South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


The Death of Stephen Biko


The amnesty hearings (held in Port Elizabeth in September and December 1997 and in Cape Town in March 1998) corrected some of the lies of the 1977 inquest. The policemen admitted that they had left Biko for twenty-four hours without medical treatment after his head injury; ignored detainee regulations by denying him proper medical care; kept him naked and shackled; and attempted to "cover up" the truth in the 1977 inquest. The men also offered a different version of the physical struggle in the interrogation room. Rather than portraying Biko's injuries as accidents or describing Biko as "wild-eyed" and "berserk" as they did in 1977, they admitted that Siebert had provoked Biko, which started the physical struggle, and that Beneke had "shoulder-tackled" Biko. Some of the policemen stated they had run Biko into a wall. Yet, no person admitted to actual assault, and the policemen's testimonies were contradictory, vague, and allusive. They continued to assert that the injuries Biko sustained resulted from their efforts to defend themselves rather than an intentional and violent assault. When presented with the forensic evidence from Biko's autopsy, Nieuwoudt denied any understanding of "biological science" and would not comment on it. The following is an excerpt from the proceedings:
MR BIZOS [lawyer for Biko family]: Did you cause his death?

MR SIEBERT: His death was caused by the incident which took place.

MR BIZOS: I asked you a simple question. Did you cause his death?

CHAIRPERSON: You, personally?

MR SIEBERT: I would not be able to say if it was my own, if I was responsible. There were a few of us present there.

MR BIZOS: Were you either responsible or partly responsible, which would make you responsible, for his death? Do you admit or deny your responsibility for Mr Biko's death?

MR SIEBERT: My participation in the incident, by implication, yes.

MR BIZOS: Now, you say you did not assault him. Please have a look at page three of your application. The question in 9(a)(1) is clear: "What crime are you asking for amnesty for?", and your response is: "Assault of Steven Bantu Biko". Is that a false statement in your application?

MR SIEBERT: No, it is not. What I understood by the question was whether there was any other assault... that or the fact that no medical assistance was given to him for a day and the fact that he was chained to or hand-cuffed to the gate, that is what boils down to assault. (Amnesty Hearing Transcript, "The Killing of Steve Biko," Port Elizabeth-7 [8-11 Dec. 1997])
Peter Jones testified during the hearings on Biko's death. (Nieuwoudt also applied for amnesty for assaulting Jones, which was granted.) Jones' testimony had bearing on the case because he was detained at the same time as Biko and interrogated by the same policemen, in the same room. His experiences may have resembled those of Biko and others who died in detention. Jones told of the attacks by his interrogators and the tactics they used to break him down. They kept him naked, beat him with their fists, kicked him, and hit him with hose pipes. When he did not provide the information the police wanted, the security policemen made him stand barefoot on two bricks while holding two chairs above his shoulders. After one especially intense episode of torture, he said, "... my entire body, my shoulders, my chest, my arms were full of welts and ... that evening I was unable to find any position on my body except my knees and the palms of my hands and the forehead, that was not burning. That is how I tried to fall asleep."(Amnesty Hearing Transcript, "The Killing of Steve Biko," Port Elizabeth-7 (8-11 Dec. 1997), Day 2 and 3, Amnesty Hearings and Decisions; Woods, Biko, 377-399)
 
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