Steve Biko was a high profile anti-apartheid activist in the 1960s and 70s. He was an influential student leader, and later founded South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which sought to empower and mobilize the black population.
Biko was born in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape in December 1946. After school, he began a medical degree at the University of Natal, where he was actively involved in student politics. He was initially very active in the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), but became increasingly frustrated with its overwhelmingly white power structure. In 1968 Biko helped to establish a new organisation specifically for black, Indian and Coloured students, the South African Students Organisation (SASO). SASO’s agenda included political self-reliance and the unification of university students in a "black consciousness." He was elected as SASO’s first President.
Black consciousness sought the “cultural and political revival of an oppressed people.” Biko’s writings and activism attempted to empower black people, and he was famous for his slogan "black is beautiful." By 1971, BC had grown into a formidable force throughout the country. In 1972, Biko was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities. He became honorary president of the Black People’s Convention.
In 1973 Biko was placed under a banning order by the apartheid government. Under the order, he was confined to King William’s Town, was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, and could not write publicly or speak with the media. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said. Biko nevertheless continued to advance the work of Black Consciousness in the King William’s Town area. He organised literacy and dressmaking classes and health education programmes, and set up a health clinic outside King William’s Town for impoverished rural black people.
The BCM played a significant role in organising the protests which culminated in the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976. Following the uprising, repression intensified. On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock, under the Terrorism Act 1967. He was interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police, over a period of 22 hours. During this time, he was brutally tortured, and beaten into a coma. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a day. On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a van, naked and manacled, and began the 1100 km drive to Pretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September. The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions together with brain hemorrhaging as a result of massive head injuries.
Biko's death met with international condemnation. His funeral was attended by over 10,000 people, including numerous ambassadors and diplomats. The following year, 1978, the Attorney General of the Eastern Cape stated that he would not prosecute any police officers involved in the arrest and detention of Biko.
I Write What I Like contains a selection of Biko's writings from 1969, when he became the president of SASO, to 1972, when he was prohibited from publishing. Originally published in 1978, the book was republished in 1987 and April 2002. The 1987 movie Cry Freedom is a biographical drama about Biko, starring Denzel Washington.