On 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in a prison cell in Pretoria. The announcement of Biko’s death by the South African government the next day sparked international and national protest. Steve Biko was not the only person to die in detention at the hands of the South African security police; yet, because of Biko’s prominence as a charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, his case captured the attention of many South Africans and people throughout the world.
Biko’s death in detention illustrates the brutality of the security police during apartheid and the state’s hand in covering up torture and abuse of political detainees. Biko’s case also demonstrates the collaboration of non-governmental institutions with apartheid and, furthermore, that not all South Africans accepted or were satisfied with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Biko was a founding member of the South African Student Organization (SASO), an exclusively black student organization that stressed the need for black South Africans to liberate themselves psychologically and to become self-reliant in order to fundamentally change South Africa. The formation of SASO in 1969 marked the beginning of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). This movement re-energized resistance to apartheid in the 1970s and spawned a number of other political and community development organizations. In 1973, the government banned Biko to his home area, King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. Despite this restriction, he continued his political work as a key figure in the BCM and helped implement several community projects.
In August 1977, Biko and his associate, Peter Jones, drove to Cape Town (violating Biko’s banning order) to meet with members of other liberation movement organizations. On their way back through the Eastern Cape, the police stopped Biko and Jones at a routine road block near Grahamstown. When the police recognized the two men, they arrested them under Section 6 of the 1967 Terrorism Act that allowed indefinite detention without trial for the purposes of interrogation in solitary confinement. The police interrogated them at security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth about their alleged involvement in distributing “subversive” pamphlets in the area. Biko died on September 12, at the age of 30, from brain damage sustained after a physical struggle with his interrogators, inadequate medical care, and inhumane treatment. (Peter Jones was released 533 days later, in February 1979, after solitary confinement and torture.)
The Port Elizabeth security police were known for their brutality. On the morning of September 6, what would be described by the policeman as a “scuffle” erupted between the policeman and Biko. Daniel Siebert led the interrogation, flanked by Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Rubin Marx, and Johan Beneke. Amidst the physical struggle, the policemen punched Biko, beat him with a hosepipe, and ran him into a wall, after which he collapsed. The policemen then shackled Biko upright to a security gate with his arms spread out (“spread-eagled”) and his feat chained to the gate, in a crucifixion position. They left Biko chained to the gate (later laying him on the floor) and did not call for a doctor for 24 hours.