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

This is the year, which people will talk about
This is the year which people will be silent about.
The old see the young die.
The foolish see the wise die.
The earth no longer produces, it devours.
The sky hurls down no rain, only iron.
Bertolt Brecht

Steve Biko died on 12 September 1977. It was as though he had been a pebble flung into a pool; the circles spread out and out, until ripples touched far shores. He was the forty-sixth political detainee known to have died under interrogation by the security police in South Africa since the first 'no-trial' detention laws were introduced in 1963. Since his death, two more detainees””one only 18 years old””have died in detention. In not a single case has an independent inquiry been held; nor has any member of the security police or anyone else been held responsible for the killings. Death takes place while the victim is within a closed circle that cannot be penetrated by friends or relatives. The evidence of how each one died can only be given by those within this circle, or by professional interpretation of the marks and injuries on the corpse””the silent witness.

But Steve Biko's story attracted world-wide attention that has not, in the past, been focused on these other deaths. The rest of the world seldom knows black leaders, even those well known to black people within South Africa. They have no means of becoming known: they are outside the range of the media, without a press and without access to radio or television. Their organizations are illegal or operate semi-legally, often fragmented and local because of the size of South Africa and the prohibitions on political activities. Individuals who do become known are swiftly eliminated from the public eye by bans that silence them, confine them to small areas, and prohibit them from meeting anybody or being quoted anywhere. Their names, often difficult to remember, sink into the obscurity of legal proscriptions.

Steve Biko was different. Educated, intellectual, articulate, he was not only founder of and a leader in the Black Consciousness movement but he became more widely-known to members of the powerful and privileged white minority in South Africa. He had met United States senators and embassy officials. He had a friend who was a newspaper editor. Although for some time before his death he had been restricted to his home town under a banning order and unable to travel, many people came to see him. He had become known beyond the im­mediate circle of workers and students who shared his organizations and his ideas.

Clearly he had those attributes that combine to make an impression. His friends describe him as handsome, fearless, a brilliant thinker. Denis Herbstein, a journalist who came from the same town as Biko, wrote: 'In a country where violence by the State and its police is endemic, Biko managed to remain non-violent, although his more youthful supporters urged him to go on the offensive. But he was ready to defend himself. While in solitary confinement a police interrogator got rough with him. Biko punched the man on the head. He was treated more correctly after that and released three months later to tell the tale'.

Biko's importance was developed as a leader of black people; but it was through the white press and white friends that people outside South Africa first heard of him. Without them, however deeply mourned by those among whom he had worked, he would have been just one more statistic, the forty-sixth detainee known to have died while in detention. A disregarded black man.

From among the other forty-five, it is possible to take any name and find there a story as poignant as that of Steve Biko. There was Alpheus Maliba, for instance, a Venda from the Northern Transvaal. He was different from Biko, an uneducated peasant who came to Johannesburg and taught himself about life and politics in the bitter school of the super-exploited blacks, as an unskilled, under­paid worker. He became a trade unionist, a peasant leader, and an organizer. He was no longer a young man when the organizations he belonged to were ban­ned and his activities proscribed; he dropped out of political activity, and returned to the Northern Transvaal to earn a living. One day there was a small announcement in a newspaper: detainee found hanged. Nobody in Johannesburg knew he had been detained, nor for how long; nobody knew how he actually died and few, other than those who had worked with him in the past, even knew Alpheus Maliba was dead.

The tally of these deaths in detention began slowly, two or three a year. Towards the end of the 1960's the pace accelerated. Most of them attracted little attention although the deaths seemed mysterious and the curt announcements”” 'found hanged' or 'natural causes'””inadequate. There would be a small paragraph in a newspaper; or nothing.

In other cases public attention was aroused by an inquest with disturbing evidence; harrowing details of broken and bruised bodies, of copper deposits left on the skin by electrodes, of multiple injuries that could not have occurred in the way the police maintained. Rarely, the victim was widely known, as in the case of the Imam Abdullah Haron whose death from multiple injuries stirred the Malay community in the Cape where he had been a loved and respected leader. Or the circumstances aroused particular disquiet, as when the young teacher, Ahmed Timol, was said to have committed suicide by jumping from the window of a tenth-floor room while being interrogated””a room that was sound­proof, escape-proof and had barred windows.

But most of the victims, from 1963 onwards, died in silence and secrecy. Sometimes even their own families were not informed; often they would be buried before anyone knew about the death; or a post-mortem might be held hurriedly before an independent pathologist could be obtained. From March 1976, the number of deaths in detention began to mount; the explanations given by the police seemed more and more offhand or unlikely, or went contrary to known facts. In a year, 19 detainees died: in the next six months, four more.

Yet until the case of Steve Biko, the outside world scarcely heard or noted, although in January, 1977 the London Times had an editorial headed SECRET DEATH IN SOUTH AFRICA'S PRISONS which baldly stated that so low had the reputation of justice in South Africa fallen that only an international inquiry into deaths in detention would be acceptable. 'Default must be entered as an admission of guilt'.

So always these others must be remembered. Sometimes, however, it is possible to see the structure of a whole nation through the life and death of one person. Perhaps it is easier to see it this way. People are 'shocked' in a conven­tional sense to read that a minimum of forty-six South Africans have died in detention in the last few years. But they are moved to the very depths of their being by the thought of one man, naked and manacled, driven 740 miles through the night, as he lay unattended and dying.

There are many questions to be answered. How did Biko receive the injury that caused his death? Who inflicted it, under what circumstances? Why was he kept naked and chained? Why did the doctors who attended him fail to interpret the undisputed signs of brain injury? Why did the doctors and all the police who were with him from the time he was injured until he died, all fail to notice the wound on his forehead which is so clearly visible in photos taken after his death? And even more: why was the brain-damaged and dying man finally sent off on the long, terrible drive to Pretoria””from Port Elizabeth, a big city with adequate hospitals? Why did the police give conflicting evidence, often caught out in contradictory statements or outright lies, none of which could explain the head injury? They had the time and the ability to concoct a story that would, at least superficially, account for the wound on Biko's head. Why did they not do so? Why was an inquest held, why were details of the way he was treated permitted to be broadcast to the world. Why did the inquest find that no one was responsible for his death?

As the story of his arrest and death unfolds, bit-by-bit, through cross-examination at the inquest, the answers to some of these questions begin to emerge. Until finally the questions to be answered centre around the role of the courts themselves in South Africa, and on how deep the corruption of life and morality has penetrated in the apartheid state. Stephen Biko is our magnifying glass. Through him and his fate a whole spectrum of South African reality is exposed. Perhaps it was always visible; but now it comes sharply into focus. What was confusing is clarified. What was obscure is revealed. In the fate of Steve Biko is encapsulated the truth about South Africa today, and the truth about its twenty-six million citizens, four-fifths black and one-fifth white.