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South Africa Marks 30th Anniversary of Anti-Apartheid Icon's Death


South Africans are marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, who died while in police custody. The occasion is being marked this week by speeches, memorial services and conferences on the anti-apartheid leader. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg.

Thirty years ago Wednesday, Steve Biko, one of the most charismatic leaders of South Africa's black liberation movement, died of head injuries in a police cell in Pretoria.

He had been taken - naked and unconscious - to Pretoria in the back of a truck from the southern city of Port Elizabeth, a 12-hour ride. The 30-year-old activist had been detained and tortured after ignoring an order meant to prevent him from engaging in public activity.

His death sparked a wave of international outrage at the heavy repression of dissent in South Africa at the time.

Obene Amponsah of the Steve Biko Foundation says Biko influenced black people everywhere by giving voice to their hopes and frustrations and turning these into action and deeds.

"He was the main force behind the development of the Black Consciousness Movement in terms of articulating the worth of black people, not necessarily as the anti-thesis of being white but being of value in and of itself, and the contribution that black people had and would continue to make to the world," she explained.

She says Biko took his ideology beyond words and turned it into scholarship programs, childcare centers and social projects many of which exist today.

She adds that his thoughts were welcomed internationally and as a result there are Steve Biko centers in Brazil and the United Kingdom, and he is remembered among advocates of black power in the United States.

Although Biko's ideas began primarily as a movement, it led to the creation of political parties and other organizations.

Biko was born in 1946 into a modest family in King William's Town, near Port Elizabeth. He attended local schools and enrolled as a medical student at the University of Natal.

He soon became active in student politics. He helped found the South Africa Student's Organization, which advocated a more activist role in the struggle against apartheid, and wrote a column called Frank Talk.

In the 1970s he helped found the Black People's Convention and labor and community organizations.

His activities led to a banning order which confined him to his home town and forbade him from speaking in public, attending large meetings or being quoted. Nevertheless he continued his work until his arrest in Capetown in August 1977 and death the following month.

Amponsah of the Steve Biko Foundation says Biko's ideas went beyond politics.

"One of the things that we are [observing] this year, the 30th anniversary of Biko's death, is really the contemporary relevance of Biko, his legacy and notions of black consciousness," she said.

The Foundation is sponsoring a conference this week in Capetown to examine areas of importance to blacks globally, such as culture, economic opportunity and equality, African identity, political freedoms and spirituality.

The conference is being attended by South African President Thabo Mbeki and numerous political, religious and civic leaders.

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