On September 12, 1977 Steve Biko - South Africa's most prominent anti-apartheid activist, intellectual, and leader of student politics - died in the custody of the apartheid government's security police. Both the security police and the apartheid state immediately denied any responsibility for Biko's death, and within weeks they had issued three different prepared accounts of how he died, claiming that Biko died from a hunger strike, had injured his own head, and had attacked the police and stumbled into a wall. A government sponsored inquest held in November of 1977 listened to further testimony from the security police who continued to deny that they had broken official protocol and harmed Biko. Despite an abundance of evidence showing that Biko was tortured and severely beaten, the legal system under apartheid never held the security police formally accountable for their actions. Over the last thirty years, the contested details of Biko's death have reemerged again and again in a broad variety of political contexts and historical moments, making Biko as famous and controversial a figure in death as he was in life.
Despite his importance, there has been little variety to the academic study of Steve Biko, and scholarly examinations largely place any discussion of Biko within broader political and social histories of the 1970s. In these accounts, Biko is seen as the founding intellectual behind the Black Consciousness Movement that developed and came to prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s, and his death has often stood as a closing moment for this period in which Black Consciousness thrived. My dissertation argues that it is possible to continue a study of Biko beyond the moments of his death and to take seriously the ways in which Biko continued to provoke significant political and social debate in the aftermath of his death. Instead of focusing on Biko's death as a passing moment on a timeline of events, I look at how the meaning of the event played out across multiple time periods, and figured into broader debates about apartheid's systems of power and repression over the last thirty years.
My dissertation explores how differently positioned people - police officers, government employees, politicians, journalists, biographers, medical doctors, playwrights, religious leaders, political activists, museum curators, and many others - have revisited and detailed the event of Biko's death. For those commentators who took an interest in reconstructing, interpreting, and speculating about the conditions of Biko's death, the lack of trusted facts provided a critical space to formulate lasting critiques of the past and to imagine a new future - not only by shedding light on what the security police likely did to Biko, but also in using their reconstructions to make larger political and moral arguments about the apartheid project. The study makes two related arguments. The first argument is that the ways in which members of the apartheid state clung to the details of Biko's death was fundamentally linked to a unique historical context in the late-1970s when the apartheid state increasingly utilized detention, torture, and the concealment of information about the fates of detainees to suppress dissent. This combination of practices came as the apartheid state gave increased power to the security police forces in order to respond to new forms of political dissent and resistance. The second argument is that despite the apartheid state's best attempts to control knowledge of Biko's death, critics of many sorts closely combed over the available details to compose historical arguments that challenged the apartheid state's claims, histories that in turn opened up new avenues of political thought and action.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. September 2010. Major: History. Advisors: Allen F. Isaacman and Tamara Giles-Vernick. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 211 pages.
Bucher, Jesse Walter.
Arguing Biko: evidence of the body in the politics of history, 1977 to the Present..
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