This Black History Month we remember South African anti-apartheid activist and socialist Steve Biko.
Biko was an essential figure in the movement to end white racist rule in South Africa, instrumental in the formation of the radical South African Students’ Association and was a leader in the Black Consciousness Movement.
Influenced by Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Malcolm X and the US Black Power movement, Biko emphasized the importance of challenging Black people’s internalized sense of inferiority. Biko argued that Black liberation would only follow once psychological liberation from the internalized acceptance of racial oppression was achieved, arguing that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.
This idea radically changed perceptions of the struggle against apartheid in a time many of its leaders like Nelson Mandela were locked up and repressed. Mandela said that Biko’s work “inspired oppressed people to recognize their own worth, take joy in their own humanity, and recognize – as equals – the humanity of others.”
Biko’s thinking helped free minds, revived and mobilized resistance and re-energized the declining movement against apartheid as militant young activists joined the exiled armed struggle, starting right after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, shaping the massive strikes in Durban in the early 1970s and inspiring the children of Soweto to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans in schools in 1976 which resulted in an uprising that caught the world’s attention.
As Mandela put it, the apartheid state was so fearful of Biko’s influence that “they had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid”.
In 1977, Biko was killed in police custody after a brutal interrogation and torture. Despite a political cover-up, the circumstances of his death were exposed, laying bare the violence of the apartheid state. His death led to greater international pressure against white minority rule, which together with the South African movement he helped inspire would end apartheid.