I was 21, when the film ‘Cry Freedom’ came out in 1987 –writes Mtr Kate in our series on black people who have inspired us. I’d heard of Nelson Mandela, but not Steve Biko. ‘Cry Freedom’ covered his friendship with the white South African journalist Donald Woods. He was portrayed in the film as charismatic, principled, loyal family man, and very persuasive in his arguments. As with many other biopics, there is a tendency to deify and whitewash the uncomfortable parts of the lives of our heroes, and Steve Biko’s life was treated in the same way, more’s the pity.
Like many of us, Steve Biko was not a saint, and if we placed his personal relationships under the microscope….well, let’s just say, he wasn’t a saint!
Steve was raised in a poor Xhosa family, and excelled academically. He won scholarships which aided his education. 1966 entered the “non-European” section of the University of Natal Medical School in Durban. Whilst at university, he became an outspoken advocate for civil rights. His political activism was his real passion, at the expense of his studies. He left university in 1972 without completing his course.
Steve Biko was heavily involved in the Black People’s Convention, raising awareness of Black Consciousness and setting up local community projects to encourage education and welfare. The government placed him under a banning order in 1973, preventing him from speaking in public, or being quoted in the press, and was also unable to leave King William’s Town. Steve was not a naïve man and was well aware of the risks of continuing to speak out, yet that did not stop him.
In September 1977, after breaking his banning order, Steve was arrested. 6 days later he died in police custody from unexplained severe brain injuries. He was 30 years old.
Our approach to people’s lives can be very binary – are they good or bad? We are all much more complex than that. We all do things we shouldn’t, but should that define us? Steve Biko was no saint, but he was a man of tremendous courage, who spoke truth to power, who loved his community. He was a man willing to die for his belief that ‘Black is beautiful’.