• Anti-apartheid activists Walter Sisulu, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo. (Getty Images/AAP)Source: Getty Images/AAP
You've heard of Nelson Mandela but how about some of the lesser known but vital anti-apartheid activists like Biko, who would have been 70 this week and owned the slogan "black is beautiful".
Alyssa Braithwaite

20 Dec 2016 - 2:57 PM  UPDATED 20 Dec 2016 - 4:53 PM

When you think of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, most people think of Nelson Mandela. 

But while Mandela undoubtedly played a central role in the liberation movement in South Africa - which saw apartheid eventually overturned in 1991 after more than 40 years of the regime of racial oppression and segregation - he is not the only person worth recognising and remembering. 

People like Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo are some of the lesser known anti-apartheid activists whose contribution deserves to be more common knowledge.

This week, on what would have been Steve Biko's 70th birthday (December 18), Google have paid tribute to the activist and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) with a Google Doodle on show in several countries around the world.  

"On the 70th anniversary of Biko’s birth, we remember his courage and the important legacy he left behind," Google says. "Thank you, Steve Biko, for dedicating your life to the pursuit of equality for all." 

Nicholas Wolpe is the founder of the son of prominent anti-apartheid activist Harold Wolpe, and founder of the Liliesleaf Trust, a farm-turned-museum in Johannesberg where members of the African National Congress met in secret to plan their underground activities in the early 1960s. 

He believes it is time to educate people about the lesser known heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.

"We focus too much on Mandela," Wolpe tells SBS. "That's one of the reasons why our liberation struggle and America's civil rights movement have failed to deliver, because it's been reduced to one individual.

"It means that those who supported, who were actively involved and played just as critical a role have been isolated, marginalised and completely forgotten. Nelson was that iconic symbol of the struggle, but he was one of a group. He may have been the leader amongst leaders, but there was still many great leaders: Moses Ktana, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and many more - and we've lost sight of that." 

Steve Biko

Steve Biko was an activist and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, and became known for his slogan 'black is beautiful'. He died in police custody when he was just 30, some 14 years before his goal of bringing down apartheid rule in South Africa was achieved in 1991.

Biko was targeted by the South African authorities and in 1973, was banned from speaking at public gatherings or even talking to more than one person at a time. Undaunted, he continued organising protests, and was instrumental in the 1976 Soweto student protests that saw 170 people, mainly children, shot dead for protesting against being taught Afrikaans - the language associated with the apartheid government.

Biko was arrested at a road block in 1977, stripped naked, placed in manacles for 20 days, he was taken to the Security Police headquarters in Port Elizabeth. Subject to an interrogation which included torture and beatings, Biko suffered a major head injury and died from severe brain damage alone in his cell in 1977.

Mandela said of Biko: "They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid". 

Walter Sisulu

The South African freedom fighter was a key figure in the ANC in the 1940s, and was the one to bring Mandela into the organisation.

He was elected as ANC secretary general in 1949, and called for a series of strikes and boycotts to protest apartheid laws, and played a key role in the formation and planning of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’).

In 1952 he devised a plan of civil disobedience and called for blacks to openly disobey the government, with the aim of overcrowding the jails. 

Arrested and jailed several times, he went underground with Mandela in 1963. They were both arrested later that year at Liliesleaf, along with other anti-apartheid leaders, convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. He was released four months before Mandela, which signalled the beginning of the end of apartheid

When he died in 2003, aged 90, the ANC called him "a giant of the liberation struggle and one of the founding fathers of South Africa's democracy", while Mandela said: "His absence has carved a void. A part of me is gone."

Oliver Tambo

After joining the ANC, Tambo became a founding member of the ANC Youth League, along with 

In 1952, Tambo opened the first black law firm in the country with Mandela, the Johannesburg-based Mandela and Tambo.

He deliberately broke apartheid laws during the ANC's Campaign of Defiance and in 1955 he was arrested and accused of treason. In 1959, when he was served a five-year banning order, he left South Africa and set up a Mission in Exile. He went on to serve in exile as acting president, and then elected president, of the ANC.

Throughout the 1970s he promoted the cause of the ANC worldwide, including an address to the United Nations, in which he said: "We have a vision of, and we fight for, a future South Africa in which national oppression will be abolished once and for all, in which racism in whatever form it rears its ugly head will be suppressed with all the might of popular power. We fight to restore power to the hands of the people."

Tambo spent more than 30 years in exile (1960-1990) and died in 1993 at the age of 75 after suffering a stroke.

Students protest South African high school for discriminating against natural hair
Students at a South African private girls' school have rallied under the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh after allegedly being denied to wear their natural Afro hair at school.
Does racism make us sick?
While most people would assume being the victim of racism can’t be good for us, being a perpetrator of racism is also bad for our health.
Racism: moving beyond tribalism
The reality of racism lies in what it does to an individual and the personal devastation it wreaks.