After being expelled from high school for political activism, Biko managed to enroll in and graduate (1966) from St. Francis College, a liberal boarding school in Natal, and then entered the University of Natal Medical School. There he became involved in the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a moderate organization that had long espoused the rights of blacks. Growing disenchanted with NUSAS, in which he claimed that "the whites [were] doing all the talking and the blacks listening," he became in 1968 cofounder and first president of the all-black South African Students' Organization (SASO), whose aim was to raise black consciousness and black self-esteem and "to overcome the psychological oppression of blacks by whites." In the 1970s the Black Consciousness Movement spread from university campuses into urban black communities throughout South Africa.
Biko's black activism eventually drew official censure when he and other SASO members were served with "banning" orders in February 1973, tightly restricting their associations, movements, and public statements. Biko then operated covertly, establishing the Zimele Trust Fund in 1975 to help political prisoners and their families. He was arrested four times over the next two years and was held without trial for months at a time. On Aug. 18, 1977, he and a fellow activist were seized at a roadblock and jailed in Port Elizabeth. Not formally charged with any specific crime, Biko was arrested under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. This Act allowed for the indefinite detention, for the purposes of interrogation, of any person suspected to be a terrorist, or to be in possession of information regarding activities of terrorists. Twenty-six days after his arrest, Biko died in prison from massive head injuries. Although it will never be known exactly what happened to Biko from the time he was arrested up until the day of his death, there is enough evidence to incriminate the presiding district surgeons of unethical conduct.
On September 7, 1977, the leader of the daytime interrogation team, Major Snyman, reported to Colonel Goosen on detainee Stephen Bantu Biko's condition, stating that Biko was refusing to react to questions and was acting strangely. Early that morning a Port Elizabeth district surgeon, Dr. Ivor Lang, was called by Colonel Goosen, head of the security police in the Eastern Cape, to examine Biko for a suspected stroke. By WMA guidelines, the doctor has the right to examine the detainee in private, without the presence of a security officer. Nevertheless, Dr. Lang examined Biko under the watchful eye of Colonel Goosen. Biko was moved from his cell into a policeman's office at security headquarters, placed on a mat, and shackled to a metal grill.
Dr. Lang found that the patient,
Yet when summoned by Colonel Goosen for a medical certificate, Dr. Lang reported:
The following day Dr. Lang's presence was again requested along with that of his superior, Dr. Benjamin Tucker, the chief district surgeon for Port Elizabeth. Biko, still manacled to the metal grille, and on the same mat now soaked with urine, was once again examined. Dr. Tucker observed a possible extensor plantar reflex in the detainee, and concluded that this symptom of nervous system malfunction could possibly be the result of brain damage. Further examination was requested and on September 9 a specialist at the Sydenham Prison Hospital, Dr. Hersch, performed a lumbar puncture which revealed bloodstaining in the cerebrospinal fluid. A neurosurgeon, Dr. Keely, was consulted and advised Dr. Lang to keep Biko under close observation.
Due to the fact that the prison hospital lacked observation facilities, Dr. Lang arranged for Biko to be relocated to the Walmer police station cells. Dr. Lang recorded in his medical record:
Once again, Biko was left lying on a mat on a cement floor and the only attention he received was the occasional glance from a police warden. On September 11 Colonel Goosen once again had Dr. Tucker visit the detainee. Tucker found Biko to be unresponsive, frothing at the mouth, glossy-eyed, and hyperventilating. Dr. Tucker recommended that Biko be transferred to a provincial hospital in Port Elizabeth, but Colonel Goosen refused to allow this for security reasons. Surrendering to the wishes of the security police, Tucker gave his permission for Biko to be transferred by motor vehicle 750 miles to the Pretoria Central Prison.
Biko, semi-comatose, naked, and handcuffed, was put in the back of a Land Rover and driven unaccompanied by any medical personnel, and without any record of his medical history, to the Pretoria Central Prison. There, many hours after his arrival, he was examined by district surgeon Dr. A. Van Zyl, who had been summoned because the detainee was refusing to eat. An intravenous drip, accompanied by a vitamin injection, was administered but on September 12, 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died on the floor of his cell, unattended. A post mortem revealed massive brain damage and hemorrhage.
Biko's death provoked extreme outrage both within South Africa, and around the world. The South African regime was already under international scrutiny because of the Soweto uprising in 1976, just one year before Biko's death. International outrage with the regime's repressive nature increased as the details of Biko's death came to light. Then Justice Minister of South Africa, Jimmy Kruger, announced that Biko had died because of a hunger strike. He asserted that the district surgeons and police believed Biko had been "feigning illness" and was therefore taken by Land Rover to Pretoria without medical supervision. However, the autopsy revealed the cause of death as a blow (or blows) to the head, struck with enough force to render Biko unconscious.
The widespread anger generated by Biko's death, resulted in an inquest to examine the conduct and medical negligence of the doctors involved. During this inquest, one of the doctors admitted that "he didn't know that in this particular situation one could override the decisions made by a responsible police officer." Furthermore, during the inquest, the doctors admitted to clinical errors and the falsification of reports. Dr. Lang conceded that he wrote an inaccurate medical certificate at the request of Colonel Goosen of the security police.
After a year long judicial inquest, it was found that no particular person could be blamed for Biko's death and the case was submitted to the South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC) for further investigation. In 1982, after three years of procrastination, the SAMDC found the doctors not guilty of unprofessional conduct, a decision supported by the Medical Association of South Africa (MASA). There was furious protest both from within and without South Africa, but no further action was taken against the doctors involved. The MASA concluded that:
In the aftermath of this scandal, the legitimacy and agenda of the MASA began to be doubted. The dissatisfaction of many doctors with the actions and decisions taken by the MASA, especially as pertained to the issue of the health and welfare of detainees under security legislation, contributed to the rise of an alternative organization, The National Medical and Dental Association (NAMDA). NAMDA felt that the MASA was too closely aligned with the apartheid state. Nevertheless, as late at 1984, 80 percent of actively practising doctors were still members of MASA.
The public outcry over the torture, murder, coverup, and injustices done to Biko, caused an international scandal that helped focus the world on the Apartheid policies of the South African government. This and other episodes started the embargos of talent (SunCity), technology, and business from many nations.
We should never forget the inhumanity that we are capable of, and that we must never let those who do, escape from the eye of the world.
The movie Cry Freedom also tells the story of Biko and his relationship with a white journalist, Donald Woods.
September '77 Port Elizabeth weather fine It was business as usual In police room 619 Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja -The man is dead When I try to sleep at night I can only dream in red The outside world is black and white With only one colour dead Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja -The man is dead You can blow out a candle But you can't blow out a fire Once the flames begin to catch The wind will blow it higher Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja -The man is dead And the eyes of the world are watching now watching nowThere is a very complete Steve Biko Memorial Homepage at http://home.ici.net/~nikos/biko1.html