Biko is the story of Steve Biko, a Black man, born December 18, 1946, in King William’s Town in South Africa. Early in his life, Biko envisioned a medical career but a growing interest in the politics of promoting racial justice caused him to forego this early ambition.He was either involved with or the leader of several organizations that strove for reform in SouthAfrica. It was his Black Consciousness movement, which he founded at the age of 21, that made him a real public figure.
What was this Black Consciousness movement that upset the ruling whites so much and made Biko a marked man?
We can begin by saying what Black Consciousness was not. It was not white hatred; it was not based on the inferiority or superiority of races; nor was it a communistic philosophy. It was, as the name implied a complete awareness of self. It encouraged Blacks to see themselves as complete human beings; to look inside themselves and see their innate abilities too thin for self — to reach their fullest potential. This they could do alongside whites — not under or over them. They would be free of manipulation and oppression and not be, says Biko, “An extension of a broom, or additional leverage to some machine.”
The white power structure labeled the movement subversive and terroristic. One that could cause a racial explosion at any time.
Biko continued his operations until he was arrested and accused of breaking banning orders. He had been detained before but this time it was different. In the hands of the police he was beaten to death at the age of 30.
The police reported that Biko refused to eat while detained and consequently died from hunger. However, after an inquest, South African fashion, it was discovered “the cause of death was brain injury which led to renal failure and other complication.” No one was held responsible!
Author Donald Woods feels that the entire system is responsible for Biko’s death. That the system should be indicted — the governing powers, the police, the judiciary and many doctors.
Donald Woods did not have to research his subject in the usual way. He shared a friendship with Steve Biko that went beyond mere observations, chance encounters and imaginary conclusions. This friendship that Donald Woods had with Steve Biko, whom he called “the greatest man that I ever had the privilege to know,” is appreciated when one considers Woods’ birth, rearing and education in racist South Africa.
Woods came from a background steeped in the belief that Blacks are inferior. He tells us what fractured this belief and made him a genuine liberal — some law study, a brush with politics and, finally, an interest in journalism.
As the editor of a paper that was anti-apartheid, he had no problem voicing opinions of the horrendous system. His newspaper was a forum for denouncing in-justices of the system.
Biko is an excellent piece of journalism. Donald Woods knows the art of getting to and presenting the facts. He knows the importance of including the reports of others who have something of substance to bring to the story. Woods’ wife, Wendy, also as a friend of Biko, did some on-the-scene reporting.
The book is both autobiographical and biographical. In order to tell Biko’s story most effectively, Woods had to reveal much of his own life story. Thus, one could understand how a black man and a white man in South Africa had such a unique involvement with each other.
This book makes the reader realize that distance does not make injustice any less unjust. Cruelty is no less cruel when it is thousands of miles away.
Biko By Donald Woods. Paddinton Press, Ltd. 288p.