Black consciousness leader Steve Biko’s philosophy and ideology has stood the test of time. Picture: Independent Media Archives
Black consciousness leader Steve Biko’s philosophy and ideology has stood the test of time. Picture: Independent Media Archives

When Biko the man died, Biko the martyr was born

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 7, 2020

Share this article:

Subry Govender


“I’ve got no doubt in my mind that people, and I know people in terms of my own background where I stay, are not revengeful or sadistic. Now the black man has got no ill intentions for the white man. The black man is only incensed at the white man to the extent that he wants to entrench himself in a position of power to exploit the black man.” – Steven Bantu Biko.

IN A month when South Africans are observing the 43rd anniversary of the tragic death in police custody of the founder and leader of black consciousness in South Africa, Steven Bantu Biko, there seems to be a vital need today for leaders of his calibre.

Biko, 30, the courageous leader of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), died on September 12, 1977, after being brutally battered and assaulted by the notorious apartheid security police. Biko died of head wounds and brain damage 25 days after being detained along with a close comrade, Peter Jones, at a roadblock on August  18, 1977.

Biko was the 43rd South African political detainee to die under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. At the time of his death, Biko, who was the banned president of the BPC, was reportedly involved in moves inside the country to unify the forces of the ANC and the PAC in an attempt to co-ordinate the struggles against white minority rule.

It is understood that he and Jones were on this particular mission when they were stopped at a roadblock between King Williams Town and East London and detained under the regime’s security laws.

Biko was held in solitary confinement with no proper washing facilities at a cell in the headquarters of the security police in Port Elizabeth. And later he was kept naked and hand-cuffed and leg-shackled to the iron bars of his cell.

On September 11, 1977, when he was found to be in a state of collapse in the cell, he was transported lying naked in a land rover to a Pretoria prison more than 1  200km away.

The apartheid authorities said this was done out of compassion for Biko because the medical facilities in Pretoria were far better than those in Port Elizabeth. But the next day Biko died a miserable and lonely death on a mat placed on a stone floor.

Immediately after his brutal death reverberated throughout South Africa and the world, the then minister of justice, Jimmy Kruger, made small talk of the tragedy when he told a cheering meeting of the then ruling National Party in the then Transvaal that Biko had starved himself to death.

He echoed the callousness and satisfaction of the apartheid authorities when he announced: “I am not sad, I am not glad, it leaves me cold.”

His insensitive attitude knew no bounds even when it transpired that Biko died of brain injuries. Kruger’s response was typical: “A man can damage his brain in many ways.”

He went on to imply suicide by saying: “I don’t know if they were self-inflicted. But I often think of banging my head against a wall.”

Even the security policeman in charge of Biko at the time of his death, Colonel Pieter Goosen, tried to absolve himself and his men from any blame by saying that he had taken all measures to ensure the safekeeping of detainees, and to make sure that they did not escape or injure themselves.

But in trying to find excuses, he made a gigantic slip that really landed him in the soup.

He said: “I am proud that during Biko’s interrogation, no assault charges had ever been laid against my ‘assaulting team’.” He later changed the phrase to “interrogating team”.

But the truth of the matter was that Biko died of at least five brain lesions caused by the application of external force to the head.

The inquest into his death in 1978, however, found that no one was responsible and cleared the security policemen of any blame.

What was even more distressing was that the two doctors, Dr Ivor Lang and Dr Benjamin Tucker, who were called by the security police management to attend to Biko, failed to live up to their medical ethics.

It was found that when Lang and Tucker had seen Biko on September  7, he was manacled to the bars of his cell; they found him on a cell mat soaked with urine; and his blanket and clothing were also soaked with urine.

Three days later the doctors found Biko to be in a semi-comatose condition, frothing at the mouth. Despite the fact that Biko was obviously seriously ill, Dr Tucker could again make no diagnosis. He merely repeated that Biko be taken to a provincial hospital.

According to the evidence, Biko had been exhibiting various symptoms consistent with possible brain damage. His gait was irregular, he was foaming at the mouth, was confused, hyperventilating and bed-wetting, and had swollen feet and lesions on the forehead and lips.

Despite the disgraceful manner in which the two doctors had conducted themselves, the SA Medical and Dental Council at that time refused to take action.

The council was only forced to take action in 1985 after the Supreme Court of the then Transvaal Province found that there was evidence to suggest “improper and disgraceful” conduct on the part of the two doctors.

The application to the Supreme Court was made by six leading medical people – Professor Timothy Wilson, Professor Frances Ames, Professor Trevor Jenkins, Professor Philip Tobias, Dr Yousuf Variava and Dr Dumisani Mzamane.

An inquiry in July 1985 found Dr Tucker guilty of 10 counts of disgraceful conduct and three counts of improper conduct. The inquiry recommended that he be suspended from practice for three months, this itself suspended for two years.

The inquiry found Dr Lang to be guilty of eight counts of improper conduct but only recommended that he be cautioned and discharged.

Helen Suzman, who was the veteran opposition leader in the all-white Parliament at that time, was one of the many leaders who reacted with shock and anger at the recommended sentences.

She said: “It is reprehensible that the council had to be forced to take action and furthermore that these doctors should get so lenient sentences for acts which brought South Africa into disgrace.”

Steve Biko’s coffin is carried through a crowd of thousands of mourners at his funeral on September 25, 1977. Picture: Independent Media Archives

Biko was born to humble parents in the small town of Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape where he completed his early schooling and his matriculation examination.

He proceeded to Durban to do a doctor’s degree at the University of Natal Black Medical School where he soon became involved in the activities of the multi-racial National Union of SA Students (Nusas).

But his association with Nusas led to disillusionment when he and his friends found that the black man could never gain liberation by joining the debating chambers of white-controlled organisations.

It was against this background that Biko and his colleagues established

the SA Students Organisation (Saso) and later the BPC to cater for non-students working outside the apartheid system.

Biko set the two organisations on their course when he outlined the philosophy of black consciousness by saying that black people had to shake off all forms of imperialism – cultural, economical and psychological – in order to win physical freedom.

But his leadership was short-lived. The apartheid authorities, sensing that he was a force to be reckoned with, slapped him with a five-year banning order in 1974 and restricted him to his home district of King Williams Town.

However, in spite of the restrictions and security police harassment, Biko continued to harness the thinking of the young people at that time and to be at the forefront of the international spotlight.

He was such a charismatic and vociferous opponent of apartheid that scores of diplomats and international personalities used to search him out in the backdrop of Ginsberg for his views and opinions about a future South Africa.

Biko, who had started a fresh “revolution” and who had outmanouvred an almost Nazi-like system, is remembered for his actions and socio-economic and political ideals. His philosophy and ideology still live with us and they will not disappear.

For when Biko the man died on on September 12, 1977, Biko the martyr was born.

Govender is a veteran journalist.

The Mercury

Share this article: