Biko Murderers Confess What Everyone Knew

Still No Justice in Unliberated South Africa

by Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #894, February 16, 1997

I did a double-take when I saw the front page of the January 28 Los Angeles Times. In the lower right-hand corner of the page there was a picture of Steve Biko, a revolutionary leader and founder of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa/Azania (the revolutionary name for South Africa). Biko was murdered in 1977 by the Security Police of the old racist apartheid regime that ruled South Africa before 1994. Now, almost 20 years later, four former Security cops--the gestapo political police for the apartheid regime--have confessed to beating and torturing Biko for 26 days before he died from massive brain damage. According to the cops' lawyer, a fifth former cop who was also part of this special "interrogation team" will soon join in the confession. All of the cops have been placed in a special Witness Protection Program in the wake of their confessions.

The former cops--they are now retired or on disability pensions--made their confessions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission was established by Nelson Mandela when he became president in 1994. And it is empowered to investigate but not prosecute "human rights abuses" committed in the apartheid years and to grant amnesty to all those who confess to these abuses so long as their actions were politically motivated, their confession is true, and that it shows real remorse.

But this commission is not about getting justice. The cops who murdered Biko are only confessing in the hopes of obtaining amnesty from prosecution. In fact, their lawyer said that they basically confessed in the face of mounting evidence that could be used to prosecute them. In addition to the murder of Biko, their confessions also link these former security cops to the assassination by shooting, stabbing, mutilation and burning of at least nine other black opponents of the apartheid regime in the 1980s, including the brutal murder of schoolteacher/township activist Matthew Goniwe and the rest of the "Craddock 4" in 1985.

The confessions by Biko's murderers are not news to the people, who have known all along that Biko was brutally murdered. In August 1977 Biko was detained without charges by the Security Police after he was arrested at a roadblock for "distributing inflammatory materials aimed at inciting black people to riot." No one besides the police and their trusted doctors had access to Biko for 26 days. He was brutally beaten and tortured. A police doctor examined Biko shortly before he died and although he was showing all the classic signs of massive brain damage this doctor declared he was faking his injuries. Later another police doctor examined Biko and declared he needed some hospital care and signed a release that allowed the police to throw Biko naked and shackled into the back of a police wagon with no medical personnel to watch over him and drive him about 800 miles to the Central Prison in Pretoria. Biko died on the floor of his cell shortly after arriving at the prison.

Although all of the details of the cops' confessions haven't been made public, enough has leaked out to show that there is very little new revealed. The cops admit to beating Biko and not much else. Shortly after his death the South African government claimed that Biko died from a hunger strike. Then they claimed he died from injuries he received when he hurled himself against a wall after going berserk and attacking the police. Finally, in the face of international outrage and growing struggle inside South Africa, the apartheid regime agreed to hold an official inquest into Biko's death. This inquest whitewashed the entire murder and finally declared that Biko died from head injuries he "probably" sustained in a "scuffle with police" and they refused to charge any cop.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been loudly praising the confessions as a breakthrough for the work of the Commission and as extremely significant since they are now able to pin the murder on specific cops. In fact, even this is really old news. In 1978 the South African journalist Donald Woods--who was a friend of Biko's and who exposed the murder to the world--opened up his book on the murder of Steve Biko with a statement that Biko was murdered by one or more of nine listed security cops. The cops who confessed to the Commission were among those listed. Their lawyer characterized their confessions as painting a picture of the murder of Steve Biko as "an unfortunate accident," the result of "an interrogation gone wrong." The lawyer also portrayed the cops as loyal citizens who were caught up in the culture of their times and were simply doing what they believed was their duty to protect their government. Like the Nazis in World War 2, "they were simply following orders."

Loved By the People

My anger grew as I learned more about the cops' confessions and as I thought about Steve Biko and what he meant to the Azanian people. I traveled to South Africa twice during the nationwide rebellions against the apartheid government that began in 1984. Azanian people in every part of the country, including tiny and remote rural townships as well as the gigantic squatter camps and townships outside Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth, had deep love and respect for Biko. In 1987 thousands of Azanians defied the State of Emergency--and in many cases, the guns, whips and dogs of the South African army and police--to attend memorials marking the 10th anniversary of Biko's murder.

Biko was especially loved by the most rebellious youth in the country, including many who were members of organizations opposed to Biko's Black Consciousness Movement. I remember spending a day with a 20-year-old anti-government activist and leader in the huge "Soweto by the Sea" squatter camp outside of Port Elizabeth. This brother had grown up in a shack made of packing crates from the Ford, Volkswagon and other auto plants in the Eastern Cape and still lived there with his wife and infant son. He had run with the groups hooked in to the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela since he was 8 or 9 years old and was the head of the People's Court in the squatter camp.

I spent the day with him, walking around the squatter camp talking with people and learning about the living conditions and how the struggle against the racist government was fought in the camp. When the sun went down we headed back to this comrade's shack to drink some Castle beer with his friends and talk about "the Revolution." It was late 1990 and Nelson Mandela had just been released from jail. The talk was electric as we debated over every subject we could think of, learning from each other the more we spoke.

At one point, in the middle of a discussion of the strategy and goals of the struggle in South Africa and the negotiations with the white regime, the comrade signaled for his friends to let him speak uninterrupted. He began by telling me that since he was a member of the African National Congress he felt obliged to repeat what "Mr. Mandela" and the ANC were saying about the struggle. However, once he made that statement he went on to say that he now wished to speak "personally." There were tears in his eyes as he spoke about his fears that Mandela and the ANC would sell out the struggle and that the poor people, people like him and others in Soweto by the Sea, would be abandoned. Finally, he leaned in close to me and in a low whisper he began to speak of those he saw as true revolutionary leaders in South Africa. Steve Biko was at the top of his list because he taught the people that South Africa belongs to the black people and they should fight to take it.

Steve Biko's revolutionary enthusiasm and his unflinching refusal to bow down or compromise with the apartheid regime emboldened and gave heart to millions of the oppressed people in Azania. In fact, the 1976 Soweto Uprisings that swept across South Africa and which were the initial blows of the wave of rebellions that eventually forced the dismantling of official apartheid 18 years later were mainly inspired by Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement he founded.

Biko and his movement helped the Azanian people to dream dreams of liberation. He helped them puncture the suffocating blanket of repression the apartheid rulers and their imperialist sponsors had nailed down on the people. And when the people moved beyond dreams to acting on those dreams, Steve Biko always stood with them. When the people rose up in rebellion Biko thought it was fine, that it should be defended, encouraged and spread as much as possible. It was this nothing-to-lose spirit and his firm belief that oppressed people should rely on themselves and take history into their own hands that the apartheid rulers of South Africa hated. They killed Steve Biko because of what he represented and the effect that his political beliefs and program were having among the Azanian people.

Still No Liberation

Today, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is part of the attempt to bury the revolutionary struggle of the Azanian people--everything that Steve Biko lived for--under tons of garbage about "healing the wounds" of apartheid and bringing the people of South Africa together. Actually this Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its amnesty program is more a matter of necessity for the Mandela regime than anything else. They have to find the ways to deal with a potentially explosive situation where the vast majority of Azanian people continue to live in the same impoverished conditions they have always lived--still segregated off into the same townships where they've always lived with no electricity and no running water, while white people in South Africa still live a very privileged and comfortable life.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa and presided over the dismantling of official apartheid. This was all part of a very carefully constructed deal designed to try and put an end to the revolutionary struggle against apartheid and establish a neo-colonial regime disguised as a "liberated government." The deal that Mandela cut with the apartheid rulers and their American and British sponsors dictates that he can't just go out and start prosecuting all of the butchers of the old regime, especially since they still control the commanding heights of the economy, the army and the police. At the same time, this situation gives rise to a potentially explosive contradiction among the people. So Mandela and his government established this amnesty program to try to smooth things over.

In a particularly disgusting effort to lure former apartheid officials and enforcers into cooperating with the Commission, Mandela's government has made it clear that the Commission will investigate "human rights abuses" committed by all sides during the apartheid years--as if the savage brutality the apartheid rulers used against the Azanian people to enforce their racist system of superexploitation and oppression can somehow be equated with any action the Azanian people took to free themselves from this system. Among those who have been granted amnesty under this Commission is Brian Mitchell, a white former cop who coldbloodedly massacred 30 black people in 1988.

Never Forgive, Never Forget

When the announcement was made about the cops confessing to their role in murdering Steve Biko, Biko's family refused to comment until they had a chance to discuss the situation. In the past, they have very forcefully opposed the Commission with all its talk about reconciliation and amnesty, saying that some crimes are too horrible to forgive. For the Azanian people there can be no forgive and forget. There can be no reconciliation with the oppressor--no matter how much Nelson Mandela and the former apartheid rulers try to enforce it. There can never be a reconciliation between the oppressed people and their oppressors and any attempt to impose such a reconciliation can only mean certain suffering and even death for the oppressed.

The road forward in Azania, the road that leads to all-out revolution and real liberation for all of the oppressed people, stretches out in another direction.

In the Spring of 1987, I sat in a township outside of Johannesburg talking with a group of teenagers who were followers of the movement founded by Steve Biko. We had been talking about the struggles that rocked their township since the early 1980s. They were telling me stories of all the battles against the police and army they had taken part in. There were wild stories of going up against machine guns, tanks and rifle squads with only stones and homemade firebombs.

As the night drew to a close, one of the comrades commented that the people had to be brave in such situations. But he confessed that sometimes this was hard for him to do. The others nodded in agreement. But then the comrade said that whenever this happened he always tempered himself by remembering something that Steve Biko once said: "You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead you can't care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing. So you die in the riots. For a hell of a lot of them, in fact, there's really nothing to lose--almost literally, given the kind of situation they come from. So if you can overcome the personal fear of death which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you are on your way."

Steve Biko lived for and served the people and in death he continues to do so. His death helped bring radical political consciousness to an entire generation of Azanians and that generation went on to topple the apartheid regime. The despicable efforts of the current regime and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot reverse the understanding that Biko's life and death helped bring to millions. And in fact, this latest development may help even more to open their eyes to the reality in South Africa today and the all-the-way revolution that is still needed. If that happens, once again Steve Biko will have contributed to bringing forward another generation of revolutionary leaders at a time when they are urgently needed.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)