On Death by Steve Biko

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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.”