February 7, 2000
Steven Biko's Work Lives On In Son, In Nation

The Hartford Courant

Steven Biko often told his wife, Ntsiki, about the importance of conquering the fear of death.

South Africa's most famous martyr in the 1970's anti-apartheid and Black Consciousness movements also had this ominous warning for his wife: "He said she would be widowed by the age of 30," said Biko's son, Nkosinathi Biko.

Steven Biko's body was discovered in a Pretoria jail in 1977. Like his widow, he was 31. The cops initially said Biko died of a hunger strike. They later said his head struck a wall in a scuffle. Finally, in the country's Truth Commission hearings three years ago, police admitted severely beating Biko, but called his death an accident.

Biko's death made him an icon among black South Africans and helped hasten an end to apartheid years later. In South Africa, Biko's legend is matched only by Nelson Mandela's.

Nkosinathi Biko, 29, was in Storrs Thursday. He was one of the participants in the University of Connecticut's human rights conference, which brought together the children of civil rights and anti-apartheid leaders.

I asked Biko, whose facial expressions and countenance are strikingly similar to his father's, if the unresolved death makes him bitter. No one has been charged, though investigators have identified five police officers as those responsible. The Biko family is pursuing their prosecution.

"I would be playing into the hands and into the objectives of the killers of my father if I remain bitter," said Biko, who was 6 when his father died. "I think I have transcended them. I've gone beyond the experience, yet it is a painful experience. But I have unplugged the good elements. And I think I am miles ahead of the killers of my father in terms of my psychological position."

What sustains Biko, a free-lance journalist and marketing consultant in Johannesburg, is knowing that "my father's death was not meaningless. It is a known fact that in any war there would be casualties. And though he was a father I never had, he is a father that I will always have in many, many ways."

The oldest of Steven Biko's three sons is planning a museum and library of Biko's writings in his Eastern Cape birthplace.

Nkosinathi Biko is writing a book about his father, who was popularized in the movie "Cry Freedom."

Steven Biko was once quoted as saying: "The most potent weapon oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." He believed that black South Africans would not be able wrest political control of the country, which is about 80 percent black, until they stopped acting subservient to whites, who hold most the wealth.

Today, South Africa is six years and two presidents - Mandela and newly elected Thabo Mbeki - into a democracy. Investments are pouring in, but the white minority still controls much of the wealth and land. There is a small segment of black elite who are also prospering, Nkosinathi Biko said.

Large gaps in education quality and wealth remain. The rich go to the private schools, the poor attend inferior public schools.

"[My father] would acknowledge that we've made progress in South Africa," his son said. "He would certainly be slightly disappointed that we still have a lot more to cover. The challenges facing South Africans are still serious and very grave in nature. But I think he would acknowledge that we are moving in the right direction."

The revolution continues.