“September ’77Port Elizabeth weather fine It was business as usual
In police room 619.” This is the first line from a Peter Gabriel song titled “Biko” .
When I first heard it, I didn’t know who Biko was or what the context of the song was. Because I liked the song I made it my business to find out. What I discovered shocked me. I will not go too much inti the life of Steve Biko, but I will go into his final hours on earth.
He was a South African anti-apartheid activist. Ideologically an African nationalist and African socialist, he was at the forefront of a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign known as the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s and 1970s. His ideas were articulated in a series of articles published under the pseudonym Frank Talk.
On August 18, 1977, he and a fellow activist were seized at a roadblock and jailed in Port Elizabeth.
On 6 September, he was transferred from Walmer to room 619 of the security police headquarters in the Sanlam Building in central Port Elizabeth, where he was interrogated for 22 hours, handcuffed and in shackles, and chained to a grille. Exactly what happened has never been ascertained, but during the interrogation he was severely beaten by at least one of the ten security police officers. He suffered three brain lesions that resulted in a massive brain haemorrhage on 6 September. Following this incident, Biko’s captors forced him to remain standing and shackled to the wall. The police later said that Biko had attacked one of them with a chair, forcing them to subdue him and place him in handcuffs and leg irons.
Biko was examined by a doctor, Ivor Lang, who stated that there was no evidence of injury on Biko.
According to the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa” report, on September 7, 1977:
“Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury.”
By September 11, Biko had slipped into a continual semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to the hospital. Biko was, however, transported nearly 750 miles to Pretoria—a 12-hour journey, which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on September 12, alone and still naked, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage.
South African Minister of Justice Kruger initially suggested Biko had died of a hunger strike and said that his murder “left him cold.” The hunger strike story was dropped after local and international media pressure, especially from Woods. It was revealed in the inquest that Biko had died of brain damage, but the magistrate failed to find anyone responsible. He ruled that Biko had died as a result of injuries sustained during a scuffle with security police while in detention.
Biko never advocated violence, yet he was murdered in the most violent way one can imagine. Murdered by so called officers of the law, who were supposed to protect and serve.