Thirty years ago on September 12, 1977, Steve Biko, the charismatic leader of Black resistance to apartheid, succumbed to injuries inflicted by the South African Police while being held in detention.
Biko was detained on August 18 under the Terrorism Act, which allowed the police to hold a person for an indefinite period without access to a lawyer or notification to family and friends.
Biko was held and beaten in police custody in Port Elizabeth. When it was apparent that he would die, panic overcame his torturers and he was transported, in the back of a Land Rover, 1,200km to Pretoria Central Prison, where he succumbed to his wounds.
Biko founded and was the first President of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in 1968 and was elected the first President of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) in 1972, an organisation he also helped to found. The BPC brought together over 70 different black consciousness organisations which became known as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Biko also helped establish the Black Community Program (BCP) for which he worked.
Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977. He was the 45th person to die in detention while being held under the Terrorism Act. He was 30 at the time of his death.
I met Steve Biko at the urging of Desmond Tutu (then Bishop of Lesotho) and Donald Woods who was then editor of the East London, Daily Dispatch. This occurred some months after my arrival in South Africa, which was on July 2, 1976, to take up an appointment as Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy in Pretoria.
In the time between my arrival and that meeting I moved rapidly across an emotional spectrum from being offended, to a loathing of apartheid as an organised and cruel system of oppression designed to entrench white privilege.
I was the first diplomat in South Africa to meet with Biko. My initial meeting with him was in King Williams Town on January 13, 1977. He struck me as a natural leader, a person who would be elevated within what ever company he kept.
We had a discussion which lasted four hours. I sent a long record of conversation back to Canberra. These are a few excerpts:
I met Biko, who is tall, good looking, and quietly spoken … at his suggestion we drove out of town to a quiet and secluded area of the surrounding veldt. He said the BCP office was bugged. During his recent detention, the Security Police had referred to conversations which had taken place there. Biko mentioned that one of the “the group” working at the BCP office, Mapetla Mohapi, had been taken into custody in August 1975 and was found dead in his cell a few days later … from the post mortem it appeared that Mohapi had been killed by the Security Police …
On the drive to the secluded area we discussed the current political and economic situation in Australia. He was well informed and questioned me closely on the events which had led to Mr Whitlam’s dismissal. I asked why he had such an interest in Australia, and he replied that, together with the Scandinavian countries, Britain and America, Australia was a country to which he looked to see how things were being done on a broad range of issues in particular how the process of democracy was evolving to cope with the demands of technology … Biko led the discussion throughout and commenced by giving a brief thumb-nail sketch of what he felt would be the likely course of events in southern Africa.
Nine months later Biko was dead. However over that period we had quite a bit to do with each other. I was able to secure embassy funding for the BCP library in King Williams Town. It was an important political gesture. The Australian Embassy, and thereby the Australian Government, was the first to give a donation to the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa.
In his book Biko Donald said: “… Steve (Biko) told me he had taken a liking to Bruce and had been completely candid with him. I might add that the feeling was mutual, and that Bruce became a firm friend of us both.”
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