguing that his death was the result of hunger strike. An autopsy conducted by the late pathologist Jonathan Gluckman at the request of Biko's family found that he had died of brain damage as a result of blows inflicted upon him during his detention. Gluckman's report led to an inquest: no policemen were charged, but Biko's family eventually received a settlement from the state. The cover-up of Biko's death in detention was exposed by then-journalist Helen Zille in the Rand Daily Mail, edited by Allister Sparks. Zille had received evidence from Biko's doctors, including Gluckman. Biko's death sent shockwaves around the world, and his funeral, attended by ten thousand, resulted in nationwide incidents of social unrest. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) proceedings, four of the surviving policemen involved in Biko's death were refused amnesty.

Read the TRC report on the amnesty decision on Biko's death

Steve Biko and the Freedom of Information Programme

SAHA is assisting the Steve Biko Foundation to attain copies of the Security Legislation Directorate files that the apartheid regime compiled on numerous Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) members. In October 2008, SAHA submitted PAIA requests for the files in question. To date the National Archives have made all of the requested files available, though collection for some is still outstanding. SAHA has delivered all but 3 to the Foundation. The Steve Biko Foundation is using the information in the files to create biographic profiles that will appear in the Steve Biko Museum in King Williams Town, when the museum is opened.

For more details about the Steve Biko Museum contact the Steve Biko Foundation.

The Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) was launched in 2001 with the aim of creating awareness of, compliance with and use of PAIA by submitting requests for access to information. Since its inception, the programme has built up a comprehensive collection of released materials (archived within SAHA as collection AL2878).

Contact the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP)

Knowing that nobody dies until they're forgotten 
We chant Biko today 
 Biko tomorrow 
 Biko forever
'Biko the Greatness', Benjamin Zephariah