On This Day

steve biko, steven biko, steven bantu biko
Associated Press/LIFE Magazine

On This Day: Anti-Apartheid Leader Steve Biko Dies in Police Custody

September 12, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Sept. 12, 1977, black consciousness leader Steve Biko died of brain damaged caused by police abuse. His death brought attention to the brutality of the partheid regime and the harsh treatment of black political prisoners.

The Death of Steve Biko

Steve Biko was a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement and one of the most influential anti-apartheid activists of the 1970s. He was “banned” by the apartheid government in 1973, which meant that he was restricted from leaving home of King William’s Town, associating with more than one person at a time, or releasing any of his writing.
Biko managed to spread his message despite the bans. He was arrested many times for violating the bans, though he was never convicted. On Aug. 18, 1977, he was arrested at a roadblock outside King William’s Town and charged under the Terrorism Act.

Biko was transferred to a prison in Port Elizabeth and interrogated. On Sept. 11, he was transferred more than 700 miles to a prison medical facility in Pretoria, where he died the following day.

South African authorities initially claimed that Biko had died as the result of a weeklong hunger strike. The official explanation was not accepted by many anti-apartheid leaders, reported The New York Times. There were also fears that Biko’s suspicious death could spark violence in black communities.

The Biko Inquest

In response to the outrage, South African authorities allowed for an independent autopsy on Biko. The autopsy revealed that Biko had not died of dehydration and malnourishment, but of a brain hemorrhage caused by blows to his head. The injuries to his head were also apparent at his funeral viewing.

Details of Biko’s incarceration and death were revealed in a government inquest, held in November 1977. According to police testimony, Biko had been kept naked and chained for most of his 26 days in custody, including during the trip to Pretoria. The police claimed that Biko’s head injuries were caused during a fight with his five interrogators, though, as Time magazine noted, there were “gaping contradictions in the police testimony.”

Sydney Woolf Kentridge, a renowned lawyer representing the Biko family, argued that Biko was beaten into a semi-comatose state a full five days before his death. He said, “In the course of cross-examination we put it that Biko had been ‘smashed up.’ … On the morning of the 6 September Biko went into the interrogation room alive and well. At 7.30 a.m. on 7 September he was a physical and mental wreck.”

The inquest held no one responsible for Biko’s death. However, Biko’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, gained international attention, bringing to light the cruelty of the apartheid regime and the fact that dozens of blacks had died in South African prison under similarly suspicious circumstances.

“Stephen Biko is our magnifying glass,” wrote Hilda Bernstein in her 1978 book “No. 46—Steve Biko.” “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.”

Historical Context: Apartheid

After winning the 1948 elections, the white Afrikaner National Party moved to consolidate its hold on power with the introduction of racially discriminatory measures known collectively as apartheid. Learn more about the history of apartheid with the Apartheid Museum’s Understanding Apartheid page for teachers and students.

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