September 12, 1977 - Steve Biko died in Pretoria, South Africa, after being brutally beaten to death by five white police officers during an interrogation.
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Biko had played a critical role in the Soweto Uprising of June 1976. Port Elizabeth security police detained him at a roadblock on August 18, charging him with violation of Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967.
Biko was initially held in Cell No. 4 at the Walmer Police Station in Walmer, a suburb of Port Elizabeth. For 20 days, he was held here -- naked, never leaving his cell, unable to wash or exercise. On the morning of September 5, Biko was given underwear, a shirt, and trousers and taken to the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. A drab office building owned and occupied by the Sanlam Insurance firm, it also housed cells and interrogation facilities for the South African Bureau for State Security (the internal security police). Biko was taken to Room 619.
Forty-year-old Major Harold Snyman led the interrogation. He was assisted by four others: 31-year-old Capt. Daantje (Daniel) P. Siebert, Warrant Officer Jacobus J.O. Beneke, 55-year-old Warrant Officer Ruben Marx, and 26-year-old Sgt. Gideon Nieuwoudt. Nicknamed "Notorious", Nieuwoudt was one of the most feared interrogators in the Eastern Cape for his interrogation methods. These included wet bags, poison, and even torture machines he designed himself. He often disguised himself as a priest, and his victims called him the "Priest From Hell".
Biko was stripped to his underwear and interrogated and tortured until 6 P.M. on September 5 (about eight hours), and again on September 6 from 7 A.M. until 9 P.M. It's likely he was also tortured and interrogated during the night of Sept. 5-6 by Lt. Winston E. Wilken, Warrant Officer Henry Fouche, and Warrant Officer B. Coetzee.
The events which caused Biko's death are not fully known. But it is clear that, some time just before or just after his "day interrogation" began at 7:30 A.M. on September 7, the security police bashed Biko's head against the wall of Room 619. It's not clear how many times they did so, but at least three and perhaps as many as five times. (Siebert later said that the sleep-deprived Biko had begged to be allowed to sit down. In response, the officers used his head like a battering ram against the wall. A telex message sent by Col. Goosen to Security Police Headquarters in Pretoria on Sept. 16 -- four days after Biko's death -- said Biko's injury was "inflicted" at 7 A.M. on September 7.) Biko slumped to the floor after this attack. His attackers then chained his wrists and ankles to a metal grille covering the cell door (or cell window, it's unclear), to force him to stand. Biko was now only semi-conscious, and slurring his words -- a sure sign of head trauma.
At 7:30 A.M. on September 7, Snyman found Biko only semi-conscious and unable to answer questions. He notified 50-year-old Col. Pieter J. Goosen, chief of the State Security police for the Eastern Cape, who then visited Biko. By the time Goosen arrived, it seems the grille had been taken off the door and laid on the floor. Biko was, however, still chained to the grille (although a mat was placed between him and the grille). Snyman and his team claimed Biko had fought with them and been injured. Goosen later said he believed Biko was faking an injury or had suffered a stroke. Goosen called in Dr. Ivor Lang, a physician with the Eastern Cape secret police. Lang examined Biko at 9:30 A.M. Lang got Biko to his feet, and observed an ataxic gait (unable to walk in a coordinated manner). He also found Biko's speech slurred. Goosen "urged" Lang to issue a report that said Biko was not injured, and Lang did so. At some point (probably that night), Biko was unchained from the grille and given a blanket to cover him. He remained shackled.
By the morning of September 8, Biko had not moved from where he lay, shackled, on the mat on the floor of Room 619. Dr. Lang now called in Dr. Benjamin Tucker, the chief physician for the Eastern Cape secret police. Tucker found Biko had been unable to control his bladder. Still only semi-conscious, Biko was however able to drink water. Tucker performed a simple neurological test in which a blunt instrument is dragged along the sole of the foot. In normal patients, the toes curl downward. But Biko's big toe moved upward, and the other toes remained motionless. This is the Babinski response, a sign of neurological damage. Worried, Tucker transferred Biko that evening to nearby Sydenham Prison Hospital.
On the morning of September 9, Dr. Colin Hersch, a physician at Sydenham, examined Biko. Biko exhibited echolalia (the automatic repetition of vocalizations made by another person), still showed the ataxic gait and Babinski response, had extensive weakness on his left side, and had difficulty turning over in bed. Hersch then performed a lumbar puncture on Biko. Fluid from Biko's spine was analyzed and found full of blood. On the basis of the lumbar puncture, Hersch told Goosen that Biko had suffered nerve damage, but did not tell him that there was possible brain trauma (even though Hersch suspected it). Dr. Lang visited Biko that afternoon, and allegedly found him able to speak and reason normally. A prison orderly then told Lang that he found Biko that night at 3:00 A.M., fully dressed and lying in a bath tub full of water. When the orderly checked on Biko again, the bath tub was empty. (It could be that the two incidents never occurred. But if they did take place, it could have been due to disorientation arising from the brain damage, or they could have been staged by police to explain how Biko sustained brain damage.) Lang then told Goosen that Biko should be transfered to a public or private hospital, but Goosen refused. (Lang also told Dr. Tucker about the Babinski response, and Tucker said this is a sign of severe head trauma. But Tucker declined to press Lang for a hospital transfer, since he felt Biko was Lang's patient.)
On September 10, Lang consulted by telephone with Dr. Roger Keeley, a neurosurgeon. Keeley advised him that Biko probably suffered severe head trauma, and should remain under close observation. Lang visited Biko again that morning, and claimed that Biko's condition had not changed and that Biko was fully conscious and talking. Lang then falsely entered a normal lumbar puncture report into the medical record. At 3:30 P.M., Lang ordered Biko released from Sydenham Prison Hospital, and Biko was transferred to the Walmer Police Station. Lang falsely claimed that he told Biko of the transfer, and that Biko understood him. At the police station, Biko (still shackled) was placed in a concrete cell and given a mat to lie on. Sgt. Paul J. van Vuuren, who visited Biko during the night, initially found Biko asleep on his mat. Later during the night, van Vurren found him on the cement floor, lying on his right side with his head toward the cell bars and his feet near the mat. There was froth at his mouth and his eyes were glazed. Van Vuuren tried to give Biko water, but Biko did not drink. Van Vuuren put Biko back on the mat.
At 2 P.M. on September 11, Goosen visited Biko at the Walmer Police Station. He found Biko glassy-eyed, frothing at the mouth, unresponsive, and hyperventilating. Alarmed, Dr. Tucker rushed to the police station, arriving at 3:30 P.M. Despite the urgency of the visit, in his medical report Tucker said that Biko's condition was unchanged from the day before. Nevertheless, he asked Goosen to move Biko to a public hospital. Goosen refused, saying he thought Biko was still faking an illness. So Tucker asked that Biko be moved to a hospital in Pretoria, 680 miles away. Goosen approved the transfer. Tucker asked that Biko -- now semi-comatose -- be given a soft mattress to lie on, but instead was given only a few prison cell mats. The police vehicle left Port Elizabeth at 6:30 P.M. No medical personnel rode in the vehicle. Capt. Siebert drove the vehicle, while Lt. Wilken and W.O. Nieuwoudt rode inside. They later claimed Biko, who was only in his underwear, slept most of the entire way.
At about 5:30 A.M. on September 12, the police vehicle arrived at the Central Prison in Pretoria. Several hours passed, while Biko lay, shackled and clad only in underwear, on a mat in a prison cell. Finally, prison physician Dr. Andries van Zyl examined Biko at about 3 P.M. No medical records accompanied Biko, and neither Lang, Tucker, or Hersch called to discuss the case. Van Zyl was told only that Biko had refused to eat or drink for a week. Van Zyl ordered Biko put on an intrevenous drip and given a vitamin injection. Afterward, Biko was placed on a mat in a prison cell.
Steve Biko died some time in the evening of September 12. (The time of death is not clear, nor is the time at which the body was discovered.)
In announcing Biko's death late on the evening of September 12, Jimmy Kruger, Minister of Justice and the Police, said Biko had refused food and water beginning on Sept. 5, and that he'd died from this hunger strike. Kruger even made fun of Biko's death, which outraged blacks and offended even racist whites.
As one of the most charismatic and high-profile leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, Biko's death became international news.
By law, Biko's widow, Ntsiki Mashalaba, had the right to see her husband's body in the mortuary. Donald Woods, white editor of the East London "Daily Dispatch" and a long-time friend of Biko's accompanied her. Woods photographed Biko's body, which had been autopsied earlier in the day. Woods' photographs helped expose the true nature of Biko's death. (Woods was "banned" -- placed under house arrest -- on October 19, and his family harassed by police. After his daughter was horribly burned by an acid-bearing t-shirt, Woods fled the country disguised as a Catholic priest on January 1, 1979.)
On September 14, the "Rand Daily Mail" reported that Biko died of massive untreated head trauma. That day, responding to the newspaper's report, Kruger claimed (snickering as he did so) that Biko had banged his head repeatedly against the wall and that this had caused his fatal injuries.
But it was clear that Biko's death was changing things. Security police officers, interrogators, and orderlies met on Saturday, September 17, to try to get their stories straight. But their cover-up was inept, and that's putting it mildly.
Biko's funeral took place on September 25, attended by more than 15,000 people -- including ambassadors and diplomats from the United States and Western Europe.
Legally, an inquest into Biko's death had to occur. On October 24, a post-mortem signed by the Chief State Pathologist, a pathologist from the University of Pretoria, and a physician appointed by the Biko family unanimously affirms that Biko died from massive head trauma sustained while in police custody. The report also shows that Biko sufffered anywhere from eight to 12 other major and minor injuries while being interrogated. An internal security police report, issued the same day, says it can identify no reason for Biko's death. Two days later, the Attorney Genera for the Transvaal and the Attorney General for the Eastern Cape both say they will not prosecute anyone for Biko's death.
The inquest began November 14, 1977, and ended on December 2. Presiding Magistrate Martinus Prins concludes there is no evidence to charge anyone in the Bureau for State Security with murder. His conclusions draw international outrage and scorn.
On July 28, 1979, the South African government paid Biko's widow $78,000 in compensation for Steve Biko's death.
Pieter Goosen died in 1988. He was 61.
After the collapse of apartheid between 1989 and 1994, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created in 1996 to establish the true facts of what happened during apartheid, and to grant amnesty, when justice warranted it, to those who engaged in crimes under the apartheid system. In 1997, Snyman, Siebert, Beneke, Marx, and Nieuwoudt requested amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All five were required to testify truthfully before the commission about the crime.
Nieuwoudt was convicted in 1996 for planting a 1989 car bomb that killed three black policemen and a black police informer in Motherwell. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crime, but was freed on appeal.
Snyman died of cancer on November 1, 1998, while awaiting the amnesty decision.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission denied the amnesty requests in 1999, after the Commission found that their testimony before it was not truthful.
Niewoudt already served prison time in the early 2000s for his role in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of two black student anti apartheid activists (the "Cosas Two") in 1982. During his prison term, he underwent a religious conversion and subsequently sought forgiveness on live television from his victims' families.
On October 7, 2003, the South African Ministry of Justice announced that the surviving four officers -- Siebert, Beneke, Marx, and Nieuwoudt -- would not be prosecuted for the death of Biko because the time-limit for prosecution had elapsed and there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
In 2004, Nieuwoudt was charged with the 1985 murders of three black anti-apartheid activists who were members of the Port Elizabeth Civic Organisation (PEBCO). Their bodies were burned and thrown into the Fish River. Nieuwoudt died of lung cancer on August 19, 2005, his amnesty requests for the 1985 and 1989 crimes still pending.
It's not clear whether Daantje Siebert (now 69 years old), Jacobus Beneke (age unknown), Ruben Marx (now 93 years old), Winston Wilken (age unknown), Henry Fouche (age unknown), or B. Coetzee (age unknown) are still alive.