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

Despite limitations of method and purpose, the inquest had in some respects assumed the nature of a trial. The revelations of 'admitted assaults' on Bite's dignity and of a 'callous disregard for his legal and human rights' had proved so shocking that inevitable questions arose: why had the South African authorities permitted the inquest? Why had it allowed horrific details to be sent all over the world? And how did such apparent free judicial procedure within the court and freedom of expression through the press equate with general trends in South Africa, and with the final, cursory verdict? Superficially there appear to be contradictions.

And there were other questions that remained unanswered. These were:

Ӣ The hunger strike. What was the origin and purpose of this story? No answer came out of the inquest.

Ӣ The naked man. Conditions under which detainees are held are not normally revealed; it cannot be known with certainty whether or not other detainees have been kept naked. This was the first time such action became known. Was Biko's treatment special in this respect? Why was he kept naked?

Ӣ The bath episode. This bizarre incident was never explained. How did Biko twice get dressed and climb into a bath?

Ӣ The journey to Pretoria. Even taken at their face value, the reasons given by Goosen are absurd. Port Elizabeth is a large town with excellent hospitals. Why, then, this last desperate journey for the dying man?

Ӣ The flaws in the police story. This remains the most important question and was not answered satisfactorily at the end of the inquest. Why, in view of the fact that nobody except the security team actually knew what took place in room 619, was it not possible for them to concoct a more acceptable theory as to how Biko received his brain injury? The story of the 'scuffle' is riddled with inconsistencies and the evidence was often contradictory; it would seem fairly simple to produce a more credible account of what happened.

The answer to this question only emerges after putting together the evidence of the security men, the doctors who attended Biko, and the evidence of the post-mortem. But it forms a focal-point for the whole Biko story.

The Hunger Strike

The story of the hunger-strike, false as it was, was obviously a cover-up, stated Kentridge. There were two questions that arose: Where did the cover-up start and how high did it go?

'The answers to these questions will tell us a great deal about what really happened to Steve Biko while in the custody of the security police'.

The magistrate refused to allow the Minister of Police, Mr. Kruger, to be called as a witness as to who gave him the information. Goosen, the only source of official communication from security police in Port Elizabeth, denied ever telling his superiors that Biko had threatened a hunger strike and did not know on what the Minister based his statements. Biko died on 12 September.

On 13 September, Kruger issued his first statement, saying Biko was arrested on 18 August and from 5 September refused meals and threatened a hunger-strike, and that he had still not eaten by 11 September.

On that same day 13 September, pathologists conducted the post-mortem, and it was clear Biko had suffered extensive brain damage.

On 14 September, when Kruger kept delegates at the National Party Congress roaring with laughter at his quips about South Africa being a democratic country where prisoners had the right to starve themselves to death, he was already in possession of the pathologists ' report.

He repeated the statement about a hunger-strike the next day, 15 September, even embellishing it: 'and indeed, he began to push away his food and water that were continually given him so that he would freely eat and drink'.

On that day Dr. van Zyl, who examined Biko the day he died, signed a state­ment saying he had been told Biko had refused to take food or liquid for which was why he had been given a vitamin injection and intravenous drip. On 16 September, four days after his first statement, the Minister denied suggesting Biko had starved himself to death. I gave categorically the fact that he had gone on hunger strike. That was given to me by the police'.

On 7 October, Kruger brought an urgent Press Council action against the Rand Daily Mail over a report headlined: 'No sign of hunger strike””Biko doctors'. The Press Council upheld Kruger's complaint and reprimanded the Mail for 'tendentious reporting'.

In the 17 October edition of Time magazine (long after the post-mortem results were publicly known) Kruger again said: 'He refused to eat. Those were the facts I gave . . . He had definitely gone on a hunger strike. There is a medical history about that'.

More than five weeks later, Kruger made the first reference to a possible 'struggle' between Biko and the police. On 23 October in an interview with the New York Times, Kruger said: 'There may be evidence of a struggle and things like that... I mean there were struggles that would probably come out... This follows automatically from an arrest with a stroppy person'.

Finally, in the week the inquest began””and 8 weeks after Biko's death”” Kruger confirmed to foreign correspondents that Biko had died of head injuries. Asked to explain, he said: 'I can explain that by saying it doesn't seem to be any evidence at all of any police involvements and a man can damage his brain in many ways. I can tell you that under Press harassment I've often felt like banging my head against a wall too, but realizing now, with the Biko autopsy, that it might be fatal, I haven't done it'.

The hunger-strike story evidently originated from the Port Elizabeth Security Police delivering Biko to Pretoria, and was conveyed verbally through warders to the Pretoria doctor who gave Biko the intravenous drip and who was probably asked to report to security head office in Pretoria as to the cause of death. What is important is not so much the origin of the story as the way in which Kruger persisted with it long after it was patently false.

Kruger colluded with the police in spreading a false cover-up story, and then persisted in it. At first it was part of a general concealment of the truth. It was persisted with when vital medical evidence had not yet been made public. It reveals with great clarity the extent of a cover-up, originating in a police depart­ment, propagated from the highest office, and never subsequently rescinded by the Minister of Police. The cover-up was assisted by the Magistrate who refused to let it be investigated and left it to stand unchallenged and uninvestigated by police or justice personnel even when totally refuted.

Kruger did not apologise for his part. Why should he? It is however, a vital pointer to understanding other seemingly contradictory features of the behaviour of those in authority.

The Naked Man

Why naked? Biko was kept totally naked for the first 20 days; permitted to wear shirt and trousers when removed from Walmer jail to room 619; left naked again (and chained and manacled) on the floor of the interrogation room; taken naked on the 11-hour night drive to Pretoria . . .

Was he kept naked to humiliate him? Kentridge asked Sergt. van Vuuren the warder at Walmer police station. 'I cannot say', the warder replied””he acting on instructions from Colonel Goosen.

Why was Biko kept naked in Walmer police cells? Kentridge asked Major Snyman. Snyman replied that he was acting on instructions given to prevent a recurrence of suicide in police cells.

Why the leg irons?

It was the custom, Snyman said.

Why was Biko kept naked? Kentridge asked Colonel Goosen.

There was a clear pattern of suicide among detainees, the Colonel replied, so everything with which detainees could hurt themselves, including clothes, were taken away.

'I myself am totally unconvinced by this explanation' writes Sir David Napley, 'which I believe to be both implausible and inconsistent with the rest of the police evidence which portrays Mr. Biko as aggressive, intractable and uncooperative.

'There was, I believe, a more convincing, albeit Machiavellian reason for Mr. Biko's naked state. It was of a piece of what was aptly called 'the callous treatment' meted out to him by the security policy which has shocked world opinion.. 'The totality of the conduct of the security police seems to me to fit in with an approach to, and a pattern of, interrogation which has certainly not been peculiar to the security police at Port Elizabeth... The magistrate could have taken notice f the fact that the lowering and breaking of the spirit by such means, where it is intended to subject a person to interrogation, is a well-documented course open o those who are prepared to stoop to the employment of such treatment.... The time arrives when it is believed that the prisoner has been suitably conditioned and violence is applied before the actual interrogation begins or during the course of it ... The circumstantial evidence leads inexorably to this conclusion'. (It should be noted that no evidence was ever given to show that Biko's spirit was broken, despite his treatment. On the contrary, police statements of his 'aggressiveness' during interrogation on the 6th indicate this was not so.)

Biko wrote that Black Consciousness brings group pride and the determination of the black to rise and attain the envisaged self. 'Freedom is the ability to define oneself with one's own possibilities held back not by the power of other people over one but only by one's relationship to God and to natural surroundings'. Biko's philosophy challenged the economic power of the whites, but white culture and white religion””and most of all, the status of whites, a position of absolute power and believed superiority enhanced by tradition, by laws and by religion. 'The black man sees himself as being complete in himself', he wrote.

It makes him less dependent and more free to express his manhood. At the end of it all he cannot tolerate attempts by anyone to dwarf the significance of his manhood'.

But nor could the whites tolerate him becoming a man. For white South Africans, being a man means first and foremost superiority over the blacks. But what if the black finds in his turn that his manhood depends on equality with the white? It is then that the white begins to feel his very existence diminished and cheapened. It is not only the economic consequences of emancipation that appall him, but the implied threat to his own status as a human being.

Steve Biko's challenge to the whites was not simply to their power, but also to a system of beliefs around which white lives are constructed. He pointed out that, whatever its economic origins, 'after generations of exploitation white people on the whole have come to believe in the inferiority of the black man, so much that while the race problem started as an off-shoot of the economic greed exhibited white people, it has now become a serious problem on its own. White people now despise the black people, not because they need to reinforce their attitude and so justify their position of privilege but simply because they actually believe that black is inferior and bad. This is the basis upon which whites are working in South Africa, and it is what makes South African society racist'. That racism has been institutionalized so that it is presented as an accepted way of life. Blacks must be denied any opportunity of accidentally proving their quality with whites. Hence job reservation, lack of opportunities for skilled work, restricted entry into the professions, and at the basis. Bantu Education.

'It is not enough for whites to be on the offensive. So immersed are they in prejudice that they do not believe that blacks can formulate their thoughts with­out white guidance and trusteeship. Thus, even those whites who see much wrong with the system make it their business to control the response of the blacks to the provocation'. Liberals, few as they are, determine not only the modus operandi of those blacks who oppose the system in which they themselves are deeply involved, but also help to perpetuate the system.

'To us it seems that their role spells out the totality of the white power struc­ture””the fact that though whites are our problem, it is still other whites who want to tell us how to deal with that problem'.

Naked and chained, Biko was already reduced and rendered dependent, already, even before the interrogation and the bullying assaults, put lower down on the rung of humanity purely by virtue of physical factors. Finally he was reduced to the status of the dependent infant, incontinent, incoherent. What did it matter to them that now they could never try him for being a 'terrorist'? That is not really what they wanted. What secrets could they have prised out, had the interrogation been able to continue, had the blows to his head in those first vital seconds not proved so fatal? There were no secrets, other than the truths which he and others all down the years have tried in their many ways to present, truths openly proclaimed until their mouths were stopped, in organisa­tions openly formed, until they were declared illegal.

In his devastating book on Auschwitz, Primo Levi writes of the meaning of being deprived of one's clothes, of even the smallest personal possessions that even a poor beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person.

'These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification an evocation of our memories.

'Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short of everything he possesses; he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity . . .'

Walmer jail and room 619 were not Auschwitz. But they were on the same road. And Biko was such a man, reduced to suffering and needs, whose death could indeed occur lightly, with no sense of human affinity.

The Bath Incident

When Biko was taken to the Sydenham prison hospital for a lumbar puncture, he was already at a stage when his mental and physical abilities were seriously impaired and rapidly declining. He could not walk by himself””possibly could not even stand alone. Yet some time in the night he is said to have got out of bed found his clothes (surely they were not lying folded ready for him!); dressed himself; walked to the room where there was a bath; turned on the taps, filled the bath, then climbed into it with his clothes on.

This incident took place at 3 a.m., and was repeated again a few hours later, although this time the bath was empty. (Had he gone back to bed in wet clothes? If not, who changed him?) There is nothing in the evidence that helps to make sense of this incident; but possible explanations present themselves. When Goosen suggested that Biko might have damaged his brain at this time he may not yet have heard the expert evidence concerning the time of the injury. But this suggestion may just be a pointer to what really took place. Did the security men go to the prison hospital that night? Night interrogations are their speciality””was this a last attempt to see if Biko would talk? Was it hoped that cold water would rouse him ””or that he might be found drowned? This is speculation based on what is known of the behaviour of those concerned. Like the blister on his toe (when he had not worn shoes nor exercised for three weeks) no firm conclusion can be reached, but suspicions remain.

The Journey to Pretoria

A crisis faced the security police in Port Elizabeth when they received the news that Biko, summarily removed from the prison hospital, had been found lying on the cell floor in a collapsed condition, with foam on his lips.

Up to this time they had succeeded in preventing news of his condition from reaching anyone outside the club of conspirators, a club that included the doctors who had seen him and prison authorities through whose hands he had passed. Although prison regulations require that the close relatives of a prisoner must be informed immediately in cases of serious illness, the main concern was that nobody should know (hence the falsification of his name).

Obviously the security police knew of the outcry there would be if it became known that Steve Biko had been beaten up and was brain-damaged. If he died, the storm could be faced after suitable arrangements had been made to conceal the true facts of his death. But it must be stated that there was not at this stage, nor was there at any stage, any attempt to arrange medical treatment for Steve Biko. The doctors' role was to find out what was wrong””not to recommend it. Finally, when they were in possession of irrefutable evidence of image (there were four definite signs: the plantar reflex; the blood in spinal fluid; partial paralysis of the left side; and echolalia, the repetition of word spoken to him over and over again) even then their concern was not that he should receive any treatment, but that he should be removed from hospital as speedily as possible before he was seen by anyone who might recognize him. In agreeing to his removal. Dr. Hersch had added that he should be under constant observation. Dr. Lang had not even bothered to go and see him again, until the final emergency arose.

So the problem now was not of how or where Biko could get the best medical assistance. He could not be left in the prison in his condition. To send him to one of Port Elizabeth's hospitals would risk news of his condition leaking out before they were ready. There was one solution left: to send him to head­quarters in Pretoria. This would have two advantages””removing him from Port Elizabeth, where he was well known and the political atmosphere already explosive (on 30 August school students had held a memorial meeting for a student killed by police in 1976, which was broken up by the police with many arrests) and delivering him to Pretoria, where the security police were experts as concealing the truth about detainees' deaths.

This is why he was taken to Pretoria. This is why no medical records accom­panied him, and none of the doctors phoned through to Pretoria prison hospital to report their findings. This is why he could be taken 740 miles in the back of a van, there was no hurry; they waited until night so that nobody would see him, they did not bother to obtain a mattress””a felt mat would do. This is why nothing went with him except a tin of water, never proffered. This is why they loaded him into the van naked and manacled and left him lying like that when they stopped to relieve themselves, and to have a joke with fellow policemen at the stations where they went for petrol.

These facts must be taken into consideration when reading through the evi­dence of Wilken and Goosen and Snyman on 'shamming' and giving Biko the finest medical treatment. They were all in possession of the precise facts about the blows to his head and subsequent decline. They had only one reason for that Journey.

Steve Biko was sent to Pretoria to die.

Why the Police did not present a more credible story

The clue to the extraordinarily contradictory evidence presented by the police in their affidavits and in court is to be found in Dr. Lang's evidence when stated that he had examined Biko 'as the result of a request from Col. Goosen and had found no evidence of any abnormality or pathology.

Biko was assaulted during the night of the 6th or the early morning of the 7th September. He was struck several blows””on the ribs, twice on his lips, and blows to his forehead that rendered him unconscious. Colonel Goosen was called in and informed of what had taken place. The police now had two alternatives:

Ӣ they could state that Biko had been hit on the forehead; or

Ӣ they could deny absolutely that he had received a blow to his forehead whilst he was in room 619.

Goosen chose the second alternative. He called in his friend, district surgeon Dr. Lang (and he could not, in his evidence, state why he actually called for Lang) and he asked him to make out the certificate stating nothing was wrong with Biko. To do this Lang had to ignore the lip injury, the bruised rib, the swollen hands, feet and ankles, and the wound on Biko's forehead. One wonders if he actually saw Biko.

Thus, if Biko were to suffer any after-effects from the assault, it would be possible for the police to state categorically that any marks or injuries were not sustained in room 619. The Lang certificates proved this.

But the injuries were sustained in room 619, and there was still anxiety that information might leak out about Biko's condition. Hence from the moment Biko was scarcely out of the hands of the security men (which incidentally makes the bath incident even stranger). He was kept in the interrogation office. When he had to go for a lumbar puncture, he was only moved after dark. His spinal fluid was sent for analysis under a false name. Goosen said, 'I had no reason to hide him'””but he was hidden, brought back at night from the hospital, sent to Pretoria after dark.

Despite all these precautions, the police at that stage were not in possession of two vital pieces of medical evidence. The first pinpointed the time that Biko received the head injury fairly precisely, and put it within the hours that Biko was in room 619. This was not disputed by any of the experts. The second concerned he period of unconsciousness that must have followed the injury. The medical evidence proved that Biko was brain-damaged whilst in the charge of the interrogation squad; and that they must have seen him unconscious. But they already had Lang's certificate that stated nothing was wrong, so it was impossible for them now to say that Biko had bumped his head””even accident­ally. Without Lang's certificate they might have said Biko tripped and hit his head against a filing cabinet; or seized a chair and was knocked on the head with it when they wrestled with him. But the mark on the forehead did not exist””Lang could not see it, nor could anyone else. The period of unconsciousness did not exist””no one had acknowledged it. So they had to deny everything, d blows, deny the head injury, deny concern about its seriousness.

Lang's certificate is like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Once it is put into place, those portions of police testimony and behaviour that have not been satisfactorily explained now become a clear part of the whole picture. That certificate, too hastily obtained as a cover-up, became the expose. In the end, nothing but the truth is plausible, and the truth was denied.

Why the Inquest?

The answer here is quite clear. South African law requires an inquest to be when someone dies from other than natural causes. In other cases of detainees'-deaths, magistrates have from time to time stated that death was from natural causes, therefore no inquest was held. In this case it was not possible to do so.

The inquest had to take place because of the two-faced nature of South African society. The face turned towards the world says 'We are a democratic country in which the rule of law prevails'. The second face, turned inwards, says 'The special branch is above the law. When law interferes with us, no rules prevail except our own. We don't work to statutes'.

Once the inquest had opened, most of the evidence could not be suppressed save by over-riding the 'public' face, which was now the focus of world interest.

But what did it matter in the end? The verdict was assured. Those in authority might have preferred to keep the details out of the press, but they did not really care. When the government press said 'This must not happen again' they were not referring to Biko's treatment but to the damaging exposure of police methods, Public face or not, it seems unlikely such an inquest will ever be held again.

Their arrogance is justified. They have the last word. But in the final analysis, what of the courts? Do they still present a brake on police power?