IV - The Death of Steve Biko
Biko was arrested for the last time on 18 August 1977 and Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
On 14 September, the Rand Daily Mail carried the report of his death:
Mr. Steve Biko, the 30-year-old black leader, widely regarded as the founder of the black consciousness movement in South Africa, died Monday (12th).
Mr. Biko, honorary president of the Black People's Convention and the father of two small children, is the 20th person to die in Security Police custody in 18 months.
The Mail report went on to quote a statement that the Minister of Justice, Mr. James Kruger, had issued the previous day:
Since 5 September Mr. Biko refused his meals and threatened to go on a hunger strike. He had been regularly supplied with meals and water, but refused to partake thereof.
On 7 September a district surgeon was called in because Mr. Biko appeared unwell. The district surgeon certified that he could find nothing wrong with Mr. Biko.
On 8 September the police again arranged for the district surgeon and the chief district surgeon to examine Mr. Biko and because they could diagnose no physical problem, they arranged that he be taken to the prison hospital for intensive examinations. On the same day a specialist examined him.
The following morning he was again examined by a doctor and kept at the hospital for observation. On Sunday morning, 11 September, Mr. Biko was removed from the prison hospital to Walmer police station on the recommendation of the district surgeon. He still had not eaten on Sunday afternoon and again appeared unwell. After consultation with the district surgeon it was decided to transfer him to Pretoria. He was taken to Pretoria that same night.
On 12 September Mr. Biko was again examined by a district surgeon in Pretoria and received medical treatment. He died on Sunday night.
This was an unusual statement. It is not customary for the Minister to comment on the death of a detainee, nor is it usual for details to be given concerning a detainee's illness and doctors' visits. It seemed as though the Minister was trying to forestall any anticipated outcry about Biko's death.
But the statement raised more questions than it answered. The notion of a hunger strike, so out of keeping with Biko's response to persecution, was itself bizarre, and inevitably recalled other unlikely police explanations, as when Nichodimus Kgoathe was said to have died from broncho-pneumonia following head injuries allegedly sustained when he fell while taking a shower, or when Solomon Modipane died after having 'slipped on a piece of soap'.
Then, taking the story at its face value, how could a hunger strike of only six days by a person in good health and normal weight (Biko was, in fact, overweight) so speedily have resulted in death? That was quite incredible. And why, if nothing could be found physically wrong with him, was Biko examined by so many doctors, and removed to a hospital?
The statement contained one germ of truth when it said that on 7 September 'Mr. Biko appeared unwell'. This suggested—correctly as it turned out—that something happened on 7 September to make Biko 'unwell', hence all the subsequent examinations. The cause of his apparent ill-health became known at the post-mortem examination. For the time being the public could only suspect that the police version of a hunger strike, like so many explanations of detainees' deaths in the past, was an attempt to shift the blame for the death onto the detainee himself.
"His death leaves me cold" — Minister of Police
On 14 September Minister Kruger addressed a Nationalist Party Congress. To this he gave a larger and less formal, less restrained version, in his native Afrikaans"'. He said:
I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you. Any person who dies ... I shall also be sorry if I die. (Laughter).
But now, there are a lot of scandal stories and all sorts of positions are now taken against the South African Police. And even if I am their Minister, Mr. Chairman, if they have done something wrong I shall be the first man to take them before the courts. They know it.
But what happened here? This person was arrested in connection with riots in Port Elizabeth. Among other things they were busy with the drafting and distribution of extremely inflammatory pamphlets, which urged people to violence and arson.
Now I mention this fact, not because I want to criticise someone who is dead. I have respect for the dead. But I mention this fact to prove that we were justified in arresting this person . .
On the 5 September they were finished with [the questioning of] the other man and then they came to him [Mr. Biko]. And they began to question him.
Then he said he would go on a hunger strike. He first said he would answer their questions. They should give him a chance for a quarter of an hour. After a quarter of an hour, he said no, he would go on a hunger strike.
And indeed he began to push his food and water away –that were continually given to him so that he would freely eat or drink. It is very true what Mr. Venter [a congress delegate] said about prisoners in South Africa having the 'democratic right' to starve themselves to death. It is a democratic land.
We are now asked 'When you saw he went on hunger strike- why didn't the police force him to eat?' (Laughter).
Mr. Chairman, can you imagine that these same people who smear the police day and night because they touched this man—and there's a mark on his foot, and there's a mark on his ankle, and here's a mark behind his ear and it must be the police—do you think the police must still force that man to eat?
No Sir, I say now categorically on behalf of the police. If I was there I would have said. Do not touch him, but would have said, Call a doctor….
That day the district surgeon came. On the 9 September the man still lay there lay there on the mat. And then police said: Don't just call the district surgeon, call the chief district surgeon. Let him come and look at this man.
The first district surgeon wrote a letter to the detective to say 'There's nothing wrong with him'. The chief district surgeon and the district surgeon told the Security Police: 'Man, there is nothing wrong with this man' . . . .
Do you know what we brought in? We brought in a private specialist. We had a specialist with this man. We said, 'Look at this man'.
And on Sunday, 11 September, after we had had all those doctors and specialists, then the district surgeon said, 'Man, send him to one of the bigger hospitals'. . . .
[Mr. Kruger then described how Steve Biko was brought to Pretoria Prison because there was a larger Prison Hospital there. And h ow that some night the was put in the care of the district surgeon.]
Later that night—there is a peephole in these places, so that the people do not hang themselves ….
Incidentally, I can just tell congress, the day before yesterday one of my own lieutenants in the prison service also committed suicide and we have not yet accused a single prisoner. (Laughter).
And when this man came to look in the peephole he saw that the man was lying very still. And he did not touch him and did not open the door. He did nothing. Because he also knows that if you touch him they say 'Your finger-print is there, what did you do?' He left the man. I do not blame him. He went back and told a man: 'The man is lying dead still. There is something wrong'. And they summoned the doctor and they found the person was dead . . .
But, Sir, I just want to tell the congress and I want to tell the Press. I expect nothing from them [the press].
I know. Sir, I know because I have it in documents, that they are going for us.
They will search for nooks and crannies (gatjies en plekkies). Whether they will find them, I don't know. We are also only people.
But from my point of view, on the facts that I have, it looks to me as if what had to be done was done.
... I say to you as Minister, that I cannot see how we could have acted differently (Cheers and applause.)
Death in Detention — Die Burger
In an editorial 17 the government-supporting newspaper Die Burger said:
The death of detainees in South Africa is an emotional matter which generates much heat. But never before has it been as bad as in the latest case of the black power activist Steve Biko. Concern over detainees' deaths becomes deep dismay when the hysterical propaganda against authorities is observed...
A vehement campaign is in progress which surpasses all previous protests.
The venomous suggestions are of such an extravagant nature that it fills an objective observer with trepidation . . . The purpose is to discredit the security police . . .
The presumptuous condemnation is voiced on the grounds of unconfirmed suspicion, regardless of the fact that previous investigations have brought to light the fact that detainees frequently took their own lives or died of natural causes .. .
If deaths occur, it must be possible to prove ever more emphatically that it happened completely outside the control of the authorities.
It is imperative, for the sake of everyone's feeling of humaneness and justice, and for the sake of South Africa, which is being besmirched in such a terrible way.
Police have never been responsible for killing or torturing a single detainee — South African Broadcasting Corporation, 16 September 1977
In a radio broadcast for abroad, 18 the SABC said:
The death of 30-year-old Mr. Steve Biko while in detention appears to be receiving wide publicity but before people begin jumping the gun with condemnation it is necessary to consider the facts of the situation and not all of these have been disclosed as yet.
Mr. Biko, who can be regarded as a leader among certain radical black elements in the country, was arrested in mid-August. . . From 5 September he refused meals and threatened a hunger strike. [There follows a brief outline of the number of doctors who visited Biko]. Should Mr. Biko's death be the result of suicide it would fit into a pattern, which has become common among detainees in South Africa. In recent years there have been a large number of deaths by suicide in South Africa among detainees . . .
However, numerous detainees, who have been detained following communist training and indoctrination, have testified that they receive specific instructions to commit suicide rather than divulge information to the police. The result is that in the past 18 months seven detainees have died as a result of hanging and three others have jumped from the windows of high buildings. Police say it is virtually impossible to stop a man determined to commit suicide from doing so and, in any event, the suicides arc sometimes totally unexpected.
To their critics the police point out that so far a court of law has never established that the police have been responsible for torturing or killing a single detainee, although all cases are thoroughly investigated. For any reasonable person confronted with this type of anti-South Africa propaganda the question must arise: where South Africa is spending millions and moving mountains to improve her image would she wilfully and purposefully allow something like this to happen to destroy all the good work that has been done? The answer must be: No.
Biko the greatest man I have ever known — Donald Woods
In a newspaper article 19 editor Donald Woods wrote:
My most valued friend, Steve Biko, has died in detention. He needs no tributes from me. He never did. He was a special and extraordinary man who at the age of 30 had already acquired a towering status in the hearts and minds of countless thousands of young blacks throughout the length and breadth of South Africa.
In the three years that I grew to know him my conviction never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country, and quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know.
Wisdom, humour, compassion, understanding, brilliancy of intellect, unselfishness, modesty, courage—he had all these attributes. You could take the most complex problem to him and he would in one or two sentences strike unerringly to the core of the matter and provide the obvious solution . . .
I once went to Mr. J. T. Kruger and begged him to lift the restrictions on Steve and to speak to him. The result of that visit was an increase in Steve's restrictions and a state prosecution against me.
He always came out of such ordeals [detention] as tough as ever and as resiliently humorous about the interrogation sessions. He had a far closer understanding of his interrogators' fears and motivations than they will ever know, and with almost total recall he recounted to me the full range of their questions. Many were simply incredible . . .
The government quite clearly never understood the extent to which Steve Biko was a man of peace. He was militant in standing up for his principles, yes, but his abiding goal was a peaceful reconciliation of all South Africans, and in this I happen to know he was a moderating influence.
Addressing a meeting of more than 1,000 people, held to mark the death in detention of Mr. Biko, Mr. Donald Woods told of an arrangement he had with Mr. Biko who was aware of the ever-present risk of detention and the possibility that he might die there.
'If any of four reasons for his death was alleged, I would know it was untrue'.
One of the four reasons was death through a hunger strike.
No assault—no cover-up — Kruger
The Minister of Justice, Mr. Kruger, said in an interview with Mr. John Burns published in the New York Times yesterday that the preliminary report on Mr. Steve Biko's death did not give the impression that a police assault was the cause of death.
'I personally do not believe this', he stated, 'I don't believe that my police – have done anything wrong …. If there is anything wrong in the Biko case. I will surprised ….
There will be cover-up in the Biko case', Mr. Kruger said.