On 18th August 1977, two men were arrested at a routine roadblock near Grahamstown in South Africa, and the events that followed would make headlines right around the world.
The detainees were Peter Jones and Steven Bantu “Steve” Biko; the latter having been involved in the foundation of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) through the creation of the South African Student organisation (SASO) in 1969. The movement heightened awareness of, and resistance to apartheid—the process of post-War racial segregation and discrimination. Steve Biko was a charismatic leader and speaker, and his involvement with BCM and profile across South Africa resulted in a government order, forbidding Biko to leave the area around his home in King William’s Town.
The arrest (under the 1967 Terrorism Act) came outside that restricted zone. The pair were taken to the nearby police station where Biko revealed his name to officers; Jones having refused to identify his associate, as he was only too aware of the consequences. The brutal reputation of the security police at the time was well known, as was the state’s apparent ability to cover-up the torture of political prisoners.
Subsequently interrogated at the police headquarters in Port Elizabeth for alleged involvement in the distribution of “subversive” material, Jones would not be released for nearly eighteen months, having suffered numerous beatings and solitary confinement.
It seems almost ironic to say that Jones was “lucky”, but the fact is that at least he survived.
Biko was kept naked and manacled for almost three weeks before being transferred to Port Elizabeth. Rumours had reached the security police that Biko has been treated with some element of respect by officers in his home town, and that on one occasion he had actually punched a senior officer whilst in detention. On arrival therefore, Biko was duly forced to remain standing, and was forcibly hauled back to his feet when he sat down.
Despite trying to defend himself, officers then punched Biko, hit him with a hosepipe and ran him into a wall. Biko collapsed—possibly as a result of a brain haemorrhage—yet officers kept him upright, shacked to a security gate, and did not call for medical assistance for another twenty-four hours.
During that time, the interrogation continued, despite Biko now speaking with a pronounced slur. A doctor named Lang belatedly examined Biko, but recorded no external injuries, despite the obvious wounds that had been inflicted to his face, and badly swollen hands and feet. A subsequent lumbar puncture revealed blood-stained cerebrospinal fluid, indicating likely neurological damage. The “official” report claimed the test was normal.
Lang’s senior colleague, one Dr. Tucker wanted Biko to be taken to hospital, but yielded to police pressure. Eventually, the decision was made to take Biko to hospital—in Pretoria, a small matter of several hundred miles away. Chained to the floor of a Landrover, and unconscious, Biko was driven the twelve hours to the South African capital, where he passed away the following day: “A miserable and lonely death on a mat on a stone floor in a prison cell.”
The minister of justice and the police, Jimmy Kruger, initially issued a statement that Biko had died from a hunger strike, withdrawing his explanation after the post mortem offered evidence that Biko had sustained serious head injuries. Describing the death of Steve Biko during a National Party Congress address, Kruger proclaimed: “I am not saddened by Biko’s death, and I am not mad. His death leaves me cold.”
News of Biko’s passing, and Kruger’s remarks reverberated around the world.
Deaths in detention in South Africa had happened before. Most were passed off as suicides, accidental injuries or natural causes, but such was Steve Biko’s profile that his tragic demise was never going to be simply brushed under the carpet...
However, with interrogation legally carried out behind closed doors, the police were always likely to get state protection during any investigation, and despite there being plenty of international pressure to determine the true causes of Steve Biko’s death, all the complicit officers and doctors escaped conviction during the 1977 enquiry.
Many years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that between 1960 and 1990, 80,000 people were held under legislation that allowed indefinite detention. Of those, seventy-three were believed to have died in custody, with the commission uncovering systematic torture and abuse that was conveniently overlooked as an “official practice”.
I wouldn’t profess to understand the full extent and consequences of apartheid, and I appreciate that twenty-first century South Africa is far removed from the country that existed towards just a few short decades ago , but today I pay my own small tribute to the bravery of Steve Biko, and to the other seventy-two courageous black South African’s whose arrest would lead to much more than the loss of their liberty.