On this day, the 14th of November in 1977, the inquest into the death of Black Consciousness leader, Steve Bantu Biko, opened in Pretoria.
Steve Biko was arrested together with his associate Peter Jones in August 1977 for being outside his district after hours and because the police had ”reason to believe” he was distributing inflammatory pamphlets. Biko had also violated his banning order as he had travelled to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape, his home area. They were arrested under Section 6 of the 1967 Terrorism Act that allowed indefinite detention without trial for the purposes of interrogation in solitary confinement. He was held, naked and with little food, in a Port Elizabeth police station from August 19 to September 6 1977.
Sometime before the morning of September 7, he suffered a head injury that would eventually be cited as the cause of his death five days later. This resulted from what would be described by the policemen, Harold Snyman (who has since died), Daniel Petrus Siebert, Jacobus Johannes Oosthuysen Beneke and Rubin Marx as a “scuffle” which erupted between them and Biko. On 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in a prison cell in Pretoria after having been driven there at the back of a police van naked for 700 miles.
Bikos’ was the 45th known death connected with detention by the security police since 1963. However, the case of Biko was unique as he was a rising icon, symbolising Black Consciousness, an ideology which had become the voice of the anti-Apartheid movement at a time when both the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress had been banned.
When the Minister of Police James Kruger announced the death, he said that it was as a result of a hunger strike. However, reports of cover-ups and medical neglect triggered so much international outrage that the Government ordered an inquest to prove that there had been ”no act of omission” involving any person in authority. It began in Pretoria’s Old Synagogue courthouse in November 1977, and lasted for three weeks. Both the running of the inquest and the quality of evidence submitted came in for extensive criticism. The security forces alleged that Biko had acted aggressively and had sustained his injuries in a scuffle, in which he had banged his head against the cell wall.
Three senior medical practitioners, District surgeons employed by the government, Doctors Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang, examined Biko and gave evidence during the inquest. They admitted that they thought the patient was malingering despite evidence of neurological damage. Dr Ivor Lang later admitted that he wrote out a “highly incorrect” medical certificate at the request of Colonel Goosen of the security police. In spite of this, the presiding magistrate accepted the security forces’ account of events and refused to prosecute any of those involved, concluding that no one was responsible for the death.
In 1997, then President Nelson Mandela’s government considered reopening the inquest into the death of Biko if a pending Truth Commission hearing on applications for amnesty from five of his self-confessed assailants led to new evidence.
In February 1999, Steve Biko’s family welcomed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s decision not to grant amnesty to the policemen involved in the death of Biko. The committee dismissed the application by the four former Port Elizabeth security policemen for amnesty for Biko’s death in custody. The TRC committee found that the policemen, did not qualify for amnesty because their actions in Biko’s death could not be associated with a political objective. The committee was also not satisfied that the men made a full disclosure of the facts.
The panel also officially declared the next of kin of Mr Biko as victims (of gross human rights violations) in relation to his killing and therefore entitled to appropriate reparation. The committee concluded that the attack on Biko appeared to have been actuated by ill-will or spite towards him. However in 2008, AZAPO (Azanian Peoples Organisation) accused the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of not doing enough to uncover the truth behind Biko’s death. The organisation believes South Africa set a bad example to the world by not bringing perpetrators to book.
On the 40th anniversary of his death in September 2017, there were renewed calls for the inquest to be re-opened in the light of the Ahmed Timol Inquest of July 2017 which was seen by some as a precedent that needed to be followed.
- Hoffenberg. ‘The Steve Biko Inquest.’ The British Medical Journal . Vol. 1, No. 6105 (Jan. 14, 1978)