Biko


Stephen Bantu Biko was an African leader under apartheid in South Africa. He founded the Black Consciousness Movement which helped empower and mobilize much of the urban black population against apartheid. After his murder while in police custody, he became a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement

September ’77
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja[^1]
The man is dead
The man is dead

He was banned by the apartheid government in February 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, was restricted to the King William’s Town district, and could not write publicly or speak with the media. The rest of South Africans were forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.

When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead
The man is dead

On August 18, 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under South Africa’s Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619 of the notorious Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings. A major head injury resulted in a coma. Semi-conscious, he was chained to a window grille for a day.

On September 11, 1977, police loaded him in the back of a van, naked and restrained in manacles, and drove him 680 miles to a prison in Pretoria that had hospital facilities. Nearly dead on arrival at Pretoria, he died shortly after arrival at the prison, on September 12. He was just 30 years old. This is the 39th anniversary of Stephen Biko’s arrest.

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead
The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are watching now, watching now

– “Biko,” by Peter Gabriel,1980

Stephen Biko’s death as much as anything else drew the West’s attention to the political violence of the Afrikaaner system of racial segregation and the cruelty associated with it. The publicity by Biko’s friend and journalist, the late Donald Woods (who was eventually himself banned and forced to flee his homeland) was an important factor. Peter Gabriel’s passionate song about a man he had never met, a song he used to close his concerts for years, was another important piece of anti-apartheid, which led to the economic sanctions against the South Africa and, after too long, to the dismantling of apartheid.

Don’t ever say music can’t change the world.

 

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