18 December 2016

The Biko Bike Project

If you are a student in the University of Manchester (UK), you can rent a bike for one pound a week, with a 40 GBP deposit that's returned to you when you return the bike.

You have your choice of road bikes, mountain bikes or city bikes.   What they all have in common is their colour (it's in the UK, remember!) scheme:  The frame is yellow and the front fork is an Easter-egg purple.

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These bikes are rented by the Biko Bikes Project, organized by members of UM's Student Action, the self-described "volunteering arm" of the UM Student Union.  They are involved in community-based volunteer projects that help, among others, the homeless and refugees, and in cleaning up the environment. (Manchester was one of the first cities changed by the Industrial Revolution.)  The Biko Bikes Project aims to promote "the best mode of transportation":  cycling.

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The bikes are "rescued" by agreement with the university, having been abandoned in various places in and around the campus.  Then the bikes are stripped, painted an rebuilt by students who take the repair workshops the Project conducts.

In addition to bike repair, the Project also offers workshops in "bicycle confidence", in recognition that for many people, one of the greatest deterrents to cycling is the fear of traffic and other conditions they might encounter on a bicycle.  

The Project is named in honor of Steve Bantu Biko, who is considered one of the "martyrs" of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. 

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Like Frantz Fanon, he studied medicine but developed an intense interest in black consciousness, which led him to the organizing activity that would get him banned from the university in which he was studying.  The protests he organized culminated in the Soweto Uprising of June 1976.

A little more than a year later, on 18 August 1977, he was arrested at a police roadblock in Port Elizabeth under the Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967, enacted specifically as an attempt to thwart activists like Biko.  The arresting officers took him to a police station, where he was subjected to a 22-hour interrogation that included torture and beatings that sent him into a coma.  He suffered a major injury and was chained to a window grille for a day.

On 11 September, police officers loaded him--naked and manacled, and barely alive-- into the back of a Land Rover for an 1100 km (685 mile) drive to Pretoria, where there was a prison with hospital facilities.  He arrived the following day.  Not long after, he died.  The original report said he'd died of a long hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed, in addition to numerous abrasions and bruises, a brain hemorrhage from his massive head injuries.

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Were he alive, Steve Biko would turn 70 years old today.  The students at the University of Manchester could hardly pick a better person to commemorate than a man who "they had to kill" at age 30 to "prolong Apartheid".

Who made that trenchant observation?  Somebody named Nelson Mandela.

Update (23 December 2016):  Timothy Loh of Biko Bikes says that, for budgetary reasons, the bikes are no longer painted.  They still, however, are affixed with the Biko decal.

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