How Steve Biko died

2012-09-20 09:00
Biko - the Biography by Dr Xolela Mangcu

Biko - the Biography by Dr Xolela Mangcu

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Xolela Mangcu's Biko is the first comprehensive biography of Steve Biko, an exceptional and inspirational leader who changed the course of South African history. As leading anti-apartheid activist and thinker, Biko created Black Consciousness, which has resonance to this day.

His death by torture, at the hands of the police, robbed South Africa of one of its most gifted leaders.

Below in an excerpt from Biko – A Biography, Mangcu describes Biko's arrest and how he was killed.

The Arrest

At the roadblock the police asked Steve and Jones to step out and open the boot. Jones, who was driving, followed their orders but struggled to open the boot. The car’s boot had to be opened in a special way, known only to Rams Ramokgopa, back at Zanempilo.

Apparently, the car had been in a minor accident resulting in a small dent above the left tail-light that jammed the lid. Whilst Jones tugged at the boot, the police kept accusing him of being a terrorist on his way to see Steve Biko, while Steve sat quietly in the passenger seat. Jones tried to make light of his struggle with the boot and invited one of the policemen to have a try. 

After a while the senior officer, Colonel Alf Oosthuizen, ordered the unit to clear the roadblock and to take Steve and Jones to the nearby police station in Grahamstown.

Oosthuizen drove with Steve in Ramokopa’s car while Jones drove with the other officers. The police searched the car thoroughly at the police station. Jones recalls that “they even went through the ash in the ash-tray. It was now clear that this was not a joke.”

They found Jones’s wallet, which, apart from an amount of R43, contained his identity document. And then Oosthuizen bellowed in Afrikaans: “As jy Peter Cyril Jones is, dan wie is daai groot man?” – If you are Peter Cyril Jones, then who is that big man?

Steve realised how awkward the situation was for his friend. On principle, Jones would not reveal Steve’s identity, exposing himself to torture and imprisonment. Yet in the end the police would find out anyway. Steve interjected: “I am Bantu Steve Biko.”

And then there was silence. “Biko?” retorted Oosthuizen, mispronouncing the B. “No, Bantu Steve Biko,” retorted Biko, pronouncing the Bs in his name silently.

The two men were separated. Jones was taken to Algoa Police Station and Steve to Walmer Police Station, both in Port Elizabeth, about 250 km from King William’s Town.

I was in front  and Steve was a couple of paces behind me.  My entourage stopped at a Kombi and I was told to enter and lie face down on the floor between the seats. I turned to look at Steve who had just passed us and I called his name out loud. He stopped to look at me and called my name and we smiled a greeting which was interrupted when I was slapped violently into the Kombi. This was the last time I ever saw my comrade – alive or dead.

Over the next months Jones was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. He was detained for nearly eighteen months. 

During the height of my interrogation there wasn’t a spot on my body that wasn’t either swollen, bruised or sensitive. At times, I struggled to find a comfortable sleeping position, resorting to sleeping in a kneeling position with my forehead resting on the floor.

How Steve Was Killed

At Walmer Police Station Steve was kept naked and manacled for 20 days before being transferred to the notorious Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. The security police there resented the respect Steve enjoyed from the King William’s Town security police. Stories had reached them that Steve had, in a previous stint in detention, even fought back and had punched one of the senior officers in King William’s Town, Warrant Officer Hattingh.

When he arrived at the Sanlam Building the security police told him to remain standing. After a while he sat down. That was when one of the policemen, Captain Siebert, grabbed him and pulled him back onto his feet. A “scuffle” ensued, and true to what he had told Sonwabo Yengo, Steve would defend himself.

On 6 September Steve sustained a massive brain haemorrhage. The cause of his death was not disputed: complications resulting from a brain injury. Steve suffered at least three brain lesions occasioned by the application of force to his head; the injury was suffered between the night of 6 September and 07:30 on 7 September.

In their amnesty application the policemen who killed Steve tried to evade spelling out what exactly had happened in the same way that they had during the original Biko Inquest in 1977. The details are not fully known. However, they admitted that after Steve had suffered a brain injury, they still kept him in a standing position. They shackled his hands and feet to the metal grille of the cell door. The police noticed that he was speaking with a slur but would not relent and continued with their interrogation.

Equally complicit in Steve’s murder were three doctors involved in the case, the district surgeon Dr Ivor Lang, the chief district surgeon Dr Benjamin Tucker and Dr Colin Hersch, a specialist from Port Elizabeth.

On September 7, one day after Steve suffered the brain haemorrhage, the police called in Dr Lang. Lang could find nothing wrong with Steve, despite the fact that he found him in a daze with a badly swollen face, hands and feet.

Instead the doctor alleged that Steve was “shamming”. Lang’s more senior colleague, Dr Benjamin Tucker, was called in for his opinion on what should be done. Tucker suggested that Steve be taken to hospital, but the police strongly objected, and Tucker subordinated his Hippocratic oath to their wishes.

Lang, even though he was acutely aware of Steve’s condition, recommended that Steve be driven 700 kilometres to the prison hospital in Pretoria. By 10 September Steve’s condition had deteriorated alarmingly. The following day, September 11, the police put Steve in the back of a Land Rover and drove him for more than twelve hours from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria – naked, manacled and unconscious.

On September 12 Steve Biko died, in the words of Sydney Kentridge, “a miserable and lonely death on a mat on a stone floor in a prison cell”.

The minister of justice and the police, Jimmy Kruger, issued a statement that Biko had died from a hunger strike. Addressing a National Party Congress, Kruger proclaimed to laughter:“I am not saddened by Biko’s death and I am not mad. His death leaves me cold.” Kruger’s remark reverberated around the world.

Speaking at the first Steve Biko Memorial Lecture 23 years later, UCT Vice-Chancellor Njabulo Ndebele described this callous event as:

. . . a continuum of indescribable insensitivity that begins as soon as Steve Biko and Peter Jones are arrested at a roadblock near Grahamstown on 18 August 1977. It starts with lowly police officers who make the arrest in the relative secrecy of a remote setting and ends with a remarkable public flourish, when a minister of government declares that Biko’s death leaves him cold. This situation lets us deep into the ethical and moral condition of Afrikanerdom, which not only shaped apartheid, but also was itself deeply shaped by it.

Here is how Barney Pityana describes his friend’s last hours:

On the night of 11 September Biko, evidently a seriously ill patient, was driven to Pretoria, naked and manacled to the floor of a Land Rover. Eleven hours later he was carried into the hospital at Pretoria Central Prison and left on the floor of a cell. Several hours later he was given an intravenous drip by a newly qualified doctor who had no information about him other than that he was refusing to eat. Sometime during the night of 12 September Steve Biko died, unattended.

News of Steve’s death instantly reverberated around the world. While there had been deaths in detention before, no one thought that, in their savage madness, the security police would kill someone with the stature of Steve Biko.

- Xolela Mancu's Biko - A Biography is published by Tafelberg and can be ordered through Kalahari here.

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