“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
Stephen Bantu Biko was a giant in the struggle against South Africa’s white minority rule and one of its most well-known martyrs.
Born in Tylden, in the Eastern Province (now Eastern Cape), on 18 December 1946, he was a prodigious student in a system with designed policies to curtailed any kind of black emancipation. From a very early age he rebelled against this repressive apparatus. He was briefly expelled from school due to “a strong resentment toward white authority”. At university Biko formed the South African Students Organisation, raising awareness of how black students suffered compared to their white counterparts.
Biko’s Black Consciousness movement deeply concentrated in making people responsible of their own liberation. He define it as “the first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth … This is the definition of black consciousness.”
In August 1977 Biko was arrested at a roadblock and detained in prison. His brutal treatment, culminating in being driven naked in the back of a police van over a huge distance, led to his death on 12 September. Jimmy Kruger, the police minister, said: “I am not pleased nor am I sorry. Biko’s death leaves me cold.”
Biko’s tragic death, at tender age of 30, had a great impact on the people of South Africa and stunned the world. His funeral was attended by more than 15,000 mourners.
Steve Biko’s Interview:
Sorry for the poor quality of the audio but please listen to them carefully, especially part 3.
Lastly, I would like to leave with an extract written by Biko a few days before his imprisonment and eventual death:
“You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing. So you die in the riots. For a hell of a lot of them, in fact, there’s really nothing to lose – almost literally, given the kind of situations that they come from. So if you can overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you’re on the way.
And in interrogation the same sort of thing applies. I was talking to this policeman, and I told him, ‘If you want us to make any progress, the best thing is for us to talk. Don’t try any form of rough stuff, because it just won’t work.’ And this is absolutely true also. For I just couldn’t see what they could do to me which would make me all of a sudden soften to them. If they talk to me, well I’m bound to be affected by them as human beings. But the moment they adopt rough stuff, they are imprinting in my mind that they are police. And I only understand one form of dealing with police, and that’s to be as unhelpful as possible. So I button up. And I told them this: ‘ Its up to you.’ We had a boxing match the first day I was arrested. Some guy tried to clout me with a club. I went into him like a bull. I think he was under instructions to take it so far and no further, and using open hands so that he doesn’t leave any marks on the face. And of course he said exactly what you are saying just now: ‘ I will kill you.’ He meant to intimidate. And my answer was: ‘How long is it going to take you?’ Now of course they were observing my reaction. And they could see that I was completely unbothered. If they beat me up, it’s to my advantage. I can use it. They just killed somebody in jail – a friend of mine- about ten days before I was arrested. Now it would have been bloody useful evidence for them to assault me. At least it would indicate what kinds of possibilities were there, leading to this guy’s death. So, I wanted them to go ahead and do what they could do, so that I could use it. I wasn’t really afraid that their violence might lead me to make revelations I didn’t want to make, because I had nothing to reveal on this particular issue.
I was operating from a very good position, and they were in a very weak position. My attitude is, I’m not going to allow them to carry out their program faithfully. If they want to beat me five times, they can only do so on condition that I allow them to beat me five times. If I react sharply, equally and oppositely, to the first clap, they are not going to systematically count the next four claps, you see.
It’s a fight. So if they had meant to give me so much of a beating, and not more, my idea is to make them go beyond what they wanted to give me and give back as much as I can give so that it becomes an uncontrollable thing.
You see the one problem this guy had with me: he couldn’t really fight with me because it meant he must hit back, like a man. But he was given instructions, you see, on how to hit, and now these instructions were no longer applying because it was a fight. So he had to withdraw and get more instructions.
So I said to them, ‘Listen, if you guys want to do this your way, you have got to handcuff me and bind my feet together so I can’t respond. If you allow me to respond, I’m certainly going to respond. And I’m afraid you may have to kill me in the process even if it’s not your intention.”