South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


The Death of Stephen Biko


District surgeons employed by the government, Doctors Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang, examined Biko on September 7. Biko was weak, spoke unclearly, and had external injuries on his face and head. Despite evidence of neurological damage, the doctors allowed Biko to be kept in the cell, naked, chained to the grill, and did not record any external injuries. A further test by another physician (a lumbar puncture that should show brain damage) was reported as normal though it "[revealed] blood-stained cerebrospinal fluid (indicating possible brain damage)." ("Health Sector," Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 4: Institutional Hearings) When Biko's condition did not improve and he lapsed into semi-consciousness, Dr. Tucker recommended that Biko be admitted into a hospital. On September 11, the security police decided to transport Biko approximately 700 miles (1100 kilometers) away to Pretoria Central Prison (without any medical records), through the night, lying naked on the floor of a small truck. Biko died shortly after his arrival in Pretoria.

When Minister of Police, James Kruger, announced Biko's death, he claimed Biko had died following a hunger strike. Many people questioned this report and, when evidence from a post-mortem examination suggested Biko had died from head injuries, Kruger withdrew his earlier explanation. Kruger's initial announcement of Biko's alleged hunger strike resembled the bizarre reports of other deaths in detention. During periods of militant resistance (in the 1960s, late 1970s, and mid-1980s) the number of deaths in detention increased; these cases were explained by the state as suicides by hanging with the detainee's clothing, head injuries after falling in the shower or other accidents, and 'natural causes.'

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded in its 1998 report that the use of torture and assault during interrogation was "widespread and systematic," used by security police at all levels and parts of the country, and condoned by the government as an official practice. (Coleman, 53 and TRC Report, Volume 2, 187, 220) Physical beatings were the most common form of torture, followed by suffocation, electric shock, forced postures or body positions, and sexual abuse. Police also deprived detainees of sleep, food and drink, kept them naked, exposed them to cold, and even dangled detainees from windows. Many people were held in solitary confinement. This kind of treatment caused shame and humiliation in addition to physical pain and, when the police went too far, death. (Coleman, 54-55) The TRC estimated that, between 1960 and 1990, 80,000 people were held in police custody under security legislation that allowed indefinite detention without trial and reported that seventy-three of those detainees died while in detention. (Coleman, 56-57 and TRC Report, Volume 2, 187) The police detained not only political leaders, but people from all sectors of society, including children.

Because detention legislation allowed interrogation to be carried out in secrecy, the police had the protection of the state when their actions were investigated. Biko's case was brought to court in November and December 1977, after much internal and international pressure on the state to establish the true cause of Biko's death. The court questioned three of the security policemen involved in the incident, Colonel Goosen, their chief officer, and the district surgeons. Sometimes the only evidence on the side of victims of police brutality was their physical wounds. In the Biko inquest, the policemen and doctors attempted to explain the forensic evidence presented by the pathologists who conducted Biko's post-mortem examination while under orders from their superiors not to embarrass the Security police or government. At the conclusion of the inquest, the policemen and the doctors escaped conviction and punishment. Furthermore, the South African Medical and Dental Council and the Medical Association of South Africa failed to convict Dr. Lang and Tucker for improper patient care, and, when their case was taken to the Supreme Court in 1985, the doctors received minimal, inconsequential sentences.
 
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