Steve Biko is one of the lesser known activists against apartheid in South Africa. The apartheid system sought to stratify rights and entitlements in South Africa by reference to a person’s racial origin and colour. It was designed by a white Afrikaans minority that used brutal force to maintain its system for several decades. Biko was a non-violent pacifist who espoused values and words that led to the destruction of this unjust system.
Raised in a poor Xhosa family, Biko grew up in Ginsberg township in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In 1966, he began studying medicine at the University of Natal, where he joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Biko became frustrated that NUSAS and other anti-apartheid groups were dominated by white liberals, rather than by the blacks who were most affected by the apartheid system. He believed that even when well-intentioned, white liberals failed to comprehend the black experience and often acted in a paternalistic manner. He developed the view that to avoid white domination in his society, black people had to organise independently, and to this end he became a leading figure in the creation of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1968. Membership was open only to “blacks”, a term that Biko used in reference not just to Bantu-speaking Africans but also to Coloureds and Indians. He nevertheless opposed anti-white racism and had various white friends and lovers.
The government came to see Biko as a subversive threat and placed him under a banning order in 1973, severely restricting his activities. He remained politically active. During his ban he received repeated anonymous threats, and was detained by state security services on several occasions. Following his arrest in August 1977, Biko was severely beaten by state security officers, resulting in his death. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral.
Biko’s fame spread posthumously. He became the subject of numerous songs and works of art, while a 1978 biography by his friend Donald Woods formed the basis for the 1987 film Cry Freedom. During Biko’s life, the government alleged that he hated whites, various anti-apartheid activists accused him of sexism, and African racial nationalists criticised his united front with Coloureds and Indians. Nonetheless, Biko became one of the earliest icons of the movement against apartheid, and is regarded as a political martyr and the “Father of Black Consciousness”.
Our use of Biko’s quote, one which is intended to show solidarity with all those who are or have felt disregarded by the dominant culture, is intended to reflect the values of diversity and tolerance that our members seek to espouse and embrace in their approach to legal practice. This applies not just to race or colour, but to wider issues surrounding sexual identity and preference, disabilities and of course gender.