South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


The Death of Stephen Biko


Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings on the Case

Nearly twenty years later, after the end of apartheid, the death of Biko featured as a prominent case in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The case first appeared in the institutional hearings, where the TRC examined the role of health professionals in human rights violations. The report cited the Biko case as an example of the failure of district surgeons to adhere to the ethics of their profession and human rights guidelines. It stated that doctors failed to:
... a) maintain patient-doctor confidentiality norms; b) treat their patient with dignity and respect; c) examine the patient thoroughly; d) record and report injuries accurately; e) diagnose illnesses and prescribe appropriate medication; f) register complaints (particularly pertaining to assault and torture). ("Health Sector," Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 4: Institutional Hearings, 113)
The TRC report concluded that district surgeons employed by the government were not generally directly involved in committing gross human rights violations, but,
... through apathy, acceptance of the status quo and acts of omission, allowed the creation of an environment in which the health of millions of South Africans was neglected, even at times actively compromised, and in which violations of moral and ethical codes of practice were frequent, facilitating violations of human rights." (Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report, Volume 5: Findings and Conclusions, 250)
Five policemen applied for amnesty for the assault of Biko: Harold Snyman, Daniel Siebert, Rubin Marx, Johan Beneke, and Gideon Nieuwoudt. Initially, the Biko family opposed the policemen's application to the TRC because they wanted to prosecute the policemen in a court of law. They, along with the families of other murder victims such as medical doctor Fabian Ribeiro and lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, appealed to the Constitutional Court in April 1996 to declare the granting of amnesty unconstitutional. The court upheld the TRC legislation and pointed to South Africa's 1996 Constitution's call for national reconciliation and unity as reason for their decision.
 
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