Nelson Mandela Foundation

Steve Biko

Mr Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement

Thirty years ago Mr Steve Bantu Biko was brutally murdered. He was only 30 years old, a young man full of vision and promise. His death robbed our country and the world of a truly gifted leader.

In 1997, on the 20th anniversary of his death, Mr Nelson Mandela said:

“History called upon Steve Biko at a time when the political pulse of our people had been rendered faint by banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment.

“Repression had swept the country clear of all visible organisation of the people. But at each turn of history, apartheid was bound to spawn resistance; it was destined to bring to life the forces that would guarantee its death. It is the dictate of history to bring to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people.

“While Steve Biko espoused, inspired, and promoted black pride, he never made blackness a fetish. At the end of the day, as he himself pointed out, accepting one’s blackness is a critical starting point: an important foundation for engaging in struggle. Today, it must be a foundation for reconstruction and development, for a common human effort to end war, poverty, ignorance and disease.

“One of the greatest legacies of the struggle that Biko waged – and for which he died – was the explosion of pride among the victims of apartheid. The value that black consciousness placed on culture reverberated across our land; in our prisons; and amongst the communities in exile. Our people, who were once enjoined to look to Europe and America for creative sustenance, turned their eyes to Africa.”

Indeed, many people of his generation say that they found their path to non-racialism through the philosophy espoused by Biko. He encouraged fearless and open debate, inspiring oppressed people to recognise their own worth, take joy in their own humanity, and recognise – as equals – the humanity of others.

DID YOU KNOW? On Robben Island in 1978, a year after Mr Biko’s death, Mr Mandela wrote an assessment of the Black Consciousness Movement titled Whither the Black Consciousness Movement?. The piece was smuggled off the Island in the same year. The Nelson Mandela Foundation plans to mark the 30th anniversary of this important document in 2008. (The essay has been published in Reflections in Prison, edited by Mr Mac Maharaj, and an excerpt can be found here.)