Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years.
Sobukwe was put in isolation six years and subsequently banned.
But they killed Steve Biko at age 30. Why?
Biko by Donald Woods and the movie Cry Freedom are a good place to start answering that question. Woods, an English speaking editor and anti-apartheid writer, became a friend of Steve Biko in the desire to hear the other side of the story. His search took him to places and relationships he never imagined. And he discovered things about himself that shook his complacency. He says: “Few white South Africans shared our anti-apartheid view, and even for many of us who described ourselves as liberal, a long political road had to be traveled away from racism. This was certainly so in my case.”
This long political road is a significant theme in Wood’s book which is first of all a tribute to his friend, Steve Biko, and second a beautiful account of an unlikely friendship against all odds, and which flourished and won. Beyond death.
The movie, Cry Freedom, was produced in 1987, ten years after Biko was murdered. Apartheid still reigned and fear of reprisals still valid. The book was written in the two shattered months after Biko’s murder and is necessarily riddled with deep emotion. However, it does not lose grip of the message. Woods manages to hone in on the man, Steve Biko, even as he mourns his friend and South Africa’s lost son. His tribute is simple and comprehensive:
My most valued friend, Steve Biko, has died in detention. He needs no tributes from me. He never did. He was a special and extraordinary man who at the age of 30 had already acquired a towering status in the hearts and minds of countless thousands of young blacks throughout the length and breadth of South Africa. In the three years that I grew to know him my conviction never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country, and quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know. (Donald Woods)
The book concentrates at length on the risks frequently taken by Biko to build up the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and develops the unlikely friendship between the white editor and black patriot. The movie takes a less personal angle, creating a more powerful political statement. Vivid footage of bulldozers razing squatter camps as well as police invasions of townships provide testimony to the brutality of the system. There is none of the hand-wringing and pity-provoking dialogue that could weaken the impact. Instead, the movie gives the reality of township life from character’s lips, then moves on. Biko’s murder was deliberately underplayed, making the point even more powerfully. Watching it again, almost 30 years later, I was impressed at the restraint used. In recent times, directors need plenty of gore and carnage to shock their audience. Rather than subjecting us to the speculative nature of Biko’s torture, we are confronted with his untimely death and the outrageous claims of the men who killed him.
The book generously presents the Biko-Woods friendship and how Woods grew through it, culminating in Biko's death and Woods' investigation to prove the murder. In the movie, Biko dies half way through, and the second half of the story then focuses on Woods’ escape from South Africa and supplies the requisite close calls and chase to qualify it as an adventure.
Both book and movie underline the most obvious misapprehension of Biko and Woods: that they were safe because of Woods’ color and Biko’s high profile. They did not know that they were up against not merely misguided racists, but “the mortal enemy, who stopped at nothing, who committed the ultimate outrage.” (Woods) The murder of Biko changed the tenor of the fight against apartheid because it was a wake-up call that the rules could be changed at a moment’s notice and rationale would be subsequently supplied. Deaths in detention had been an ongoing issue, but since most were low-profile people, they simply disappeared. Biko’s death spot-lighted this outrage and at the end of the movie, a list of people who died in detention is supplied along with alleged reasons for death.
So: Why did Biko have to die?
What made him so dangerous?
Why was he too dangerous to isolate or lock up on Robben Island?
Black Consciousness was Biko’s dream. For him, it was the daring re-taking of identity by blacks in order to know themselves and change their lives. Biko describes it thus:
The first step, therefore is to make the black man see himself, to pump life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth. This is what we mean by inward-looking process.
Biko’s dream was to enable blacks everywhere to look inward: recognize what they saw and lovingly embrace it. To do that, he had to regain their minds, dulled and blinded by a system which ground them down from birth.
The most important weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Biko
And Bantu Stephen Biko was out to take that weapon back.