Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Steve Biko: Murdered by South African Cops On this Day in 1977

Steve Biko, South African socialist and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, was murdered by the cops 43 years ago today. His legacy lives on in the critically important contributions he and BCM made to the struggle against apartheid.

Scott Cooper

September 12, 2020
Facebook Twitter Share

On September 12, 1977, South African police murdered Bantu Stephen Biko — known to the world as Steve Biko. He was a few months shy of his thirty-first birthday. An important leader of the anti-apartheid movement, he had been arrested a month earlier at a police roadblock after violating his banning order — which forbade him from traveling.

Steve Biko was a leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), a tremendously important part of the anti-apartheid movement that is far less known than Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). The BCM emerged from grassroots activists in the period following Mandela’s imprisonment and the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.

Initially linked to Christianity, it very rapidly became what was arguably the most radical element of the anti-apartheid movement. “Black Consciousness” — a specific rejection of white liberals and their “condescending” values — was expanded by Biko and others into a powerful ideology centered on smashing apartheid and moving South Africa to socialism. In 1968, Biko spearheaded the founding of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) as an alternative to the multirace National Union of South African Students. SASO took up Black Consciousness as its central tenet. Strongly influenced by the Black Power movement in the United States, Biko popularized the slogan “Black is Beautiful” in South Africa — and worked tirelessly to promote the ideas of Black Consciousness as widely as possible.

The BCM adopted “Black man, you are on your own” as a rallying cry, and taught at every turn that what people needed to confront was “the System” that propped up apartheid — and that it was more than just a racist system, but also a capitalist system of exploitation. In 1972 and 1973, the BCM played a central role in a large protest and strike wave that broke out, especially in the city of Durban, and that eventually involved more than 100,000 workers. The BCM’s participation, and especially its powerful call for Black leadership of unions, led in part to a government clampdown. Virtually the entire leadership of SASO was banned, with the government describing as “treasonous” the development of “consciousness” by Black South Africans. 

It was the BCM that sparked the Soweto uprising of Black schoolchildren in 1976 — a key moment in the anti-apartheid struggle — against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in Black schools. That uprising, and the massacre of 176 demonstrators by the South African Security forces in response, spurred rebellion across South Africa.  

Biko wasn’t at the Soweto uprising, because in 1973 the South African government had placed him under a banning order, characterizing him as a subversive. This placed harsh restrictions on his activities and ability to travel in the country. He did violate the ban several times, leading to being detained and beaten on multiple occasions.

The specific circumstances around Biko’s death in 1977 are notable. He had traveled to Cape Town, where one of his aims was to meet with Neville Alexander — a Trotskyist leader in South Africa. Alexander refused the meeting, not for political reasons but because he suspected that police monitoring of Biko’s movements would put him at risk, as well. On the way back, Biko and his traveling companion Peter Jones confronted the roadblock and were taken into custody. Biko was murdered by the cops on September 12; Jones was held for 533 days, interrogated and tortured repeatedly before being released.

The importance of Black Consciousness to the ultimate victory of the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa cannot be overstated. The BCM played a significant role in unraveling many of the social restraints that apartheid placed on Black people in general and that had repercussions within the struggle. For instance, it empowered regular folks in the townships to recognize that they did not need to wait for exiled or imprisoned leaders to liberate them, and that their own mass action was necessary, in the streets, to fight the apartheid regime. BCM leaders preached a sort of “fearlessness” that led to numerous confrontations with police and the army; these emboldened people and made the overall movement even stronger by demonstrating to the state that people were “ungovernable” under apartheid.

Almost without exception today, Trotskyists in South Africa — no matter the international organization with which they may be affiliated — trace their political origins in their own country back to the Black Consciousness Movement.

On this day, the anniversary of his murder by the cops, we declare: Steve Biko, Presente!

Facebook Twitter Share

Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

Middle East-Africa

The United States Is Trapped in the Middle East

As a result of Israel’s offensive on Gaza, the United States is again becoming deeply entrenched in the Middle East. This is a humiliating blow to President Biden, who promised to reassert U.S. imperialism by moving away from direct involvement in the region.

Samuel Karlin

February 22, 2024

With Rafah in the Crosshairs, the Working Class Can Stop the Genocide in Gaza

As Israel prepares an invasion of Rafah, workers’ organizations around the world must take action before it's too late.

James Dennis Hoff

February 21, 2024
Aftermath of Israeli bombing of Rafah, Gaza.

Israel Told Palestinians to Evacuate to Rafah — then Bombed Them

After instructing civilians to evacuate south, Israel has bombed the southern border city of Rafah. It’s not about eradicating Hamas — it’s ethnic cleansing.

Sou Mi

February 12, 2024
Scenic sunset over the Mediterranean Sea

Yearning Waves: A Palestinian’s Tale of Dreams and the Stolen Sea

A Palestinian shares his pain and sadness over the hoops he must jump through in order to experience his own land.

MOST RECENT

Aaron Bushnell and the Potential of GI Dissent

A 25-year-old U.S. Airmen self-immolated in solidarity with Palestine. His sacrifice illustrates the potential for troops to break with imperialism.

Samuel Karlin

February 26, 2024
All That's Left, the podcast from Left Voice.

#AllThatsLeftPod: Two Years of War in Ukraine

On this episode of the podcast, we discuss the war in Ukraine after two years, and the continued need for an independent, working-class solution.

Left Voice

February 24, 2024

The Organic Crisis in 2024: This Year’s Election Is a Battle for the Hearts and Minds of U.S. Workers

The battle between Trump and Biden is being shaped by a crisis of the political regime, requiring the intervention of both the judiciary and the union bureaucracy. The battle for the presidency is a battle for the working class and a battle over which approach to imperialism is best for competing with China and reestablishing US hegemony. As usual, the Democrats are taking up the cudgel of democratic rights in order to rally disaffected voters.

Sybil Davis

February 23, 2024

The Tide Is Turning: New Yorkers Are Speaking Out for Palestinian Liberation

New York's anti-zionist movement is is rising up and speaking out for Palestinian liberation.

Ana Orozco

February 23, 2024