Steven Biko, leader of South Africa’s “Black Consciousness Movement,” dies of severe head trauma on the stone floor of a prison cell in Pretoria. Six days earlier, he had suffered a major blow to his skull during a police interrogation in Port Elizabeth. Instead of receiving medical attention, he was chained spread-eagled to a window grill for 24 hours. On September 11, he was dumped, naked and shackled, on the floor of a police vehicle and driven 740 miles to Pretoria Central Prison. He died the next day. In announcing his death, South African authorities claimed Biko died after refusing food and water for a week in a hunger strike.
Steven Bantu Biko, born in 1946, was the most influential anti-apartheid leader of the 1970s. As a medical student in 1968, he founded the all-black South African Students’ Organization with the aim of overcoming the “psychological oppression of blacks by whites.” Similar to the “Black Power” movement in the United States, Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement stressed black identity, self-esteem, and self-reliance. In the 1970s, Black Consciousness spread from the university communities to black communities throughout South Africa.
In 1972, Biko helped organize the Black People’s Convention, and in the next year he was banned from politics by South Africa’s white-minority government. As a “banned person,” he was forbidden by law from speaking in public or being quoted, leaving the area around King William’s Town, and being in the company of more than one person at a time. However, he continued to oppose apartheid covertly and was arrested four times during the next few years and held without trial for months at a time.
On August 18, 1977, he was arrested with another activist at a roadblock outside the small town of Grahamstown on his way to a political meeting in Cape Town. Taken to a prison in Port Elizabeth, he was stripped naked, manacled to a grate, and forced to lie on a filthy blanket for 18 days. On September 6, he was brought to the Sanlam Building, where police tortured prisoners as a means of interrogation. Five security officers took Biko into room 619 for interrogation. When he emerged, he was in a semiconscious state, having suffered severe head trauma that left him with multiple brain lesions. His injuries were left unattended, and he was chained, standing up, to a window grill for 24 hours.
On September 7, two government doctors finally examined Biko and found him hyperventilating, frothing at the mouth, and unable to speak or stand. They pronounced him fit to travel. On September 11, Biko, by then comatose, was thrown naked and chained into the back of a police truck, which drove 10 hours to Pretoria in the north. Dropped in a cell in Pretoria Central Prison, he succumbed to his injuries on September 12. He was 30 years old.
South African authorities attempted to cover-up the circumstances of Biko’s death, saying he starved himself on a hunger strike. They later claimed he died of kidney failure. Finally, when the findings of a postmortem were made public, they said he might have “hurt his head when he fell out of bed.” A judicial inquiry found no one responsible for his death and most of the policemen who interrogated Biko were promoted.
Steven Biko was hailed as a martyr in the anti-apartheid struggle, and his death became an international rallying point against South Africa’s repressive government. In November 1977, the United Nations voted a partial arms embargo against South Africa. U.N. resolutions calling for sweeping economic and military sanctions against South Africa were vetoed by the United States, Britain, and France.
Apartheid was abolished in South Africa in 1991, and in 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first black head of government. The following year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to examine apartheid-era crimes. In exchange for full confessions of politically motivated crimes, the TRC promised amnesty for those who came forward. In 1997, the five former security officers who interrogated Steven Biko on September 6, 1977, applied for amnesty from the TRC.
One of the former officers, Daniel Siebert, said in his application to the TRC that he and two other officers ran Biko headfirst into a far wall of the interrogation room. Several of the officers spoke of Police Colonel Gideon Nieuwoudt striking Biko with a pipe. However, when the men testified before the TRC shortly before the 20th anniversary of Biko’s death, they claimed, in conflicting accounts, that Biko had injured himself in a scuffle. They said that the handcuffed Biko lunged at them during the interrogation and struck his own head against the wall. They said they didn’t provide immediate medical attention to him because they thought he was faking his injuries.
In February 1999, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission denied the men amnesty, saying that the former officers’ version of Mr. Biko’s death was “so improbable and contradictory that it has to be rejected as false.” With the exception of murder, there is a 20-year limit on prosecution of criminal charges in South Africa. It is unlikely that the former officers will face trial.