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Steve Biko on Death

The South African martyr tells how it will happen.

Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images

What follow are excerpts from a conversation tape recorded several months ago between an American businessman and Steve Biko. Biko, the South African black liberation leader, died while under arrest by the South African government last September. A government inquest recently exonerated the police of any wrongdoing. Biko begins by discussing the black youths killed during the Soweto riots, and goes on to talk about his own earlier arrest. At the time of this conversation Biko was free, but (as will become clear) choosing his words carefully.

Interviewer: [Tanzanian President] Nyerere was on US television a couple of months ago and made the statement that, "The only power the oppressor has is to be able to say 'I will kill you,' and as soon as the oppressed says 'go ahead and kill me,' he loses his power."

Steve Biko: Right. That's absolutely correct. And of course, you see, the dramatic thing about the bravery of these youths is that they have now discovered, or accepted, what everybody knows, that the bond between life and death is absolute. You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can't care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing. So you die in the riots. For a hell of a lot of them, in fact, there's really nothing to lose—almost literally, given the kind of situations that they come from. So if you can overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you're on the way.

And in interrogation the same sort of thing applies. I was talking to this policeman, and I told him, "If you want us to make any progress, the best thing is for us to talk. Don't try any form of rough stuff, because it just won't work." And this is absolutely true also. For I just couldn't see what they could do to me which would make me all of a sudden soften to them. If they talk to me, well I'm bound to be affected by them as human beings. But the moment they adopt rough stuff, they are imprinting in my mind that they are police. And I only understand one form of dealing with police, and that's to be as unhelpful as possible. So I button up. And I told them this: "It's up to you." We had a boxing match the first day I was arrested. Some guy tried to clout me with a club. I went into him like a bull, I think he was under instructions to take it so far and no further, and using open hands so that he doesn't leave any marks on the face. And of course he said exactly what you were saying just now: "I will kill you." He meant to intimidate. And my answer was: "How long is it going to take you?" Now of course they were observing my reaction. And they could see that I was completely unbothered. If they beat me up, it's to my advantage. I can use it.

They just killed somebody in jail—a friend of mine—about ten days before I was arrested. Now it would have been bloody useful evidence for them to assault me. At least it would indicate what kind of possibilities were there, leading to this guy's death. So, I wanted them to go ahead and do what they could do, so that I could use it. I wasn't really afraid that their violence might lead me to make revelations I didn't want to make, because I had nothing to reveal on this particular issue. I was operating from a very good position, and they were in a very weak position. My attitude is, I'm not going to allow them to carry out their program faithfully. If they want to beat me five times, they can only do so on condition that I allow them to beat me five times. If I react sharply, equally and oppositely, to the first clap, they are not going to be able to systematically count the next four claps, you see. It's a fight. So if they had meant to give me so much of a beating, and not more, my idea is to make them go beyond what they wanted to give me and to give back as much as I can give so that it becomes an uncontrollable thing. You see the one problem this guy had with me: he couldn't really fight with me because it meant he must hit back, like a man. But he was given instructions, you see, on how to hit, and now these instructions were no longer applying, because it was a fight. So he had to withdraw and get more instructions. So I said to them, "Listen, if you guys want to do this your way, you have got to handcuff me and bind my feet together, so that I can't respond. If you allow me to respond, I'm certainly going to respond. And I'm afraid you may have to kill me in the process even if it’s not your intention.”

Interviewer: How did they deal with that?

Biko: Well, the next day, everybody was telling me that they are not going to hit me at all. They don't use that form of interrogation, and so on. I was interrogated with my cigarettes next to me, smoking, sitting down, talking, being given coffee and tea. That's because they had assessed my response. I told them, "I regard being forced to stand a form of torture. I'm not going to stand and answer your questions. I don't do that normally. It's got to be as normal as possible if you want to continue."

When I went into jail, as I said, my friend had just died. He was the 24th person to die in jail since 1973. When I came out, they were talking about number 27. And this is happening increasingly now, because of the frustration the police are having. They want quick information. Now, there is an extent to which a person can absorb beating without revealing information. But sometimes it so happens that, in fact, the person being assaulted doesn't [have the information]. And they simply go on and on and on hoping to get to the point where this guy will just have to give in. They go on and on with a towel around your neck saying "Speak"—and you say nothing—"Speak"—you say nothing—and the bloody brutes are not trained well enough to realize when enough is enough. So by the time they release the towel you have probably been dead for a couple of minutes. They have not realized it, they are in such a frenzy. Now I've never experienced it myself, as I say. The guy who assaulted me really and truly could have done it in the street. It was a fight, let's put it that way.

Interviewer: One last thing. What do you see that those in the United States who support the struggle of the people in South Africa can do?

Biko: It's a difficult question. The most useful contribution would be mounting pressure on the United States government to take the most radical policy toward South Africa. I'm an advocate, absolutely, of isolation of the country in virtually all spheres. Now the United States is seen as a sufficiently important country for South Africa to want to please most of the time and I think America can afford to make preconditions to any exchange they have with the country. [Regarding] investments, for instance, I would speak in terms of total disengagement, but I know this is not a realistic hope. The tendency is to spak in terms of minimum conditions under which investment should continue. I would also talk of cultural boycotts, certainly the level of sport, music, and so on. The whole question of diminishing the level of bilateral trades, except on certain conditions would also be important. These are all obviously compromise things I'm talking about. [It] is said that America must not be involved at all, to the point of not even having a diplomatic form of representation here. You see what I mean when I say Russia [has] clean hands: they just don't have a damn thing here. They've got no representative. They've got nothing that they owe the country. No form of bilateral trade. But America has a long history [of relations] so they have got to cut back on what they have done. And of course the other thing is the use of the American vote in the Security Council, especially the veto. One wants to see them using that veto very sparingly, and certainly not to let it spoil whatever pressure programs are being built up by other people through the United Nations.

I think individuals could assist in making the issue a little bit more topical, because the more topical it is in the States, the more it can he used for pressure purposes. Many Americans just don't know where South Africa is, who Vorster is. They couldn't be bothered right now. But then we are having, or we will have here, a Vietnam situation at some stage. There is no doubt about that if America continues the present policy. This situation here, I think, should begin to be seen in the same sort of light. I cannot speak on behalf of liberation movements because we have chosen to operate on a different plane, not because I condemn what they are doing. We don’t pass any judgement on what they are doing. We are operating within a country which has restrictive laws that stop you even from commenting positively on what happens at the borders. So I don’t want to say to you assist [one liberation group] and not [another] or that I approve of [one] and not [the other]. But I do think they have their own spokesmen and it’s an area that should be looked at. That’s all I can say, you know.

Now, it is difficult, of course, because, this can only be done really through government channels. So what it implies For the individual is building up within the United States a consciousness that lives of whole population groups are being brutalized by the system out here and that there is complete exclusion of blacks from the political process, and what it means.