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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Tribute to Steve Biko

TRIBUTE TO STEVE BIKO: Twenty-five Years On ... Steve Biko Lives On

Twenty-five years ago Steve Biko was murdered whilst being held in detention. There is no doubt that the racist settler government of the day knew about his arrest, detention, and murder. This conclusion derives from the fact that no sooner was Steve arrested than the then Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, went about making sordid and mendacious utterances about him. At first he told a cheering crowd of Nationalist Party supporters that Steve Biko was refusing to eat.

It was his democratic right to starve himself to death if he so wished, he told them. Later, soon after Steve's death, Jimmy Kruger told journalists that he was neither moved nor perturbed by Steve Biko's death. Such was the callousness and arrogance of the racist bigots who once ruled over us.Steve Biko, the Proud Prince of Black Pride, was a great teacher. He believed in his teachings and lived according to them. He taught his colleagues, his followers and the masses to stand tall. He himself was a tall man, and he stood tall and stooped to no one.

He still stands out as a revolutionary intellectual colossus. Steve did not only break the chains of inferiority complex, he smashed them. He taught: Black is beautiful! And he extolled the disciples of black consciousness to spread the message of black consciousness to reach all the corners of Azania. This they did with the enthusiasm never before seen in this country.Steve Biko was a great organiser, a man of organisation and a democrat. He understood very well from the onset that liberation is a deliberate and conscious act of the people themselves. That is why he taught that the people had first to rid themselves of inferiority complex before they could organise themselves into formidable organisations. It is only after they have broken this barrier that they could form themselves into powerful organisations wielding, as it were, Black Power as a tool of liberation.

Towards that end, many black consciousness organisations were formed and countless leadership training workshops were run throughout the length and breadth of this country. So it was the influence of black consciousness came to be felt everywhere in this country.The South African Students Organisation (SASO) was formed to organise black university students to do battle at black universities; the South African Students Movement (SASM) was formed by students in high schools; the National Youth Organisation (NAYO) was to concentrate its efforts on the youth; the Black People's Convention (BPC) was to take care of the political programme of the black masses; the Black Workers Project was to organize workers into trade unions; the Union of Black Journalist (UBJ) was to re-orientate the reporting on black life by the then wholly white-owned press; the Black Theology Project was aimed at making theology relevant to the struggles of the masses and not to be about some pie in the sky; the Black Community Projects was established to engender self-reliance through projects.

On the other hand, the People's Experimental Theatre (PET), Music, Drama, Art and Literature Institute (Mdali) and Medupe occupied the cultural stage front. All these organisations together transformed black consciousness from being a mere idea, something to be talked about, into a powerful and living force so much so that you could now hear people saying: Black Consciousness is a way of life, a way of doing things. It was not for nothing that they said so.Steve Biko was an excellent communicator. He was a keen and active listener, a consultant. What is more, he was eminently eloquent. He was able to precisely put across what was in his mind using the spoken word or the pen. He wrote under the pen name Frank Talk for the SASO Newsletter. To this day his essays remain as vivid as they are relevant. It was always easy to understand what he was saying or had written. He also made it his business to correctly understand all who spoke to him. And he was at home conversing with anyone: the clergy, the professors, the students, and the ordinary people, including statespersons. It didn't matter to him whether he stood before the judges or magistrates under hostile cross-examination; he always acquitted himself first class.

Now, what could the little brutes in the security police who interrogated him draw from such a man? Take his towering physical presence, his ease of manner, his wholly liberated personality, his sharp mental acumen and his refined mastery of language, let alone his plain but powerful logic, and match that with what those crude security policemen could muster and say what the outcome of the interrogation could be.

Steve Biko was as persuasive as he was cogent, a tough negotiator yet an engaging conversationalist who induced an abiding respect in all who interacted with him.Steve Biko was a skilful tactician and a patient master strategist. He could generate ideas from people and then weave those ideas into articulate action programmes. He would then turn the very sources of those ideas into active organisations to translate the ideas into meaningful actions. And he could coordinate many big mass organisations as a conductor a mass choir.

Imbued with foresight and a clear vision, Steve always moved in the chosen direction with self-assured strides. He created new things and was comfortable in the new surroundings of new things as if they were always there. The many things he helped create fell into place at the right times to complement each other. This is the man who was at the centre of it all.

A man of incredible patience, who would patiently wait until the iron was red-hot before striking it into the desired shape. He could bide his time.Steve Biko' was a leader, not of the kind bestowed from on high. He emerged from below, from the masses. It is his capacity to plan properly, his ability and willingness to carry out those plans and his skills at coordinating ideas and organisations that thrust him firmly into leadership.

His tenacious consistency and follow-through ensured that at all times he should feel the pulse of the black consciousness movement. This man, his ideas and life, was shaped by the ideas and conditions of life of those he led. With his ability to sift good ideas from bad ones he in turn was able to shape the lives and destiny of those he led.

Because of this special connection that he had with the masses, he was condemned not to deviate from his mission - the total liberation of his people. All his life he served his people with his all. All for no pay. Instead, he it was who was to pay the highest price for his unrequited service to his people.

What a consummate demonstration of what is meant by total commitment! A man of the people, of organisation, is it difficult to understand how he earned the full confidence of the people?The announcement of his death in detention shocked all. It was unbelievable. Those who knew and worked with him were numbed by the news. His colleagues in Robben Island and elsewhere all shed tears. And no one was ashamed to be seen with tears rolling down their faces. Steve Biko's death was a mighty blow to the body of the black consciousness movement. It hurt.

The news about his death reverberated throughout all the capitals of the world. Everywhere the murmur was:  "They have killed Biko." This dastardly act invoked immediate and unequivocal international condemnation. His death itself spelt it out clearly to the racist oppressors that not even murder could beat the masses back into acquiescence; no, not anymore.When it became clear to the regime that the killing of Steve Biko could not achieve much, they proceeded with haste to outlaw all the first generation black consciousness movement organisations.

They declared them unlawful and confiscated their properties. This did not help either because soon thereafter the Azanian People's Organisation emerged as the new and authentic flag bearer of black consciousness. Azapo dutifully picked up the spears and continued with the work of black consciousness.Steve Biko's death was a great lesson. It was a lesson to all racist bigots and tyrants of all types that great ideas, people's ideas and ideals, cannot be snuffed out by the killing of individuals. The moment Steve Biko embarked upon the journey of black consciousness, he ceased to be an individual.

Steve Biko became the refinery and repository of the finest ideas and ideals of his people. He popularised those noble ideas and ideals among the people through the many mass organisation he helped to establish. This meant that those ideas were no longer his ideas residing in his head, but popular ideas flourishing in the consciousness of the people. As indeed happened, rather than scare his colleagues and followers, his death deepened and steeled their resolve to be free.Steve Biko's death was a great lesson and challenge to his very colleagues and followers. It is better to die for an idea that will live rather than live for an idea that will die. Take it this way, what has happened to apartheid? Has it not been disavowed by its high priests? They killed Steve Biko, yet black consciousness lives on. The ideas and ideals for which Steve Biko died are still as valid as ever. Steadfastness and commitment remains the key for the realisation of the dreams of our people for good life in the land of their birth.

If Steve Biko could lay down his life for the sake of his people, can you? If you don't know, at least this much you ought to know: It is his monumental contributions to the liberation struggle that have transformed his home, his grave and his graveyard into a National Monument, a more fitting tribute to this tireless fighter for freedom cannot be found.

Issued by Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo)

September 2002.

© Azanian People's Organisation 2002.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.