XI - The Verdict

From the book: No.46 - Steve Biko by Hilda Bernstein, 1978, South Africa

The Deputy Attorney General also made a closing submission, in which he stated that no one could be blamed for the death of Biko:

Van Lieres: The real inquiry at this inquest centres on whether the evidence points to an act or omission on the part of the police, doctors or prison officials, which led to the death of the deceased, Stephen Bantu Biko.

We have had evidence that the rubicon was crossed six to eight hours after the infliction of the injury, and we accept that the latest that the head injury could have been caused was approximately 7.30 on the morning of 7 September. On the evidence the deceased was therefore beyond help by about 3 o'clock on the afternoon of the 7th.

I submit on the evidence that neither doctors nor police could have known this and that his death was therefore not caused by any act or omission on their part, amounting to an offence.

Your Worship, this is a rather sad case and one which in my view once again highlights the fact that where one is concerned with two extreme opposites, the police on the one hand, and the detainee on the other, there is seldom ground to find what one could call common 'ground'. Literally, it seems to me as Rudyard Kipling said 'never the twain shall meet”¦

Our respectful submission is that you will come to the conclusion that in this particular case there is no positive evidence that the deceased's death was caused by an act or omission of any person.

These words foreshadowed the findings. After 14 days of evidence and expert witnesses, Pretoria's Chief Magistrate closed the inquest into the death in detention of Stephen Biko with a finding that took 80 seconds to deliver in both official languages, English and Afrikaans. Reporters were still fumbling for their notebooks when he rose and the court was adjourned.

Mr. Marthinus Prins found: 'The cause or likely cause of Mr. Biko's death was a head injury, followed by extensive brain injury and other complications including renal failure.

The head injury was probably sustained on the morning of 7 September during a scuffle with Security Police in Port Elizabeth. The available evidence does not prove that death was brought about by an act or omission involving an offence by any person'.

'They killed Steve Biko' was the chant taken up by crowds of Africans outside the courtroom after the verdict, and largely endorsed by the Western press. The London Times wrote:

'Nobody reading the reported evidence can draw any other conclusion but that the police are now an autonomous power in South Africa””strong enough to break rules, mislead or pressure ministers, overawe and compel the collusion of medical practitioners as well as committing and compounding perjury'.

And a few days later: 'White South Africa has given a dusty answer for those who were so naive as to think United Nations sanctions would reduce Mr. Vorster's vote ... The Biko inquest leads to no other reasonable conclusion than that he was illegally killed by the security forces and that, following this, the government responsible for those security forces has been returned with a larger majority. The white electorate cannot explain if it is inferred that they have this week consciously taken on themselves the guilt for what has been done to Biko and those like him. They have marked their foreheads as well as their ballot papers'. 30

'The sheer perversity of the finding would cause dismay to all of black and some of white South Africa', wrote the Guardian. 'On Wednesday, when the National Party sailed back into power with a huge majority over liberal white opinion, Mr. Kruger himself beat his constituency opponent by ten to one .., The verdicts of the electorate and the coroner cannot be kept separate. Both sanction a campaign of repression against the black opposition, and discourage any interference in the conduct of it... (Mr. Prins) has presided over a judicial process which gave some semblance of respect for the law, but he has made an utter travesty of it... Present and future detainees now know what to expect'.

'Now we are all accountable,' wrote the Johannesburg Sunday Times. 'The Biko inquest has served one or two useful purposes. It has exposed in chilling detail, how the system of detention operates . . . Nobody can plead ignorance, Nobody can say. But I didn't know . . . Every South African must now answer to his own conscience ... and submit to the judgement of history on his actions'. 32 The paper went on to point out that the inquest had also vindicated the three Johannesburg newspapers whose accounts of Biko's injuries were confirmed in detail by the court, despite efforts by the Minister to silence and reprimand the press through the Press Council.

In an English language broadcast for abroad on 5 December, South African radio admitted that the death of Biko had disturbed many South Africans, 'As the Prime Minister, Mr. Vorster, has said, it was most unfortunate that Mr. Biko should have died'. The broadcast went on to praise the conduct of the inquest, held in an open court, demonstrating the openness of the South African legal system. And then to object, in anger, to the gross interference in South Africa's domestic affairs””from the United States in particular””following the verdict. 'The United States Government has no right to challenge directly a court verdict in South Africa or any other country with a free judicial system.,. To say that Mr. Biko's death resulted from a system which permits gross mistreatment in violation of the most basic human rights, is absurd ... It would be nearer the truth (to say that he) was a victim of a confrontation in South Africa which had been recklessly supported from abroad, the victim, more particularly, of instilling among black activists the notion that it is their right to rule all of South Africa””and to hell with the established order'.

Was it worth it? asked South African journalist Roger Osmond, writing from Pretoria, and answered: Yes, it was. No one can any longer plead ignorance of Special Branch behaviour. 'We know now as we didn't know before that a detainee can be kept naked in a prison cell for three weeks, that he can be deprived of exercise, washing facilities and the right to buy food in direct contradiction of regulations, and that he can be kept handcuffed and in irons, chained to a grille for more than 48 hours. We know that he can be allowed to lie in his urine-soaked trousers on urine-soaked mats, while district surgeons don't even suggest a change of clothing, that doctors can miss classic symptoms of brain damage, that when the doctors eventually begin to worry they meekly follow Special Branch orders that he cannot be allowed anywhere near a decent hospital, that even when he is supposed to be under observation for brain damage he can be moved from a prison hospital back into a police cell, that a doctor can authorise a 700-mile journey overnight without first getting the results of a lumbar puncture, that the same doctor does not check whether the form of transport is the same as that promised by the Special Branch. We have also learned that a detainee can be sent naked on his last journey resting on prison its with a blanket for a pillow, a couple of Special Branch men with no medical training as orderlies, a water container as the sole medicine, that when they reach Pretoria they persist in saying that the detainee is shamming, that no medical port accompanies the semi-comatose detainee, that a man hours away from death can be given a vitamin injection and a drip and that he can be allowed to die alone on a cell floor.

'And apart from Sydney Kentridge who, with his legal team, emerged as the heroes of the courtroom, nobody even bothers to comment on this chapter of inhumanity. Not Prins, not Kruger, not the unrepentant Special Branch. There s no word of sorrow or anger by the authorities, not even a suggestion detainees a future won't suffer the same treatment. They just don't care. And that is what South Africa voted for'.

No.46 - Steve Biko