Stephen (Steve) Bantu Biko was a popular voice of Black liberation in South Africa between the mid 1960s and his death in police detention in 1977.
This was the period in which both the ANC and the PAC had been officially banned and the disenfranchised Black population (especially the youth) were highly receptive to the prospect of a new organisation that could carry their grievances against the Apartheid state.
Thus it was that Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) came to prominence and although Biko was not its only leader, he was its most recognisable figure.
It was Biko, along with others who guided the movement of student discontent into a political force unprecedented in the history of South Africa.
Biko and his peers were responding to developments that emerged in the high phase of Apartheid, when the Nationalist Party (NP), in power for almost two decades, was restructuring the country to conform to its policies of separate development.
The NP went about untangling what little pockets of integration and proximity there were between White, Black, Coloured and Indian people by creating new residential areas, new parallel institutions such as schools, universities and administrative bodies, and indeed, new ‘countries’, the tribal homelands.
Though Biko was killed before his thirty first birthday, his influence on South Africa was, and continues to be profound. Aside from the BCM, he is also credited with launching theSouth African Students Organisation (SASO), which was created as a Black alternative to the liberal National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).
It is necessary to disambiguate this move, as Biko is frequently misunderstood to have been ”anti-White.” This categorisation is demonstrably untrue, as Biko had no issue with White people per se – his target was always, ultimately white supremacy and the Apartheid government.
The decision to break away from NUSAS and the formation of the BCM was rather to create distance from liberal sympathisers who could attempt to speak for their Black counterparts but were nonetheless, by virtue of their race, beneficiaries of an iniquitous system.
Biko is best remembered for empowering Black voices, installing a sense of Black pride similar to Césaire and Senghor’s ‘Negritude’, and for taking the liberation struggle forward and galvanising the youth movement.