Steve Biko's legacy lives on - Zille

Although I never met Steve Biko, he profoundly influenced my life, personally and professionally. As a student at Wits, I still recall my confusion when the young and dynamic Biko led black students out of the National Union of South African Students, and announced, "Black man, you are on your own."

It took a while for me, an activist for non-racialism, to understand his analysis of the need for black solidarity in the psychological struggle against racial oppression.

I understood it better when he said, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

That made sense to me. I understood Black Consciousness in that context.

By the time I read those words, I was a cadet reporter on the Rand Daily Mail with an interest in politics. A few years later, I was assigned to expose what we suspected would be the biggest cover-up of our time - Biko's murder in detention, at the hands of the feared security police.

It was early in the third week of September 1977, when James T Kruger (we refused to call him Jimmy, because that sounded too friendly) announced that Biko had died in detention "after going on a hunger strike".

As an outcry ensued, Kruger told the National Party Congress that the death of Biko "leaves me cold". His words reverberated around the world and still stand as a benchmark of callousness.

My editor, Allister Sparks, vowed to get to the truth. He sent me to Port Elizabeth, where Biko had been detained, to track down and interview the doctors who had treated him.

They were two district surgeons, Ivor Lang and Benjamin Tucker, as well as a specialist, Dr Colin Hersch. I found Lang, a chinless, balding man with a beak nose, on a smallholding outside Port Elizabeth, in a kitchen making coffee. He warned me off the premises and threatened to set two huge dogs on me.

Tucker was marginally more approachable, and I was able to establish from him that Biko had not died of hunger, although he would give no further details. Hersch, the most approachable of all, dismissed the idea of the hunger strike, but also refused to say more.

Back in Johannesburg, Dr Jonathan Gluckman, a pathologist, was prepared to speak to us on conditions of strict anonymity. Allister agreed. In fact, he initially kept Gluckman's identity secret, even from me. We only publicly acknowledged his role many years afterwards.

Gluckman gave us the evidence we required in the form of the results of the lumbar puncture which showed blood in Biko's spinal fluid - a clear sign of brain damage. On the basis of my interviews and the medical records supplied by Gluckman we were able to run a lead story headlined "No sign of hunger strike - Biko doctors", in which we reported that brain damage was the likely cause of death.

All hell broke loose. Kruger let us know he intended to ban the Rand Daily Mail.

I received several death threats, and moved out of my flat in Berea. Within 48 hours, Kruger dragged me before the Press Council, a quasi-court presided over by Justice Oscar Galgut.

Sydney Kentridge, QC, represented us brilliantly, but in vain. Sparks and I were found guilty of "tendentious reporting".

We had to publish "a correction". This "guilty" verdict, I understood, was the minimum Kruger required as an alternative to banning us outright. I will never forget that phrase, "tendentious reporting".

I was still young and idealistic enough to become tearful at such injustice.

But Sparks, showing the leadership I had come to expect of him, told me not to be self-indulgent. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen," he said.

In mid-November 1977, he assigned me to cover the inquest held at the Old Synagogue in Pretoria. My instruction was to report proceedings verbatim, and I took down every word in shorthand. Because of the enormous workload of transcribing the verbatim record and pulling out a daily front-page lead, I was aided by court reporters Carol Steyn and Melanie Yap.

Over the 15-day inquest, we listened to a parade of people who had contact with Biko during his dying five days - from the time of the alleged "scuffle" on September 7 to his death on September 12. They included Captain Piet Goosen and Major Harold Snyman of the security police and doctors involved in treating him. We heard their account and their suspicion that Biko's coma was a "sham".

Witnesses described how he was transported, naked and manacled in the back of a police vehicle, to Pretoria, and how he died, alone on a cell floor. Kentridge tried to drag out as much detail as possible from what was clearly an edited account.

From time to time, I would look up at the face of Biko's regal mother, dressed in black, who sat as if in a trance, listening to the account of her son's last days. His wife, Ntsiki, sat next to her mother-in-law. The portrait of them, united in grief, has stayed with me always.

The most devastating moment of the inquest was the single legalistic sentence that ended it. "The available evidence does not prove that death was brought about by an act or omission involving an offence by any person," said Magistrate Marthinus Prins in his flat, matter-of-fact tone.

We all knew better, even Prins. The murder of Biko marked the start of the darkest decade in the history of apartheid.

It is a sad irony that the 30th commemoration of the murder of Biko also marks the demise of the Pan Africanist Congress - the party whose founding philosophy was closely linked to Biko's vision of African solidarity and psychological liberation.

That the PAC collapsed as a result of bitter infighting and floor-crossing makes the coincidence of dates all the more tragic and ironic.

It is not my place to seek to be an interpreter of Biko's vision and world-view. There are many who argue Black Consciousness is a necessary step on the road to non-racialism. That may be so, and I have no doubt that is how Biko himself understood it.

The great risk of defining identity exclusively in racial terms is that race classification and racial preferment become entrenched, to advance vested interests. An even greater risk is that they become a smokescreen for promoting the agenda of a small elite and pretend this is in the interests of the masses.

This is not what Steve Biko stood for. As we commemorate his death, it is worth recalling the most famous phrase attributed to him: "It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die."

Apartheid is dead. Biko's ideas live on. It is incumbent on us to ensure that they are indeed a beacon on the road to genuine non-racialism.




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