Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Steve Biko, South Africa Martyr

Steve Biko was 30 when he died in South Africa detention, Sept. 12, 1977

I remember seeing the permanent wooden sign across the highway going into Greenville, Texas that boasted in huge letters to have the blackest land and whitest people in Texas. In Brownwood’s Coggin Ward School I learned that neighboring Comanche County had no blacks. Going through town on a train was dangerous for “darkies” as white bigots called them.

That brought me to thinking about a black hero who gave his life that his people could be considered human beings. Sunday, Sept 12, is the 33rd anniversary of the murder of South Africa’s Steve Biko.

South Africa’s Apartheid government was dismantled in 1990. World opinion was slow to close in. The change began with the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990. For the first time people of all races were allowed to vote. In 1994 Nelson Mandela, over 25 years a prisoner of the system, was elected president.

Apartheid (an Afrikaan word meaning ‘apartness’) control evolved as a force after World War II. The system was based on the complete segregation of the races. Townships and villages dismantled, blacks moved out to slums. They could work for the whites but had to be out of town before dark. There was no justice for indigenous peoples.

The white man knew, based on their view the Holy Scriptures, that he was superior to all other races and set about keeping them ignorant and apart.

First, a little background on the southern tip of Africa. In the late 16th century the English and the Dutch trading companies challenged each other for a stopover on the continent’s southern tip. They went the sea route because the Arabs controlled the land routes to the spices of India and the East Indies. English and Dutch stayed apart but never liked each other.
The Boer Wars of 1880-1 and 1899-1902, were fought between the British and the descendants of the Boers (Dutch settlers in South Africa) decided who would “own” the black man’s land. It took two wars to decide which white overlord would head a government. The Second Boer War ended with promised eventual self-government for the Boers (which never came). The blacks, Zulus and others were in for a century of hell in their own homeland.
This Sunday, September 12, is the anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko in a South Africa prison. He was one of South Africa's most significant political activists and a leading founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement. The uprisings of 1976 brought about his arrest along with thousands of others. His death in police detention in 1977 led to his being hailed as a martyr of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He was but 30 years old.

His struggle gave hope to the masses who were not just segregated but harassed, beaten and killed at the whim of the white superiors.

In a speech in Cape Town in 1971, Biko said: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

Since the evil of one race over another seems to be having a revival here and around the world, I thought it time to remind us of a man who rose above the others and proclaimed all men equal.

“Cry Freedom” by South African journalist Donald Woods tells how he is forced to flee the country after attempting to investigate the death in custody of his friend the black activist Steve Biko. Denzel Washington plays Biko and Kevin Kline is Donald Woods. Worth reading and is a well-made film.

Another South African journalist, Alan Paton, wrote “Cry, The Beloved Country” with insight into how difficult life is in Apartheid South Africa. He tells of a South African preacher’s search for his wayward son. The book was made into a move by the same name, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. A moving story.

For inspiration and information, Nelson Mandela’s book “A Long Walk to Freedom” is at the top of the list of books on South Africans.

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