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Biko: An immensely civil comrade who left a deep inconsolable hole

Activists and friends share memories of the man behind the Biko legend

10 September 2017 - 00:00 By ROBIN COMLEY

Peter Jones was the last of Biko's comrades to see him alive. The two were arrested together at a roadblock in Grahamstown on August 18 1977. Less than a month later Biko would be dead, leaving Jones irrevocably shattered by the news.
"Steve Biko will always be a larger-than-life image in my mind - unafraid of others or of his own feelings, and brutally honest, even about his own shortcomings," says Jones. "The intense time I shared with him made me love him like the big brother I didn't have.
"He was immensely civil and respectful, to the extent that his comrades would question why he insisted police first sit down in his house before he would allow them to engage with him."The night we were arrested in Grahamstown and eventually locked up in the same cell, we talked mainly about how Steve would now be charged with breaking his banning order and how I would be placed in the invidious position of having to refuse to give testimony against him.
"It was exactly three weeks and two days later that I heard that Steve had died. It was the day of the funeral and that night hundreds of funeral-goers and other people ran riot in Zwide township. Many young people were arrested and brought into the police cells.
"Above the noise and protest singing, someone shouted to me: 'Hey! Who's there?' I gave my name and immediately there was screaming and shouting.
"Then they told me they had been at Steve Biko's funeral ... I got off the pot I was standing on and went to sit on my mat.
"It felt like a huge hole in my soul, a deep inconsolability that many years later still had me weeping at the most unexpected moments."
What have we done?
Dr Saths Cooper is a clinical psychologist who became close to Biko when he was studying at University College, on Salisbury Island in Durban. He was jailed on Robben Island along with activists Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota and Nkwenkwe Nkomo when they discovered Biko had died.
"I was on Robben Island when Steve was killed," says Cooper. "Dullah Omar was our corresponding attorney, and prison authorities refused to let him consult with all of us prisoners after Steve's death - only with Patrick "Terror" Lekota - so it was he who brought the news to us.
"Each of us - in single isolation cells - was stunned. Eventually, Nkwenkwe Nkomo broke out into Senzeni Na? [What have we done?] and all of us joined in singing.Two 'Zulus' were at the door
In the late 1960s, Brigitte Savage was the wife of US vice-consul to South Africa John Savage when she got to know Biko and fellow activist Ben Ngubane.
"My oldest daughter, Julie, was born in a - white, of course - hospital in Durban in 1968," she recalls. "A day after the birth, a delegation of administrators appeared to inform me that two 'Zulus' were at the door, insisting on seeing me. I asked them to let my visitors in, but they said the 'Zulus' had demanded to see the baby as well.
"After some yelling on my part, Steve and Ben Ngubane were ushered in. Tiny Julie was produced and I remember her sleeping contentedly in Steve's big hands. A restless baby, she was suddenly calm."
• 1946: December 18
Bantu Stephen Biko is born in Tylden, in the Eastern Cape, the third of four children. He is brought up in Ginsberg, King William's Town, and attends the Charles Morgan Primary School and Forbes Grant Secondary School. His father dies when he is four, forcing the family to live off his mother's wages as a cook.
• 1961: Age 15
He joins his elder brother Khaya at Lovedale College but is expelled because of Khaya's political activities. According to Khaya, "the great giant was awakened". Biko moves on to attend St Francis College in Mariannhill, Natal.
• 1966: Age 19
Attends the University of Natal (non-European section) at Wentworth as a medical student.• September 6
Biko sustains a massive brain haemorrhage resulting from a brain injury. He was beaten up by no fewer than five policemen. After suffering the brain injury, he was still kept in a standing position.
• September 7
Police call in district surgeon Dr Ivor Lang, who finds "nothing wrong" with Biko, despite his badly swollen face, hands and feet. Instead, Dr Lang alleges that Biko is "shamming". Another district surgeon, Dr Benjamin Tucker, is summoned for his opinion. He suggests Biko be taken to hospital.
• September 10
Biko's condition has deteriorated alarmingly. Dr Lang recommends he be driven more than 1,000km to the prison hospital in Pretoria.
• September 11
Biko is put in the back of a Land Rover, naked and manacled. He is driven for more than 12 hours from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria.
• September 12
Biko dies, naked on a mat on a stone floor in aprison cell. The minister of justice and police, Jimmy Kruger, claims Biko died of a hunger strike. Kruger proclaims to laughter: "I am not saddened by Biko's death and I am not mad. His death leaves me cold."
• September 25
Thousands of mourners attend his funeral at the Victoria Stadium in King William's Town. Buried at the Garden of Remembrance. 
• Source: Steve Biko Foundation..

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