Inspirational Leaders: Steve Biko

I was 16 years old when I first heard the name Steve Biko. I was studying modern history at high school and my teacher felt it important that his students know ‘the other side’ of history as well as the mainstream story. So we learnt about Mao’s China and the Gang of Four and about South African Apartheid and Steve Biko. This was 1977 and Biko had just been assassinated. Although deeply moved and outraged by these events and particularly by Steve Biko’s story, after school I didn’t think again about Steve Biko for many years.


And then Nelson Mandela passed away and in a documentary about his life, a journalist mentioned Steve Biko as an often unrecognised figure who was instrumental in the fight against apartheid. I felt moved to reconnect with his story and began to read again about Biko and his life and work.


Biko was born in 1946. Initially a student of medicine and then a student leader, he went on to start the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko coined the phrase ‘Black is Beautiful’ to represent that change relied on black people respecting themselves as human beings.


Biko’s philosophy of change can be summed up in one of his most famous quotes: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Biko was instrumental in the beginnings of the Black Consciousness movement and the idea that increasing our awareness of our own situation and changing the way we think about ourselves is indeed a form of activism. Biko believed that change would only occur when black people changed their consciousness and the ways that they saw themselves. While black people continued to see themselves as inferior, real change would not be possible.


There is no doubt that the ruling party in South Africa was threatened by Biko’s approach and the impact that it was having on his community and the country. Such was the threat that the government made him a Restricted Person under South Africa’s banning decree. This meant that he was not allowed to speak in public or with more than one person at one time, he was restricted to his district and could not write or have any contact with the media. In addition, no one else could quote anything that Biko had said or written.


Steve Biko was assassinated by police while being held in custody in Port Elizabeth and enroute to Pretoria on 12 September 1977. Despite only being politically active for a short time, Biko changed the political landscape in South Africa. His legacy has continued in part because of his friendship with Donald Woods, a white South Africa who was a journalist at the Daily Dispatch and became a strong anti-apartheid activist.


Donald Wood’s book ‘Biko’ inspired the 1987 film, ‘Cry Freedom’, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, which told the story of Steve Biko and their relationship. This was the first time that a feature film had exposed the nature of South Africa’s apartheid in such detail and it’s screening had significant impacts around the world. Woods wrote his book ‘Biko’ in 1978 in secret having also been made a Restricted Person. He knew that its publication would violate his ban and it was clearly no longer safe for he and his family to live in South Africa so they fled to Britain where his anti-apartheid work continued as he lobbied the international community to impose restrictions on South Africa.


Donald Woods described the legacy of Steve Biko – “not to yield in the face of adversity, not to flinch from the biggest of challenges, never to surrender the great vision.”


Biko had a unique view about change and about what was required to change the conditions of black people’s lives in South Africa. We realise now that his ideas have far reaching application to so many social issues – the ways in which oppressed groups internalise the messages of the oppressors is applicable to all marginalised groups to some degree. For me, I can see the many ways in which my early introduction to Steve Biko and his ideas influenced my thinking and the development of my own ideas – without me realising for many years.


All too often when great leaders lead, they put their own lives at risk, for speaking out against what they know to be wrong and standing up for what they believe in. As a great leader and visionary Steve Biko is worth getting to know.