Friday, February 27, 2009

Stephen Biko (re-up from Myspace)

With Black History Month winding down, I'd figure I'd share something I wrote 2 years ago on MySpace about one of my heroes, South African activist Stephen Biko. Didn't know about until A Tribe Called Quest's "Stir It Up" and Dead Prez "I'm An African" name-dropped him but once I did a school project on him in college, he became one of my heroes. This is what I wrote about him:

"It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die" - Steve Biko.

If you look at my heroes section, Stephen Biko is one of the people I name. I did a leadership project on him my last semester of school and I found him to be one of the most compelling people I've ever met. Most people largely don't know who he is but once you hear his story, you wont forget it

Stephen Biko was born in 1946 in South Africa. He was born to well-to-do parents and grew in a society ruled by apartheid, the segregationist philosophy that plagued South Africa until 1990. Imagine the situation for Black people in America before the Civil Rights Movement. Now imagine it to be way more explicit and actually supported by the government instead of just implicitly here. But just like here, protests against apartheid were already set in motion. Nelson Mandela and others had already become enemies of the state because they were vocal in their opposition and tried to get their people to realize their full potential as human beings not just second class citizens.

This was Biko's world. He was on his way to becoming a doctor and perhaps lead a quiet, safe life that was the easier choice of resistance. But political seeds had already been planted in his life. In 1963, his brother went to jail for illegal activity and the police brought him in for questioning. As a result, he was expelled from school and in the process, began to distrust authority. He went on to continue his medical schooling in 1966 at an all-black school but he could not ignore his true calling to be an activist.

In 1967, he became involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a multi-racial coalition against apartheid. At their annual convention, Biko became an outspoken critic of how the black delegates had segregated facilities and how only the white students were the outspoken voices of NUSAS. His passion, frankness, and eloquence attracted many black students who felt the same way and in 1969, Biko helped to create the South African Student's Organization (SASO). Its mission was to be a Black-only student group that would speak on Black issues. Biko became the first president and his combination of passion and eloquence made him attractive to Black South Africans who needed another voice to speak for them and it also made him an enemy of the state.

One of the things Biko was critical of was white liberals who tried hard to prove themselves to Blacks how liberal they were but still enjoying the benefits of their whiteness. Basically, they would talk about how "down for the cause" they were but still enjoying their status as 1st class citizens. Something Biko said that made me think was that if whites wanted to prove themselves as true friends, they would try to speak to their fellow whites about the evils of apartheid and not just do in front of Blacks. It's a philosophy that makes sense in any type of activism if you think about it…

Under the pen name Frank Talk, Biko published several essays outlining his views and proposals for a better South Africa. He believed that Blacks had to overcome the psychological problems of thinking they were 2nd class citizens and then they had to embrace their culture and all that came with it. He wanted them to have a pride in themselves (just like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X did in America) and realize their worth as a people. But of course, this wouldn't fly with the government. He was arrested often and in 1973 was placed on the banned list which means he could not speak in public, meet with more than one person, be quoted in newspapers, and was forced to stay in his hometown. But his work already made a deep impact on the Black South African community and his movement would inspire the infamous Soweto riots of 1976. Biko himself preached and practiced non-violence as the way to achieve his success, but don't just compare to him to MLK and Gandhi. He used nonviolence as a tactic not a true philosophy.

In 1977, Biko was imprisoned for the final time. During this time, he was brutally tortured. He was chained to a steel grate at night, beaten often, slept in own his urine, and was stripped naked. After a month of this, he was transported to another cell and during the long drive, he began to suffer brain injuries from his beatings. The day after he arrived at his new cell, he died at the age of 30, a victim of brutal police brutality. In death, he became a martyr for his people and his friends (black and white) kept his message alive until the end of apartheid.

Over his life, Biko was involved in community programs and created a trust fund to help the families of political prisoners. He also created a fund to help black students achieve their education. More than anything, he wanted to help Black people determine their own destiny and use their voice to speak their mind. He was hugely influential to a new generation of South Africans who would not be kept back (similar to those here in 60's America influenced by the Civil Rights Movement to start the Black Panthers and other groups). Peter Gabriel wrote a moving, haunting song "Biko" in his memory that would inspire the Sun City protests and other apartheid protests in the 1980's.

In 1987, the movie "Cry Freedom" was made about him and his journalist friend Donald Woods. Denzel Washington gave an Oscar-nominated performance portraying him and the only reason I have not seen it yet is because from what I researched, the movie is more about his friend than Biko himself (still a great story about him escaping South Africa from what i heard).* It's a shame though, because Biko's story is deserving of a starring role because he is a compelling figure with a great story and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Gandhi, King, X, and Mandela.

*UPDATE: I did see half of it last year and I was impressed with it. Look forward to seeing it all the way through now.

He is one of my heroes and mentors and I thank my leadership professor for letting me do this project. I'll let him have the final words that I believe sum up the driving force behind his work

"In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face."

****If you want to read some of his writings, I recommend "I Write What I Like" which is a great window to see his what really went on his mind****

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully written... I first learned of Stephen Biko from the Disney Channel. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school when I saw their made-for-tv movie The Color of Friendship. It wasn't about Biko, but Congressman Ron Dellums.