Not Only Was Activist Beaten,
He May Have Been Poisoned
By KEN WELLS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
PRETORIA, South Africa -- Two decades after the fact, it is official:
The apartheid state and its police helpers killed activist Steven Bantu
Biko. But it may be worse than the world thought. There are new allegations
that he wasn't only tortured and beaten, but poisoned.
Those allegations, which came to light only Wednesday, were made by a
yet unnamed informant to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, the constitutional body charged with investigating
apartheid-era crimes and human-rights violations.
They follow last week's admission by five white former security
policeman who say they methodically assaulted, tortured and eventually
killed Mr. Biko in 1977. A figure of the stature of Nelson Mandela, his
death shocked the world and provided fresh outrage to antiapartheid forces
who were being worn down by aggressive government harassment.
Those close to the commission say it is too early to tell how seriously
to take the allegations that Mr. Biko was poisoned with a substance whose
effects mimic brain damage. But the panel has subpoenaed for Feb. 10 a
former medical officer with the South African Defense Forces who
commissioners believe may have some knowledge of the matter, people close
to the commission say. Testimony in previous murder trials of antiapartheid
activists has established that the notorious Special Branch police force in
South Africa's Eastern Cape province used poison -- including whiskey laced
with rat poison -- to kill and maim black targets.
Power to Grant Amnesty
The commission, which began operating about 18 months ago, has the power
to grant amnesty to perpetrators of so-called political crimes in cases
where it is convinced that the assailants are making full disclosure and
were following state orders.
The five policeman who came forward last week -- Harold Snyman, Gideon
Niewoudt, Ruben Marx, Daantjie Siebert and Johan Beneke -- maintain that
they killed Mr. Biko unintentionally, with blows delivered while following
official orders to rough him up. As many as five other police officers with
knowledge of the activist's death are also expected to file applications
before the commission.
In Port Elizabeth, Francois van der Merwe, attorney for the five
policemen, confirmed the Truth Commission amnesty filings but declined to
comment beyond that.
Commissioners are thus far unsatisfied with the individual details the
policemen have provided and will investigate lingering "gaps" in the
testimonies before deciding whether they deserve full amnesty hearings,
says Dumisa B. Ntsebeza, a commissioner with the agency's investigative
branch. Those whose amnesty applications are rejected -- or who are found
to have committed crimes unreported in their amnesty pleas -- may face
Whatever the case, Mr. Ntsebeza is optimistic that, before the year's
end, the commission will come as close as is possible to learning the truth
about Mr. Biko's death. Though many in South Africa, including Mr. Biko's
widow, Ntiski, have criticized the commission as potentially too lenient
toward the racist murderers of the old regime, many believe it is the only
reasonable way to get to the bottom of myriad crimes of the apartheid
The benefit of the commission is that "it puts on trial the entire
system of apartheid, and not just the foot soldiers of the regime," says
Shun Chetty, a South African lawyer, once exiled to Australia, who helped
represent Mr. Biko's family during the inquest into his death two decades
ago. "In that way, I think it's vital to the future of the country. But
unquestionably it means that some individuals and some families who
suffered heinously under the system will be asked to sacrifice for the
Whatever the final findings, a reconstruction of the Biko case --
through interviews with friends, associates, investigators and a review of
inquest testimony -- shows that Mr. Biko suffered horribly at the hands of
On a warm September morning in 1977, 24 days after Mr. Biko had been
detained incommunicado for interrogation by Special Branch police, his body
was delivered to his family, bruised and battered. Once a robust
30-year-old, he had died naked and frothing at the mouth on the floor of a
Pretoria jail hospital after an inexplicable 11-hour ride in a Land Rover
from a dank prison in Port Elizabeth, 600 miles away.
When official explanations that he had succumbed to a hunger strike met
with howls of derision, police offered a second explanation: One night, he
had scuffled violently with his captors, hit his head against a wall and
died of brain injuries while awaiting medical attention. He hadn't
otherwise been assaulted or tortured, they said.
"I never thought they would kill him," recalls Donald Woods, a white
newspaper editor who was exiled from South Africa for his antiapartheid
views and his muckraking about the Biko case. "Steve had been in detention
before and he had not been tortured ... . It was the very worst thing they
could have done."
Indeed it was. Mr. Biko was a daring and articulate founder and mainstay
of the Black Consciousness Movement and, except for Mr. Mandela, perhaps
the best known and most fervent of South Africa's antiapartheid activists.
His death was mourned throughout the free world, and its suspicious
circumstances proved an enraging and galvanizing event in the simmering
antiapartheid movement here and abroad.
Thousands, including numerous Western diplomats, mobbed his funeral in a
run-down cemetery in King William's Town, in the Eastern Cape province,
despite police efforts to keep them away. And it was the blow that finally
convinced the U.S. government to impose an arms and oil embargo against the
white South Africa regime.
In its own way, Mr. Biko's death on Sept. 12, 1977, signaled the
beginning of the end of white rule here. Though Jimmy Kruger, South
Africa's police minister at the time, stood before the world and declared
no remorse over Mr. Biko's death, many inside the hated state police
apparatus back then weren't so cocksure. A typist overhead one supervisor
of the dreaded Special Branch say upon learning of Mr. Biko's death: "Now
we're in real trouble."
Beginning of the End
It all began on the evening of Aug. 18, when Mr. Biko, in a car driven
by his antiapartheid ally Peter Jones, rounded a corner in the Eastern Cape
city of Grahamstown, about 40 miles from King William's Town where Mr. Biko
Ahead was a police road block, recalls Mr. Jones, now a Cape Town lawyer
and entrepreneur. A car before them was waved through; they were stopped.
With little fanfare, policemen climbed into their car and ordered them to
follow a police car to a nearby Grahamstown jail. "They pretended they
didn't know us but took us in for questioning anyway," he says. Looking
behind him, Mr. Jones saw the roadblock come down.
The pair was already exhausted from a 10-hour drive from Cape Town,
where they had been in the midst of secret meetings that might certainly
have given the nervous white government reason to worry. The African
National Congress, Mr. Mandela's party that now leads South Africa's
nonracial government, says it was clear back then that Mr. Biko had decided
to play a major role in unification talks between the various black
liberation movements, including the ANC and the radical Pan African
Congress; to the white government's delight, those groups had been waging
sometimes splintered and fractious antiapartheid campaigns.
"Steve was a charismatic figure and a conciliator," recalls Mr. Chetty,
his sometime attorney. Though the government and many whites saw his Black
Consciousness Movement as a vehicle for black separatism, "what Steve
really believed and what the BCM stood for was the empowerment of black
people. It was the underdog trying to be defined as equal, but it wasn't
It was at the Grahamstown jail that one of the grimmest nightmares of
the apartheid-era began in earnest. When a search of Mr. Jones's car turned
up his identification card, the police turned up the heat on Mr. Biko to
identify himself. No stranger to detention, "He told them he was Steven
Bantu Biko," Mr. Jones recalls.
Before long, he and Mr. Biko found themselves manacled to cell bars,
charged under Section 6 of South Africa's Terrorism Act. This was
"detainment": Imprisonment with no chance of a lawyer, no contact with the
outside world, no pretense of due process.
Held for several hours, the two were separated and thrown into police
cars for a ride to a prison in nearby Port Elizabeth. Mr. Jones was kept
face down on the back seat, pinned there by the feet of policemen.
He never saw Mr. Biko again. But if his own treatment was a barometer,
he knew the fate of his friend. For the next 20 hours, Mr. Jones says he
was stripped, beaten with fists and pipes, kicked, screamed at, and
humiliated as five Special Branch policemen interrogated him for alleged
He would emerge from prison 533 days later, with the acts of assault and
torture that first greeted him repeated many times. How Mr. Biko fared has
largely been drawn from an autopsy report and the results of the 14-day
inquest that followed a month after his death. Such inquests were pro forma
when blacks turned up dead in detention; so were the results.
"What's forgotten about that era," says Mr. Chetty, the lawyer, is that
of an estimated 50 cases similar to Mr. Biko's, "nobody was ever found
guilty of killing a detainee. It is one of the disgraceful chapters in the
history of South African legal tradition."
If no one admitted murder, what was admitted was appalling enough. For
his first 20 days, Mr. Biko, except during periodic interrogations, was
kept naked and chained to his bedpost, and was never allowed to leave his
cell. On Sept. 1, Mr. Biko was visited by a magistrate, a jurist assigned
technically to monitor prisoners' conditions, and complained to him about
this and the fact that he hadn't been allowed to wash himself. He asked the
magistrate, according to testimony, "Is it compulsory that I have to be
naked?" The magistrate declined to answer.
The Alleged Scuffle
Five days later, on Sept. 6, Mr. Biko was moved temporarily to a prison
interrogation room. He had two groups of questioners, a day and a night
squad. Day-squad interrogators said they turned him over to the night squad
sometime after 6 p.m. It was apparently that evening that the alleged
scuffle took place and Mr. Biko suffered what might have been the fatal
blow to his head. The police even testified that it was serious enough that
they could no longer question him.
Mr. Biko's friends don't doubt that there could have been a scuffle. Mr.
Woods, the journalist, noted that during a prior incident, Mr. Biko had
slapped a policeman who had slapped him. "If they taunted Steve, he was
likely to taunt them back."
A prison doctor was dispatched to check Mr. Biko, and he reported that
despite the obvious head injury, there was no sign of anything abnormal.
Two days later, with Mr. Biko back in his cell, the doctor came back with a
more senior physician and found the prisoner lying in urine-soaked
trousers. The doctors continued to insist, according to inquest testimony,
that Mr. Biko wasn't seriously injured. Yet they ordered him taken to a lab
where, tapping fluid from his spine, they found traces of blood -- a common
indication of a brain damage.
"A first-year medical student would have picked that up," says Mr.
Chetty, the Biko family lawyer. But instead, Mr. Biko was sent back to his
cell, to languish.
Long Road to Pretoria
No one has yet come forward to say when Mr. Biko may have been poisoned.
On the morning of Sept. 11, a guard checking Mr. Biko found him lying naked
on his prison cot, semiconscious and foaming at the mouth. A doctor came
back to examine him and -- for reasons that have never been explained --
ordered him transferred to the prison hospital in Pretoria. Mr. Woods
posits that police knew Mr. Biko was dying, and feared his death in Port
Elizabeth might foment rebellion among his masses of black supporters in
the Eastern Cape.
So Mr. Biko was stashed naked, with only a bottle of water, in the back
of a Land Rover for the long drive to the capital. He was dumped on the
floor of the Pretoria hospital room. He came in and out of consciousness
and muttered a few indecipherable words before he died the next night.
Despite the obvious maltreatment, the magistrate of the inquest into Mr.
Biko's death took only 80 seconds to render a verdict. It was delivered in
Afrikaans, the language of the policemen who had interrogated him. The
policemen were cleared of any culpability.