All the coverage of Nelson Mandela over the past ten days brought to mind Bantu Stephen Biko. This coming Wednesday, December 18th would have been his sixty-seventh birthday. He did not live past thirty. He died from injuries inflicted on him during police custody. His crime: He said “Black is beautiful.” And he did what he could to make black people believe that about themselves. To free them. To think through the process of getting from there to here.
Steve Biko wanted to be a doctor, but he became an activist in his student days, was expelled from high school for his freedom-fighting activities. He eventually graduated from St. Francis College in KwaZulu-Natal and enrolled in the University of Natal Medical School.
Along the way he also co-founded the South African Students’ Organization, spearheaded the Black Consciousness Movement, and eventually cofounded the Black Peoples’ Convention. These political stances put him on the wrong side of the law.
He was arrested repeatedly. He was expelled from medical school. In 1973, the apartheid regime, gagged him. They forbid him to write or speak publically, to talk to the press. He was not allowed to say a word if there was more than one person within earshot. He worked undercover after that, and despite repeated arrests, through his courage, charisma, and determination, he was able to get his message heard.
His slogan “Black is beautiful” made it into the New York vocabulary by 1970.
The thugs who thought to silence him did not relent. They arrested him again in August 1977 in Port Elizabeth, the southern-most city in South Africa. A month later, shackled and broken, he was found just outside of Pretoria in the north. He died the next day, September 12, 1977, of a brain hemorrhage.
Many years later, first hearing the sound of his recorded voice, in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, brought tears to my eyes. His voice was beautiful. It was intellectual. And it was silenced with clubs to his head.
Annamaria - Monday