Biko & the South African Student Organisation

This evening the University of KwaZulu-Natal will host their annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, to commemorate the 41st anniversary of Steve Biko’s death.

The crowd at Steve Biko's funeral

The crowd at Steve Biko’s funeral

On the 18th August 1977, Biko and his associate, Peter Jones, were stopped at a routine road block near Grahamstown. When the police recognised the men, they were arrested under the Terrorism Act which gave the police the power to detain suspects indefinitely without a trial or court appearance. Less than a month later, on the 12th September 1977, Steve Biko died from a massive brain haemorrhage, the result of prolonged torture at the hands of the police. The explanation given at the time by the Minister of Justice and Police, Jimmy Kruger, was that Biko had died whilst on a hunger strike.

Steve Biko was instrumental in the formation of the South African Student Organisation (SASO), which was headquartered at 86 Beatrice Street in Durban (now Charlotte Maxeke Street). SASO, which was a break away organisation of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) was heavily influenced by the University Christian Movement (UCM) which focused on Black Theology. Black Theology or ‘Liberation Theology’ preached racial equality and emphasised the fact that blackness and inferiority were not a punishment, nor a condition created by God.

SASO newsletter, 1972

SASO newsletter, 1972

But Biko, who was studying medicine at the then University of Natal, was not content with the UCM. He and his fellow learners observed that while the majority of the UCM members were black, the leadership structure was mostly made up of whites, seemingly contradicting the primary message of Black Theology. Subsequently in 1968, during a UCM meeting, it was decided that there was a need to form an exclusively black student organisation, and a conference was organised which saw the birth of SASO. The following year, in July 1969, SASO held its inaugural national conference, during which Steve Biko was elected as its first president.

The decision to break away from NUSAS was also motivated by the emergence of Black Consciousness, a philosophy borne out of  Black Theology, and founded by Biko. Black Consciousness rejected the idea that white people could play a role in the liberation of black people. Biko and his colleagues felt that the black population needed to learn to speak for itself.

Initially SASO adopted a conciliatory tone towards NUSAS, deeply concerned that breaking away from NUSAS would alienate it from those black students who were committed to working with the student organisation. But as time passed Biko and his colleagues became more militant in the expressing of their views. As SASO grew in both confidence and numbers, the apartheid government began to view the organisation and its members as a serious threat, and in 1973 the Minister of Justice issued banning orders to eight SASO leaders, including Steve Biko.

In 1974, SASO was listed as an ‘affected’ organisation under the Affected Organisation Act, denying it any foreign funding, and on the 19th October 1977, just a month after the death of Steve Biko, SASO and its associated Black Consciousness organisations were banned.

While it seems that there were no attempts to move the party underground, the ideologies and political objectives of SASO were adopted by successive organisations such as the South African National Students’ Congress, and the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). Today AZAPO supporters marched to Pretoria Central Prison (now named the Kgosi Mampuru Correctional facility), the site of Steve Biko’s untimely death.

Members of AZAPO view the 12th September as a public holiday, underlying the importance of the contribution that Biko made to the country’s fight for freedom:

Biko’s contribution to the liberation struggle remains unmatched. He championed mental freedom, but more importantly dealt with fear, which enabled hundreds of thousands of young people to confront the brutal apartheid system with nothing but sheer courage. Issue 28 of Azapo Voice

Images courtesy of and

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