South African Anti-Apartheid Activist Stephen Biko Died in Police Custody Forty Years Ago Today

After Stephen Biko’s death following a brutal police interrogation in 1977, an atrocity that the South African government tried covering up, the anti-apartheid newspaper editor Donald Woods, who’d known Biko, quickly wrote and smuggled out of the country a manuscript* that was his combined biography of Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) he’d been a key leader of, and an exposé on the case. The book added fuel to the controversy in Western countries about the conduct of the corrupt regime. It was an amazingly timely and powerful book, and instilled in me a love for ripped-from-the-headlines books, the sort that I’ve been partial to ever since. Biko was published in 1978 around the time my siblings and parents and I were getting ready to open our bookstore, Undercover Books, and it was among the first books I ordered for our opening stock. With the scandal that ensued from Biko’s death, ownership of Woods’s book became a crime in South Africa. I was very proud we sold many copies in Cleveland. Woods lived many years in Britain, and was still on the scene when Nelson Mandela finally became free.

*When I said above that Donald Woods smuggled his manuscript for Biko out of South Africa, I could’ve added that he literally carried it out himself, in clandestine fashion, so it could be published in the West. He and his family fled the country in some sort of land cruiser sort, riding in back country, crossing a frontier where there was no guard post, into a neighboring country . A brave man with nerves of steel—Woods was determined to honor the memory and sacrifice of a true human rights martyr by first writing the book, and then putting his life, and his family’s lives, on the line to make sure the manuscript would make it to publication. That’s commitment!

 

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