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

The inquest was postponed until 14 November. At the end of October, two weeks before it was due to start, announcements were made by both the Attorney-General for the Eastern Cape and the Attorney-General for the Transvaal, that no criminal proceedings would be instituted in the Steve Biko affair.

Two months after his death the inquest on Steve Biko began on 14 November in the Old Synagogue, Pretoria. The Old Synagogue has been the scene of many political trials from the end of the 1950s onwards. It is peculiarly unsuited for any 'public hearing'.

High, large, ornate, the interior was designed without any regard to audience or sound and with little regard to the hot and airless Pretoria climate. The acoustics are appalling; voices become a muffled murmur barely audible except to those placed close to the speakers. The clearest sound disperses and is lost. A huge crowd of spectators and pressmen squeezed into the courtroom every day to listen anxiously, with the added difficulty that most of the evidence was given in Afrikaans. November is summer in South Africa. Outside the streets were lined with jacaranda trees in the full glory of their pale purple blossoms. Inside, the Old Synagogue was described as a 'sauna bath'; its old-fashioned electric fans were switched off in an attempt to improve the sound.

An inquest is held when someone dies from other than natural causes. It is not a trial. There are no 'accused' and no 'defence'. It is in the nature of a public inquiry, presided over by a magistrate; its purpose is to establish the truth of how death came about. The state appoints a prosecutor (in this case Mr. K. von Lieres, Deputy Attorney-General) not to prosecute, but to lead all the available evidence; and also appoints a presiding magistrate (Mr. Marthinus Prins). Two 'assessors' were also appointed””medical experts to assist the magistrate in weighing the medical technicalities. The police and doctors who were presenting evidence on Biko's death were represented by counsel, as was Biko's family. Counsel were there to advise those concerned on their legal rights, and had the right to question anyone giving evidence. In a normal inquest, it is sufficient to record the basic facts given in evidence, and the findings of the presiding magistrate at the end. This, however, was no ordinary inquest. It was in essence””as will be shown later””a conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice; a conspiracy in which almost all the witnesses and most of the court officials joined. Their purpose was not to establish the cause of death but to conceal it; not to discover who might be responsible, but to hide them.

For this reason, to present a straight, verbatim account of the proceedings would be to portray the events as the conspirators portrayed them, concealing the truth. To obtain the truth it is necessary for the prosecutor to assemble the evidence in a manner which would clarify events, and in logical sequences. This was not done. It is necessary, too, that witnesses testify precisely. In this case, witnesses appeared together with affidavits made by them at various times before the inquest, often contradictory, partial and obscure. And finally it is necessary that all the 'official' personages in the drama co-operate to let the truth come out. This was not the way in which this inquest was conducted; in contradiction to the theory, counsel for the state, for the police, and for the doctors””all state appointees””ranged themselves together as 'defenders' of their clients against an unspoken, but nevertheless palpable, accusation of complicity.

Sir David Napley, Past President of the British Law Society, who was invited to attend the inquest by the Association of Law Societies of South Africa as an independent observer, expressed some concern over the role of the Deputy Attorney-General in the inquest:

It appeared to me, both on a true reading of the Inquests Act and the decision in the case of Timol, that it was his duty dispassionately to present to, and test, on behalf of the magistrate, all the relevant available evidence.

I may be wrong but I came away with the clear impression that, on such occasions as he intervened, his questions were directed to preserve the position previously taken up. To this end on occasions he intervened to support the police and doctors, although other counsel already represented them.

Whilst I am not satisfied that this presence in fact made any significant difference to the outcome of the inquiry, it seemed odd to me that the Deputy Attorney General, having been seen to be asking questions apparently designed to sustain the earlier formed view, should later be called upon to play the decisive part in determining whether criminal proceedings should nevertheless be taken.

Thus, while the summary of events set out here has been abbreviated to clearer what was alleged to have happened on each of the vital days from the of Biko's arrest until his death, it must be borne in mind that that even this simple outline””even the barest bones of the Biko story, distilled to its leanest from the evidence””may not be wholly correct.

The account of the inquest that follows has been pieced together fro' full reports published every day in the Rand Daily Mail. Some of the evidence is given in the form of direct speech and some indirect, as it was reported. It was not possible (for reasons of time) to obtain the full court transcript, have it translated from Afrikaans (in which most of the evidence was given the evidence of each witness in his original words, but the substance is here.

The inquest was high drama. Never before at an inquest of someone who died in detention have there been television cameras and reporters from so many countries. Even in the USA the press, usually closed to such events in South Africa, published daily reports. The Johannesburg Sunday Times had a vivid description of the television crews, camped in the yard with sunshades and cool bags, while every day a crowd of black spectators sang outside the Synagogue.

Inside, four members of the Biko family sat on a bench against a side wall while a young, bearded white man sat with them acting as interpreter. In a few days nearly the entire foreign press corps was on the floor at his feet, listening too.

Bit by bit the information about Biko's last days began to emerge. But more than that. Day after day South Africa revealed itself through the evidence and the men who gave it. The inquest of Steve Biko was not simply an exceptional event; it was, in a sense, a revelation of racism, of the way it has distorted ordinary people, and the way it has destroyed all morality and decency in a rich and beautiful country.

Personnel at the Inquest

State Prosecutor

Mr. K. von Lieres

Presiding Magistrate      

Mr. Marthinus Prins, assisted by Professor I.  Gordon of the Natal University Medical School, and Professor J. Oliver o f the University of the Orange Free State Medical School

Counsel for Biko Family

Mr. Sydney Kentridge, assisted by  Mr. E. Wentzel and Mr. G. Bizos

Counsel for the police  

Mr. Retief van Rooyen, assisted by Mr. J. M. C. Smit

Counsel for the Doctors

Mr. B. de V. Pickard, assisted by Dr. Marquard de Villiers

Police Witnesses

Colonel Pieter Goosen, Chief of the Security Police in the Eastern Cape Major Harold Snyman, leader of the day interrogation Team of whom the four other members were:

Captain D. P. Siebert
Warrant Officer Marx
Warrant Officer Beneke
Detective Sergeant Nieuwoudt
Lieut. E. Wilken (security    police)
Warrant Officer Fouche
Sgt. P. J. Van Vuuren

Dr. Ivor Lang, district surgeon
Dr. B. J. Tucker, chief district surgeon
Dr. C. Hersch, consultant
Dr. van Zyl district, surgeon Pretoria

Dr. Loubser, state pathologist Dr. Gluckman, for Biko family Professor I. Simpson Professor Proctor

Police Investigating Officer
Gen. Kleinhaus

Sequence of events, 18 August to 12 September

18 August Biko is arrested. Steve Biko was travelling in a car with a friend Peter Jones, an executive member of the BPC. Lieut stopped the car outside the King William's Town limits at a roadblock. Oosthuizen of the Security Police. The two men were taken to Grahamstown; the next day they were taken to Walmer Jail, Port Elizabeth and held under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, in the custody of the Security Police under the command of Colonel Goosen.

He is kept naked in a cell for 20 days Port Elizabeth

For the next twenty days Biko was kept at Walmer Police Station, naked, manacled, and not allowed out of his cell even for air or exercise. His daily ration of food was soup, magewu, * bread, jam and coffee.

According to the sergeant in command, the soup and magewu were refused, and Biko ate little bread

2 September, Magistrate' visits. On 1 September a magistrate made a formal visit to Biko in his cell. Biko complained that he had not even been permitted to wash himself. He asked the magistrate for water and soap to wash himself and a washcloth and comb.

He asked: "Is it compulsory that I have to be naked? I have been naked since I came here". The magistrate made no reply.

6 September Biko taken for interrogation to Room 619 Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth

On the morning of 6 September, Biko was taken from the Walmer Street prison by security police, and brought to Room 619, Sanlam Building, for interrogation. The police state that they were with him from 10.30 a.m. until 6 p.m. From 6 p.m. he was in the care of the 'night squad' (led by Lt. Wilken) naked, handcuffed and with one leg chained to a grille.

Room 619 at 7a.m on 7 September

Major Harold Snyman, head of the interrogation team of five, arrived at 7 a.m. and according to his statement, removed Biko's leg-irons and handcuffs. At this time, or very close to it, Biko received the blows that caused brain damage and resulted in his death five days later. The police were unable to continue their interrogation. Biko was again handcuffed and chained to the grille.

7.30 am. on 7 September, Biko already has brain injury

Colonel Goosen was informed that there had been an "incident". At 7.30 he arrived at Room 619 and spoke to Biko, who, he said, seemed incoherent and talked in a slurred manner. There was a visible swelling on his upper lip.

9.30 am. Dr. Lang gives medical check-up

The district surgeon, Dr. Lang, was called in. He examined Biko in the presence of Col. Goosen. At the Colonel's request he made out a certificate that there was no evidence of any abnormality or pathology on Biko.

Night of 7 September. Biko lies on mat, chained and in leg irons

The Security Police attempted once more to interrogate Biko, but he was totally unresponsive. For the rest of that day, and for that night, Biko lay on a mat on the office floor, manacled and chained by his leg as before.

8 September Dr. Lang comes and brings Dr. Tucker

Dr. Lang returned. Col. Goosen told him that Biko had not urinated during the past 24 hours, and had refused all offers of food. Lang re-examined Biko, and then requested that the chief district surgeon. Dr. B. J. Tucker, examine Biko with him.

Although the trousers Biko had been wearing (for the interrogation) and the blankets were now soaked with urine. Dr. Lang noticed no change and Dr. Tucker did not question Biko. It was decided to transfer him to the prison hospital.

Evenings of 8 September, Biko is taken to prison hospital

A specialist physician. Dr. Hersch, was consulted, it was agreed that a lumbar puncture should be performed. Biko was transferred to the prison hospital.

Night of 8 September Prison hospital.

A warder stated that during the night of 8 September he twice found Biko lying in a bath, the first time clothed in a bath filled with water; the second time the bath was empty.

9 September

The lumbar puncture was performed early in the morning.

10 September

Hersch informed Lang that the lumbar puncture showed he cerebro-spinal fluid to be bloodstained. It was decided to consult a neuro-surgeon, Mr. Keeley, by telephone; Keeley gave the opinion that there was no evidence of brain damage, but Biko should be kept under observation.

He saw no reason why Biko should not be transferred back from hospital to the Security Police, provided he was kept under observation.

11 September Biko is taken back a cell

In the morning the Security Police took Biko from the hospital, and bed, back to a cell at Walmer Police Station. He was left on a mat on the cement floor of the cell, naked under the blankets.

He is found collapsed

A few hours later a warder found Biko lying on the floor with foam at his mouth, and glassy-eyed. He informed Major Fischer, who phoned Col. Goosen.

He is driven naked through the night to Pretoria

Dr. Tucker examined Biko at 3.20 p.m. and saw no objec­tion to Goosen sending Biko on a journey of 740 miles by road to Pretoria. Naked and manacled, he was left lying on the floor of a Land-Rover, with nothing except a container of water.

11-12 September Pretoria Prison

He was carried into the prison hospital and left on the floor of a cell, without any medical records, 11 hours after leaving Port Elizabeth.

12 September Dr. van Zyl gives intravenous drip

Several hours later, a newly qualified doctor, with no medical information about him other than that he was refusing to eat, ordered an intravenous drip.

Biko dies

Some time that night Biko died, unattended.