Stephen Biko

South African Freedom Fighter (1946–1977)
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Along the road to freedom in South Africa, many did not live to see the day of victory. Steve Biko is among the most honored martyrs of the struggle. Through the Black Consciousness movement that he inspired, he worked to foster a spirit of pride and self-reliance—a refusal by Blacks to see themselves through white eyes. This included a challenge to the Church—to overcome the legacy of colonialism and discover “what the Christian faith means for our continent.” 

Biko was subjected to “banning”—a unique South African punishment designed to render a person invisible. It was illegal for his picture or his words to be published in South Africa; he was required to report constantly to the police; he could not meet with more than two people at a time. Thus, most whites knew him only through the caricature drawn by his enemies. Though he struggled without weapons, the government recognized that his effort to promote a liberation of consciousness was a threat to the system of white supremacy. 

Biko was arrested in August 1977. After 26 days in custody the government announced his death, supposedly from self-inflicted injuries. An inquest determined he had died of severe brain damage sustained during his incarceration. Rather than take him to a local hospital, the police had driven him, naked and in leg irons, to a prison hospital 750 miles away. Still, the inquest refused to assign responsibility to the government. His vindication came 17 years later when Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of a free South Africa, was inaugurated. 

“It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” 

—Steve Biko 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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