South African Government Kills Biko Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Detained under the Terrorism Act, Stephen Biko became the forty-sixth political detainee to die in the custody of the South African security police. Biko’s death reinforced the growing international outcry against apartheid and strengthened calls for comprehensive economic sanctions and an arms embargo against the state.

Summary of Event

Apartheid, the policy of institutionalized racial domination and exploitation imposed in South Africa, was denounced by the United Nations as a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Apartheid caused immense suffering and the forced removal of millions of Africans from their homes. Its enforcement entailed ruthless repression and the denial of basic human and political rights. Apartheid, based on fundamental premises of racial superiority and separation, became the official ideology of South Africa in 1948 with the electoral victory of the Nationalist Party. The apartheid system persisted into the 1990’s, and only in 1991 did President F. W. de Klerk De Klerk, F. W. begin to dismantle it. In one of the great political miracles of world history, all legal vestiges of apartheid were removed from South Africa by 1994, and the country had a new constitution with some of the strongest protections of human rights in the world. Apartheid;resistance and protest South Africa;human rights abuses [kw]South African Government Kills Biko (Sept., 1977) [kw]Government Kills Biko, South African (Sept., 1977) [kw]Kills Biko, South African Government (Sept., 1977) [kw]Biko, South African Government Kills (Sept., 1977) Apartheid;resistance and protest South Africa;human rights abuses [g]Africa;Sept., 1977: South African Government Kills Biko[02960] [g]South Africa;Sept., 1977: South African Government Kills Biko[02960] [c]Human rights;Sept., 1977: South African Government Kills Biko[02960] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Sept., 1977: South African Government Kills Biko[02960] Biko, Stephen Goosen, Pieter Kruger, James T. Prins, Marthinus Vorster, John

Prior to the apartheid system, the history of South Africa from the beginning of European colonialism in 1652 had been one of deepening racial oppression and economic exploitation. The result of this history is a situation in which the approximately 5.5 million white South Africans (out of a 1990 total population of about 34 million) owned 87 percent of the land. The political system totally excluded the 25 million black South Africans and afforded very limited participation to the three million “Coloureds” and one million Asians. The legal and economic systems were designed to control the movement and exploit the labor of the black majority. A repressive “police state” security structure quashed black resistance.

Resistance by the black African majority was a constant feature of South African history. Increasingly in the twentieth century, allies were found among the white, Coloured, and Asian populations of the country. Most prominent among the twentieth century black resistance movements were the African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress Pan-Africanist Congress[Panafricanist Congress] (PAC), the Black Consciousness movement Black Consciousness movement (BCM), and the United Democratic Front United Democratic Front (South Africa) (UDF). The leaders of these movements, including Nelson Mandela Mandela, Nelson of the ANC, Robert Sobukwe Sobukwe, Robert of the PAC, and Stephen Biko of the BCM, all suffered repression by the South African state. In Biko’s case, the state not only detained and restricted his movements on many occasions but also ultimately killed him while he was in detention.

Stephen Bantu Biko was born in King William’s Town, Cape Province, on December 18, 1947. After a high school career interrupted by reprisals for his political activism, he began medical studies at the University of Natal in 1966. Two years later, he helped found and became the first president of the South African Student Organization South African Student Organization (SASO), established to provide a voice of liberation for black students and the black community and to propagate the emergent philosophy of Black Consciousness. In 1971, Biko helped found the Black People’s Convention Black People’s Convention[Black Peoples Convention] (BPC) as an umbrella organization for the growing Black Consciousness movement.

Because of his activism, Biko was expelled from medical school, and in 1972, along with other SASO and BPC officers, he was “banned” by the state. The banning order forced his removal from membership in SASO, BPC, and the other community self-help programs and activist organizations with which he was associated; prohibited him from attending gatherings of three or more people and from writing for publication or being quoted; and confined him to King William’s Town for five years. The banning was intended to bring an end to Biko’s political activities; however, he continued to establish community programs and to develop and articulate Black Consciousness. Biko’s national and international stature grew, and in 1976 he was elected honorary president of the Black People’s Convention. He was arrested and detained many times between 1974 and August, 1977, accused of breaking the terms of his banning order or undermining the security of the state. He was always cleared of such charges, and during his life he was never convicted of any crime.

At the heart of Biko’s activism was the philosophy of Black Consciousness, a philosophy with roots in African nationalism, pan-Africanism, and liberation theology. At its core, Black Consciousness is both a philosophy of psychological emancipation, self-assertion, racial pride, and dignity and also an ideology for combating the legal, economic, political, and physical repression intrinsic to the apartheid system. The need to free black South Africans of their entrenched inferiority complex, mental emancipation, was seen as a prerequisite for political emancipation. The goal of Black Consciousness was not artificial integration among the races in South Africa but instead true humanity, devoid of racist solidarities and power politics. Biko declared, “We are looking forward to a nonracial, just, and egalitarian society in which color, creed, and race shall form no point of reference.”

Stephen Biko.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Central to the political practice of Black Consciousness were the rejection of white liberal domination of the antiapartheid organizations and the establishment of community-based self-help and mass agitation programs involving the rededication of black intellectuals to the black community. SASO, BPC, the Black Community Programs, and the Zimele Trust Fund, devoted to community development via housing, health, and literacy programs, were concrete manifestations of this philosophy and practice. The commitment to nonviolence was another key element of Black Consciousness. There was a deliberate effort by the Black Consciousness movement to avoid being banned by the state. The movement wanted to fill the gap in internal, legal black politics that had existed since the banning of the ANC and the PAC in 1960, after the Sharpeville Massacre. Sharpeville Massacre (1960)

Biko was arrested for the last time on August 18, 1977, in Grahamstown. He was detained under the provisions of the Terrorism Act of 1967, Terrorism Act (South Africa, 1967) which permitted the police to arrest without a warrant anyone suspected of terrorist activities or having knowledge concerning such activities. Detained persons could be held incommunicado for as long as the commissioner of police or minister of justice deemed necessary. Biko’s arrest in Grahamstown meant that he was in violation of the terms of his banning, which restricted him to King William’s Town. Biko was kept in isolation, naked and manacled, for twenty days. On September 6, he was moved to the Security Police Headquarters in Port Elizabeth, and was interrogated. Sometime on September 6 or September 7, Biko received blows to the head, causing brain damage and ultimately his death on September 12. The day before he died, Biko had been driven seven hundred miles in the back of a police van, from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria Prison Hospital.

Biko was the forty-sixth person to die in detention under South Africa’s security laws. These deaths dated back to September, 1963. Twenty-three of these deaths of political detainees occurred in the eighteen-month period from March, 1976, to September, 1977. Official explanations for these deaths include “natural causes,” “suicide by hanging,” “fell out of seventh floor window,” “slipped in shower,” and “slipped down the stairs.” Many other political prisoners died while detained under nonsecurity laws.

The South African minister of justice, police, and prisons, James T. Kruger, initially announced that Biko had died as the result of a seven-day hunger strike, and that Biko had been examined regularly by a team of doctors, who found nothing physically wrong with him. This explanation was disbelieved universally. Biko was a big, strong man who would not have died of starvation in one week. In addition, Biko previously had told Donald Woods, the editor of the Daily Despatch, that if it ever were announced that he had died as a result of a hunger strike, it would be a lie—he would never engage in such a futile action.

While Kruger was telling delegates of the Nationalist Party, “I’m not pleased, nor am I sorry; Biko’s death leaves me cold,” the world diplomatic corps and media voiced their doubts and called for an official investigation. U.S. senator Dick Clark, who had met with Biko, declared that Biko’s “death represents a loss not only to the blacks of South Africa . . . but to all . . . who believed that through responsible and talented leaders like Biko, there still remained a chance for peaceful racial accommodation.” Criticizing the“pattern of outright racial oppression conducted by an authoritarian state,” Senator Clark called for an impartial inquiry into Biko’s death. U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance Vance, Cyrus similarly called for a full investigation, declaring that Biko “must be regarded as another victim of the apartheid system and the South African security legislation which supports that system.”

Within South Africa, similar disbelief at the official explanation and concerns for the future of the country were voiced. The Financial Mail called Biko an inspiration to his generation. The reaction of black South Africans was summed up by Soweto community leader Nthatho Motlanda at a memorial service: “I say boldly to you and to the whole world that we accuse Mr. Vorster and his government of killing Steve Biko. . . . There is no greater force in this world than an idea whose time has arrived, and this idea is Black Consciousness, which is going to free the black man from the shackles of white imperialism, white slavery, and white oppression.”

The autopsy carried out on Biko by two state pathologists and a doctor representing the victim’s family revealed the cause of death to be severe brain damage resulting from a blow to the forehead. The autopsy report destroyed any credibility that the official hunger-strike explanation may have had. Kruger recanted this explanation and acknowledged “irregularities” in police handling of the case.


On November 14, 1977, an official inquest into Biko’s death began, presided over by Marthinus Prins, the chief magistrate of Pretoria. The inquest lasted three weeks. Despite numerous contradictions in the testimony of the police and the doctors who “attended” Biko, Magistrate Prins concluded that Biko died as the result of head injuries suffered in a scuffle with police during the interrogation, and that “the available evidence does not prove that death was brought about by an act or omission involving an offense by any person.” Newsweek described the inquest as a charade. Hodding Carter III, the U.S. State Department spokesman, said, “We are shocked by the verdict.”

More than ten thousand people attended Biko’s funeral, including diplomats from thirteen Western countries. The 1976 Soweto student uprisings had focused world attention on South Africa. Biko’s death reinforced the growing international outcry against apartheid and strengthened calls for comprehensive economic sanctions and an arms embargo against the state. In the immediate aftermath of Biko’s death, the United Nations Security Council imposed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. Foreign investment decreased drastically, and major Western multinational corporations began to divest themselves of their South African subsidiaries. International banks severely limited new loans to South Africa.

The South African state responded in typical manner to the wave of public grief and anger occasioned by Biko’s death. Police opened fire at a memorial service in Soweto, killing one youth and wounding several others. Twelve hundred university students were arrested at the University of Fort Hare for holding a gathering to mourn Biko. The Nationalist Party called a snap election to reinforce its mandate from the white-only electorate, and Prime Minister Vorster warned foreign critics against “meddling” in South Africa’s internal affairs.

Repressive governments imprison and kill those of their critics whom they cannot silence. Biko was one such critic. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said on the tenth anniversary of Biko’s death, “Steve’s fate shows clearly that you can silence a person with a banning order, harass him, torture him. . . . Yes, you can kill him, but you will never destroy his ideas.” The system of apartheid had many victims—millions of exploited workers, farmers forced off their lands, miseducated schoolchildren, jailed trade union leaders, banned intellectuals, and imprisoned and murdered political activists. Each generation, however, took up the struggle against apartheid and produced its own martyrs for the cause of human justice. A realization that apartheid must eventually fall perhaps prompted F. W. de Klerk finally to begin dismantling the system and moving the country toward full democracy. Apartheid;resistance and protest South Africa;human rights abuses

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Hilda. No. 46: Steve Biko. London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1978. Recounts in detail the testimony presented at the inquest into the death of Stephen Biko, the forty-sixth person to die in security police detention in South Africa. Provides valuable insights into the workings of the legal, political, and security structures designed to sustain apartheid and quash critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biko, Steve. Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa. Edited by Millard Arnold. New York: Random House, 1978. Extensive account of the testimony for the defense given by Biko at the 1976 terrorism trial of nine activists from the South African Student Organization and the Black People’s Convention. In what was his last public appearance, Biko detailed the rationale, history, and substance of Black Consciousness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fatton, Robert. Black Consciousness in South Africa: The Dialectics of Ideological Resistance to White Supremacy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. Locates Black Consciousness among the various historical strands of African nationalism and traces the organizational and ideological development of the Black Consciousness movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graybill, Lyn S. Religion and Resistance Politics in South Africa. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995. Devotes a chapter to Biko and the Black Consciousness movement. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Juckes, Tim J. Opposition in South Africa: The Leadership of Z. K. Matthews, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen Biko. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995. Addresses the political growth of the three activists and their effects on social developments within South Africa. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Motlhabi, Mokgethi. The Theory and Practice of Black Resistance to Apartheid. Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1984. Evaluates the histories, goals, ideologies, and activities of the African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the Black Consciousness movement within a framework of norms grounded in Christian ethics. Concludes that the lack of “principled action programs” explains the failure of the three national liberation organizations to bring an end to apartheid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, Donald. Biko. 3d rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. Seeks to explain what in Biko’s life and death made him so remarkable. Intended as a personal tribute to Biko from a close friend and written in secret because of the threat of imprisonment. Provides an intimate view of Biko’s life, commitments, and activities and also presents an informed critique of the South African “police state” from the perspective of one of the country’s leading journalists.

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Categories: History