Immortalized in song by Hip-Hop group A Tribe Called Quest, South African activist Steve Biko battled against the racist practice of apartheid in his country.
Bantu Stephen Biko was born on December 18, 1946 in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. An excellent student, his academic ability gained him access to a Catholic boarding school that emboldened his interest in combating the white-minority rule within his nation.
With an interest in medicine, Biko enrolled at the University of Natal Medical School and involved himself with several student activist groups. He eventually aligned himself with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), which had a sizable white membership base and white leadership. After a 1968 NUSAS conference in Johannesburg, Biko and other Black students broke away to find their own student activist group.
The South African Student’s Organisation was formed in 1969 with Biko leading much of the development SASO. Inspired by America’s Black Power movement, the group embraced a “Black Consciousness” ideology. He became SASO’s first president and the Black Consciousnesses Movement grew as a result. In the early ’70’s, Biko traveled around the nation to recruit others into the BCM ideology. This would also be sparked by Biko’s thought that while white, liberal anti-apartheid groups meant well, he believed the fight against apartheid should be led by his people.
As his profile grew, so did the criticism from the South African government, who deemed Biko’s radicalism a threat to the nation as it could incite racial tensions. In 1973, Biko was banned from activism and speaking out against apartheid. However, it was difficult to silence the leader considering the growing number of fellow Black activists across the nation.
Biko was jailed a handful of times during this period and in 1977, the encounter with police would prove fatal. In defiance, Biko ignored the commands of the guards despite being chained and stripped naked. He was severely beaten and on September 12, Biko died from his injuries at the age of 30.
In 1980, singer Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” was created in the leader’s honor and was banned by the South African government. Biko became a symbol and icon of the anti-apartheid movement, with the late Nelson Mandela saying the government killed him in order to stall the growth of the movement. Known as the “Father of Black Consciousness,” Biko has been commemorated several times by both South African and international figures.