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Afrikaner police admit to killing Stephen Biko

Afrikaner police admit to killing Stephen Biko

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In South Africa, four apartheid-era police officers, appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, admit to the 1977 killing of Stephen Biko, a leader of the South African “Black consciousness” movement.

In 1969, Biko, a medical student, founded an organization for South Africa’s Black students to combat the minority government’s racist apartheid policies and to promote Black identity. In 1972, he helped organize the Black People’s Convention and in the next year was banned from politics by the Afrikaner government. Four years later, in September 1977, he was arrested for subversion. While in police custody in Port Elizabeth, Biko was brutally beaten and then driven 700 miles to Pretoria, where he was thrown into a cell. On September 12, 1977, he died naked and shackled on the filthy floor of a police hospital. News of the political killing, denied by the country’s white minority government, led to international protests and a U.N.-imposed arms embargo.

In 1995, after the peaceful transfer to majority rule in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to examine decades of apartheid policy and to address the widespread call for justice for those who abused their authority under the system. However, as a condition of the transfer of power, the outgoing white minority government requested that the commission be obligated to grant amnesty to people making full confessions of politically motivated crimes during apartheid. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu was appointed to head the commission, which was soon criticized by many South Africans for its apparent willingness to grant pardons.

In early 1997, four former police officers, including Police Colonel Gideon Nieuwoudt, appeared before the commission and admitted to killing Stephen Biko two decades earlier. The commission agreed to hear their request for political amnesty but in 1999 refused to grant amnesty because the men failed to establish a political motive for the brutal killing. Other amnesty applications are still in progress.

READ MORE: The Harsh Reality of Life Under Apartheid

IV - The Death of Steve Biko

Biko was arrested for the last time on 18 August 1977 and Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.

On 14 September, the Rand Daily Mail carried the report of his death:

Mr. Steve Biko, the 30-year-old black leader, widely regarded as the founder of the black consciousness movement in South Africa, died Monday (12th).

Mr. Biko, honorary president of the Black People's Convention and the father of two small children, is the 20th person to die in Security Police custody in 18 months.

The Mail report went on to quote a statement that the Minister of Justice, Mr. James Kruger, had issued the previous day:

Since 5 September Mr. Biko refused his meals and threatened to go on a hunger strike. He had been regularly supplied with meals and water, but refused to partake thereof.

On 7 September a district surgeon was called in because Mr. Biko appeared unwell. The district surgeon certified that he could find nothing wrong with Mr. Biko.

On 8 September the police again arranged for the district surgeon and the chief district surgeon to examine Mr. Biko and because they could diagnose no physical problem, they arranged that he be taken to the prison hospital for intensive examinations. On the same day a specialist examined him.

The following morning he was again examined by a doctor and kept at the hospital for observation. On Sunday morning, 11 September, Mr. Biko was removed from the prison hospital to Walmer police station on the recommendation of the district surgeon. He still had not eaten on Sunday afternoon and again appeared unwell. After consultation with the district surgeon it was decided to transfer him to Pretoria. He was taken to Pretoria that same night.

On 12 September Mr. Biko was again examined by a district surgeon in Pretoria and received medical treatment. He died on Sunday night.

This was an unusual statement. It is not customary for the Minister to comment on the death of a detainee, nor is it usual for details to be given concerning a detainee's illness and doctors' visits. It seemed as though the Minister was trying to forestall any anticipated outcry about Biko's death.

But the statement raised more questions than it answered. The notion of a hunger strike, so out of keeping with Biko's response to persecution, was itself bizarre, and inevitably recalled other unlikely police explanations, as when Nichodimus Kgoathe was said to have died from broncho-pneumonia following head injuries allegedly sustained when he fell while taking a shower, or when Solomon Modipane died after having 'slipped on a piece of soap'.

Then, taking the story at its face value, how could a hunger strike of only six days by a person in good health and normal weight (Biko was, in fact, overweight) so speedily have resulted in death? That was quite incredible. And why, if nothing could be found physically wrong with him, was Biko examined by so many doctors, and removed to a hospital?

The statement contained one germ of truth when it said that on 7 September 'Mr. Biko appeared unwell'. This suggested—correctly as it turned out—that something happened on 7 September to make Biko 'unwell', hence all the sub­sequent examinations. The cause of his apparent ill-health became known at the post-mortem examination. For the time being the public could only suspect that the police version of a hunger strike, like so many explanations of detainees' deaths in the past, was an attempt to shift the blame for the death onto the detainee himself.

"His death leaves me cold"Minister of Police

On 14 September Minister Kruger addressed a Nationalist Party Congress. To this he gave a larger and less formal, less restrained version, in his native Afrikaans"'. He said:

I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you. Any person who dies . I shall also be sorry if I die. (Laughter).

But now, there are a lot of scandal stories and all sorts of positions are now taken against the South African Police. And even if I am their Minister, Mr. Chairman, if they have done something wrong I shall be the first man to take them before the courts. They know it.

But what happened here? This person was arrested in connection with riots in Port Elizabeth. Among other things they were busy with the drafting and distribution of extremely inflammatory pamphlets, which urged people to violence and arson.

Now I mention this fact, not because I want to criticise someone who is dead. I have respect for the dead. But I mention this fact to prove that we were justified in arresting this person . .

On the 5 September they were finished with [the questioning of] the other man and then they came to him [Mr. Biko]. And they began to question him.

Then he said he would go on a hunger strike. He first said he would answer their questions. They should give him a chance for a quarter of an hour. After a quarter of an hour, he said no, he would go on a hunger strike.

And indeed he began to push his food and water away –that were continually given to him so that he would freely eat or drink. It is very true what Mr. Venter [a congress delegate] said about prisoners in South Africa having the 'democratic right' to starve themselves to death. It is a democratic land.

We are now asked 'When you saw he went on hunger strike- why didn't the police force him to eat?' (Laughter).

Mr. Chairman, can you imagine that these same people who smear the police day and night because they touched this man—and there's a mark on his foot, and there's a mark on his ankle, and here's a mark behind his ear and it must be the police—do you think the police must still force that man to eat?

No Sir, I say now categorically on behalf of the police. If I was there I would have said. Do not touch him, but would have said, Call a doctor….

That day the district surgeon came. On the 9 September the man still lay there lay there on the mat. And then police said: Don't just call the district surgeon, call the chief district surgeon. Let him come and look at this man.

The first district surgeon wrote a letter to the detective to say 'There's nothing wrong with him'. The chief district surgeon and the district surgeon told the Security Police: 'Man, there is nothing wrong with this man' . . . .

Do you know what we brought in? We brought in a private specialist. We had a specialist with this man. We said, 'Look at this man'.

And on Sunday, 11 September, after we had had all those doctors and spec­ialists, then the district surgeon said, 'Man, send him to one of the bigger hospitals'. . . .

[Mr. Kruger then described how Steve Biko was brought to Pretoria Prison because there was a larger Prison Hospital there. And h ow that some night the was put in the care of the district surgeon.]

Later that night—there is a peephole in these places, so that the people do not hang themselves ….

Incidentally, I can just tell congress, the day before yesterday one of my own lieutenants in the prison service also committed suicide and we have not yet accused a single prisoner. (Laughter).

And when this man came to look in the peephole he saw that the man was lying very still. And he did not touch him and did not open the door. He did nothing. Because he also knows that if you touch him they say 'Your finger-print is there, what did you do?' He left the man. I do not blame him. He went back and told a man: 'The man is lying dead still. There is something wrong'. And they summoned the doctor and they found the person was dead . . .

But, Sir, I just want to tell the congress and I want to tell the Press. I expect nothing from them [the press].

I know. Sir, I know because I have it in documents, that they are going for us.

They will search for nooks and crannies (gatjies en plekkies). Whether they will find them, I don't know. We are also only people.

But from my point of view, on the facts that I have, it looks to me as if what had to be done was done.

. I say to you as Minister, that I cannot see how we could have acted differently (Cheers and applause.)

Death in Detention — Die Burger

In an editorial 17 the government-supporting newspaper Die Burger said:

The death of detainees in South Africa is an emotional matter which gener­ates much heat. But never before has it been as bad as in the latest case of the black power activist Steve Biko. Concern over detainees' deaths becomes deep dismay when the hysterical propaganda against authorities is observed.

A vehement campaign is in progress which surpasses all previous protests.

The venomous suggestions are of such an extravagant nature that it fills an objective observer with trepidation . . . The purpose is to discredit the security police . . .

The presumptuous condemnation is voiced on the grounds of unconfirmed suspicion, regardless of the fact that previous investigations have brought to light the fact that detainees frequently took their own lives or died of natural causes .. .

If deaths occur, it must be possible to prove ever more emphatically that it happened completely outside the control of the authorities.

It is imperative, for the sake of everyone's feeling of humaneness and justice, and for the sake of South Africa, which is being besmirched in such a terrible way.

Police have never been responsible for killing or torturing a single detaineeSouth African Broadcasting Corporation, 16 September 1977

In a radio broadcast for abroad, 18 the SABC said:

The death of 30-year-old Mr. Steve Biko while in detention appears to be receiving wide publicity but before people begin jumping the gun with condemnation it is necessary to consider the facts of the situation and not all of these have been disclosed as yet.

Mr. Biko, who can be regarded as a leader among certain radical black elements in the country, was arrested in mid-August. . . From 5 September he refused meals and threatened a hunger strike. [There follows a brief outline of the number of doctors who visited Biko]. Should Mr. Biko's death be the result of suicide it would fit into a pattern, which has become common among detainees in South Africa. In recent years there have been a large number of deaths by suicide in South Africa among detainees . . .

However, numerous detainees, who have been detained following communist training and indoctrination, have testified that they receive specific instructions to commit suicide rather than divulge information to the police. The result is that in the past 18 months seven detainees have died as a result of hanging and three others have jumped from the windows of high buildings. Police say it is virtually impossible to stop a man determined to commit suicide from doing so and, in any event, the suicides arc sometimes totally unexpected.

To their critics the police point out that so far a court of law has never established that the police have been responsible for torturing or killing a single detainee, although all cases are thoroughly investigated. For any reasonable person confronted with this type of anti-South Africa propaganda the question must arise: where South Africa is spending millions and moving mountains to improve her image would she wilfully and purposefully allow something like this to happen to destroy all the good work that has been done? The answer must be: No.

Biko the greatest man I have ever knownDonald Woods

In a newspaper article 19 editor Donald Woods wrote:

My most valued friend, Steve Biko, has died in detention. He needs no tributes from me. He never did. He was a special and extraordinary man who at the age of 30 had already acquired a towering status in the hearts and minds of countless thousands of young blacks throughout the length and breadth of South Africa.

In the three years that I grew to know him my conviction never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country, and quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know.

Wisdom, humour, compassion, understanding, brilliancy of intellect, unselfishness, modesty, courage—he had all these attributes. You could take the most complex problem to him and he would in one or two sentences strike unerringly to the core of the matter and provide the obvious solution . . .

I once went to Mr. J. T. Kruger and begged him to lift the restrictions on Steve and to speak to him. The result of that visit was an increase in Steve's restrictions and a state prosecution against me.

He always came out of such ordeals [detention] as tough as ever and as resiliently humorous about the interrogation sessions. He had a far closer understanding of his interrogators' fears and motivations than they will ever know, and with almost total recall he recounted to me the full range of their questions. Many were simply incredible . . .

The government quite clearly never understood the extent to which Steve Biko was a man of peace. He was militant in standing up for his principles, yes, but his abiding goal was a peaceful reconciliation of all South Africans, and in this I happen to know he was a moderating influence.

Addressing a meeting of more than 1,000 people, held to mark the death in detention of Mr. Biko, Mr. Donald Woods told of an arrangement he had with Mr. Biko who was aware of the ever-present risk of detention and the possibility that he might die there.

'If any of four reasons for his death was alleged, I would know it was untrue'.

One of the four reasons was death through a hunger strike.

No assault—no cover-upKruger

The Minister of Justice, Mr. Kruger, said in an interview with Mr. John Burns published in the New York Times yesterday that the preliminary report on Mr. Steve Biko's death did not give the impression that a police assault was the cause of death.

'I personally do not believe this', he stated, 'I don't believe that my police – have done anything wrong …. If there is anything wrong in the Biko case. I will surprised ….

The Death of Steve Biko, Revisited

Like the death of George Floyd, the South African activist Steve Biko’s death galvanized a global movement against racism.

Steve Biko, one of the most prominent leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle, died in police detention on September 12, 1977. He was imprisoned on charges of terrorism. The South African Minister of Police announced that he died after a seven-day hunger strike. Riots ensued in the aftermath of this statement, and a few students were killed in the protests. Fifteen thousand people showed up to Biko’s funeral, including foreign dignitaries, African diplomats, and about 13 Western diplomats. The governments of Ghana and Lesotho released official statements of outrage. The South African police had clearly underestimated the potential consequences of his death, and a global movement emerged, demanding justice for Biko.

Biko was an incredibly charismatic organizer who also studied medicine at the prestigious University of Natal. Although he had cordial relations with the white liberals who dominated the National Union of South African Students, he was one of the principal co-founders of the South African Student’s Organization (SASO), which argued that white liberal paternalism could not satisfy the demands of non-whites and that Blacks should organise on their own. “Black Man, you are on your own” was the slogan of his Black Consciousness movement, which advocated self-awareness and self-reliance for Black people.

But Biko was no African nationalist. He redefined Black in a time of incredible disunity in the African movement. The African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress had been banned by the South African police in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The African Students’ Association (ASA) and the African Students’ Union of South Africa (ASUSA) were dividing alongside sectional, tribal, and ideological lines. SASO was not “a movement for Africans, not a movement for Indians, for Coloured people,” Biko famously stated, it was “a movement for people who are oppressed.” To be Black meant to be oppressed. As the Yale history professor Daniel Magaziner put it in the International Journal of African Historical Studies, SASO believed that “race was contingent… formed through the historical experience of oppression in a particular context.”

Biko’s charisma flowed outside of the university, and the Black consciousness movement became a phenomenon throughout the country. He was, in the words of a UN report reviewing his life in the aftermath of his death, “the most important black South African leader of this generation.” So important, in fact, that the Apartheid state was terrified of him. In 1973, he was issued a five-year banning order prohibiting him from leaving his district of King Williams Town. In June 1976, the leaders of the Soweto uprising demanded that the government negotiate with their leaders, Nelson Mandela of the ANC, Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress ,and Steve Biko himself. In December of that year, Senator Dick Clark, working for President Carter, joined the U.S. ambassador to the UN and various other senior Carter administration officials in visiting Biko in his home. They paid this visit despite the fact that Biko had written to Senator Clark months earlier complaining that the U.S. “played a shameful role in her relations with our country.”

South African History Online via JSTOR

Like the death of George Floyd, Biko’s death galvanised a global movement against racism. His extrajudicial killing embarrassed Apartheid South Africa on the global stage, much the way Floyd’s death has embarrassed the United States. Although Biko was an activist and George Floyd a citizen, in one crucial way their deaths were quite similar: two Black people whose deaths were contested at the point of inquest and autopsy.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by police. The video of the homicide went viral. On the following day, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that the cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” The report added that a contributing factor to the heart failure that ended George Floyd’s life was the hard drugs of fentanyl and methamphetamine. This view was contested by the private examiners hired by the Floyd family, who ruled that the death was caused by “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”

Autopsies carried out by law enforcement have long been the site of political contestation. They have a heavy weight in the courtroom and can provide a narrative that either condemns the state or absolves it. For this very same reason, in the aftermath of Steve Biko’s death, doctors debated passionately in the British Medical Journal about how he died—and what the role of white South African doctors was in the process. British doctors condemned the South African Medical Association (MASA), while South African doctors retorted in defensiveness.

“Most readers will have been horrified by reports of the inquest on Steve Biko,” wrote R. Hoffenberg, a doctor working in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, in 1978:

Three senior medical practitioners… gave evidence during the inquest that can only be regarded as unsatisfactory… Dr Ivor Lang later admitted that he wrote out a “highly incorrect” medical certificate at the request of Colonel Goosen of the security police.

MASA responded in outrage. C. E. M. Viljoen, the Secretary-General of the Medical Association of South Africa, refused to take a stance on “the medical treatment received by the late Mr Biko on the basis of newspaper reports,” citing a need for neutrality. He reiterated that “MASA has the fullest confidence in the South African judiciary,” the very judiciary that later absolved the three doctors accused of falsifying reports and being criminally negligent.

An inquest later revealed that Biko died from traumatic brain injury, not a hunger strike as announced by the South African Minister of Police. Despite the three doctors writing in the autopsy report that there was “no evidence of any abnormality or pathology on the detainee,” there was clear evidence of torture in the very report they wrote (ring marks around both wrists, clear brain damage, thick or slurred speech). Despite these injuries, Biko received no medical treatment until a doctor, Benjamin Tucker, sent him on a 700-mile journey to a prison hospital in the back of a van after finding him frothing at the mouth. Biko miraculously survived the trip but died shortly after arrival.

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In 1978, despite allegations by Lang and Tucker that they were acting on the instructions of the police, the state “found no such evidence and recommended to the Medical Council that no further action be taken against the doctors.” The Medical Council soon followed suit in 1980, and in a majority vote, said it supported the findings of the inquiry that absolved its doctors of guilt. In February 1982, the case was opened again, and the doctors were deemed innocent. Finally, in 1984, in the infamous Veriava Case, the doctors were found guilty. But, as the legal scholar Jerold Taitz records in the Modern Law Review, Tucker was suspended for three months (which was overturned) and Lang was only cautioned. Despite being guilty, in other words, somehow they were free. Tucker eventually quit his job, but Lang continued until retirement.

In 1991, at the end of Apartheid, the British Medical Journal headlined a story on the “confessions of South African Medical Journal,” declaring openly that it tried to cover up protests by dissident doctors in South Africa who submitted to their journal. In 1997, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided amnesty to the five officers who tortured Biko and left him with the doctors who covered their tracks. (Their names were Harold Synman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, R. Marx, J. Bencke, and Daantjie Siebert.) It also heard from the Medical Association of South Africa, who admitted that their relationship with the security police and Department of Health during the so-called Biko affair was a “sad and disgraceful episode.” Medical doctor Pat Sidley, reporting from the hearings, said that they only had one defense, which was that they “believed that the country was under attack from communist and radical forces.”

I Sydafrika indrømmer fire politimænd i apartheid-tiden, der optræder for sandheden og forsoningskommissionen, til drabet på Stephen Biko, en leder af den sydafrikanske ”sorte bevidsthedsbevægelse” i 1977.

I 1969 grundlagde en medicinsk studerende Biko en organisation for Sydafrikas sorte studerende til bekæmpelse af mindretallets regerings racistiske apartheid-politik og for at fremme sort identitet. I 1972 hjalp han med at organisere Black People's Convention og blev næste år forbudt fra politik af Afrikaner-regeringen. Fire år senere, i september 1977, blev han arresteret for undergravning. Mens han var i politiets varetægt i Port Elizabeth, blev Biko brutalt slået og derefter kørt 700 miles til Pretoria, hvor han blev kastet i en celle. Den 12. september 1977 døde han nøgen og indkapslet på det beskidte gulv på et politihospital. Nyheder om det politiske drab, der blev nægtet af landets hvide mindretalsregering, førte til internationale protester og en amerikansk våbenembargo.

I 1995, efter den fredelige overførsel til flertallsstyre i Sydafrika, blev sandheden og forsoningskommissionen oprettet for at undersøge årtiers apartheid-politik og for at tackle den udbredte opfordring til retfærdighed for dem, der misbrugte deres autoritet under systemet. Som en betingelse for magtoverførelsen anmodede den udadvendte hvide minoritetsregering imidlertid om, at Kommissionen var forpligtet til at give amnesti til folk, der fuldt ud tilståede politisk motiverede forbrydelser under apartheid. Nobels fredsprisvinder Desmond Tutu blev udnævnt til leder af Kommissionen, som snart blev kritiseret af mange sydafrikanere for dens tilsyneladende vilje til at give benådninger.

I begyndelsen af ​​1997 dukkede fire tidligere politibetjente, inklusive politi-oberst Gideon Nieuwoudt, op for Kommissionen og indrømmede at have dræbt Stephen Biko to årtier tidligere. Kommissionen accepterede at høre deres anmodning om politisk amnesti, men nægtede i 1999 at give amnesti, fordi mændene ikke kunne etablere et politisk motiv for det brutale drab. Andre amnesti-ansøgninger er stadig i gang.

Banned by the Apartheid Regime

In 1973 Steve Biko was banned by the apartheid government for his writing and speeches denouncing the apartheid system. Under the ban, Biko was restricted to his hometown of Kings William's Town in the Eastern Cape. He could no longer support the Black Community Programme in Durban, but he was able to continue working for the Black People's Convention.

During that time, Biko was first visited by Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Dispatch, located in the province of Eastern Cape in South Africa. Woods was not initially a fan of Biko, calling the whole Black Consciousness movement racist. As Woods explained in his book, "Biko," first published in 1978:

Woods believed—initially—that Black Consciousness was nothing more than apartheid in reverse because it advocated that "Blacks should go their own way," and essentially divorce themselves not just from White people, but even from White liberal allies in South Africa who worked to support their cause. But Woods eventually saw that he was incorrect about Biko's thinking. Biko believed that Black people needed to embrace their own identity—hence the term "Black Consciousness"—and "set our own table," in Biko's words. Later, however, White people could, figuratively, join them at the table, once Black South Africans had established their own sense of identity.

Woods eventually came to see that Black Consciousness "expresses group pride and the determination by all blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self" and that "black groups (were) becoming more conscious of the self. They (were) beginning to rid their minds of the imprisoning notions which are the legacy of the control of their attitudes by whites."

Woods went on to champion Biko's cause and become his friend. "It was a friendship that ultimately forced Mr. Woods into exile," The New York Times noted when Woods' died in 2001. Woods was not expelled from South Africa because of his friendship with Biko, per se. Woods' exile was the result of the government's intolerance of the friendship and support of anti-apartheid ideals, sparked by a meeting Woods arranged with a top South African official.

Woods met with South African Minister of Police James "Jimmy" Kruger to request the easing of Biko's banning order—a request that was promptly ignored and led to further harassment and arrests of Biko, as well as a harassment campaign against Woods that eventually caused him to flee the country.

Despite the harassment, Biko, from King William's Town, helped set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted political prisoners and their families. He was also elected honorary president of the BPC in January 1977.

Steve Biko’s Early Life Was In An Unjust South Africa

Though many people think that Steve Biko hails from Soweto, the argument is incorrect. He was born on 18 December 1946 in Tarkastard, Eastern Cape at his grandmother’s house. Biko’s parents Mzingaye Mattew Biko and Alice ‘Mamcete’ Biko never stayed in one place. They always moved from place to place as a result of Mzingaye work as a Police officer.

When they finally moved to King William’s Town – where Steve Biko also grew up until the time he started fighting colonialists – his dad resigned from the police force and worked as a clerk. His mom worked for local white households and later became a cook at Grey Hospital in the same neighbourhood. It is this upbringing that made him understand the ways of the whites and what his black counterparts were missing.

Things seemed good for his family despite living in a neighbourhood where four families had to share one toilet and one water supply but darkness crept in when his dad died. Barely four years during this time, he was not only deprived of the opportunity to know his dad well enough, but he also had to grow up in a difficult situation as his mother struggled hard to make ends meet.

Steve was the third child of his parents and like many poor Xhosa families in South Africa by then, his mother had a lot of difficulties bringing them up. Growing up, the other children in the neighbourhood including his siblings saw Steve Bantu Biko as a great inspiration because of the many problems they were going through. He schooled at St. Andrews Primary School and then moved to Charles Higher Primary School in Ginsberg. Later on, he enrolled in Forbes Grant Secondary School in the township before receiving a bursary that enabled him further his education at Lovedale in Eastern Cape.

He began his fight for his people quite early. While at Lovedale secondary school, Steve’s involvement in politics started as he caused several riots against the racist whites. However, he was expelled from school because of his political affiliation.

Steve Biko won a scholarship to study at St. Francis College in Natal. This granted him a great opportunity to sharpen his skills in fighting colonialists. As the school’s student leader, Steve Biko had the best platform to identify the most effective people to collaborate within rooting out the apartheid regime. When it was time to go the university, Steve Biko joined the non-European section of the University of Natal Medical School in Wentworth, Durban. He was elected the Student Representative Council (SRC) shortly after his arrival at the school.

Because of his involvement and special understanding of South African problems, Biko founded SASO, which became the first all-Black Organization of South African Students. This organization had the main goal which was to increase the awareness to South Africans about the problems that were affecting them. He made the first conclusion that apartheid caused psychological problems to those affected.

The works of Steve Biko during his time in College attracted a lot of attention from the government and the problem had to be recognized. This does not mean that the government did not understand the problem, but it started realizing the impact of the rising pressure on black oppression.

He would join forces with others to form the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) which he would come to be at the forefront. His idea behind the movement was to get Africans to take pride in their culture and emancipate themselves from oppression by white racists. His famous slogan was “black is beautiful.” Biko also used the movement to fight the apartheid regime in the country.

Perceived as a terrorist, the government banned SASO. But even after the ban, Steve Biko’s fight for freedom of his people didn’t get killed. He continued to address gatherings in different forums without being authorized. He even had a publication, “frank talk” that attracted a lot of readers. It was during this period that many freedom fighters also emerged to fight for their country.

Since he was becoming a threat to the then government for his freedom fight and encouragement of struggle for independence Biko was labelled a terrorist and was arrested in 1978 under the terrorism act. His arrest is reported to have made over 40,000 South Africans to lose freedom.

Before this time, Biko and other political associates had already been banned from moving to other parts of the country as well as public statements. He was not allowed to give any speech or talk to more than one person at a time. Biko would go on to continue with local activism even after the restriction. He was arrested many times, but this did not get him to stop.

In spite of the ban and restriction according to which he could not leave King William’s Town, Biko decided to travel to Cape Town for a meeting with Neville Alexander, Unity Movement leader, because the BCM had some issues he hoped to solve. Alexander refused to make it to the meeting fearing that he was been monitored, and so while Biko and his friend who accompanied him, Peter Jones, were on their way back to King William’s Town they met a police roadblock and the two men were arrested.

Early Life

Woods was born in Hobeni, Transkei, South Africa. He was descended from five generations of white settlers. While studying law at the University of Cape Town, he became active in the anti-apartheid Federal Party. He worked as a journalist for newspapers in the United Kingdom before returning to South Africa to report for the Daily Dispatch. He became the editor-in-chief in 1965 for the paper that had an anti-apartheid editorial stance and a racially integrated editorial staff.


Following a news story depicting the demolition of a slum in East London in the south-east of the Cape Province in South Africa, liberal journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) seeks more information about the incident and ventures off to meet black activist Steve Biko (Denzel Washington), a leading member of the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko has been officially banned by the Government of South Africa and is not permitted to leave his defined 'banning area' at King William's Town. Woods is opposed to Biko's banning, but remains critical of his political views. Biko invites Woods to visit a black township to see the impoverished conditions and to witness the effect of the Government-imposed restrictions, which make up the apartheid system. Woods begins to agree with Biko's desire for a South Africa where blacks have the same opportunities and freedoms as those enjoyed by the white population. As Woods comes to understand Biko's point of view, a friendship slowly develops between them.

After speaking at a gathering of black South Africans outside of his banishment zone, Biko is arrested and interrogated by the South African security forces (who have been tipped off by an informer). Following this, he is brought to court in order to explain his message directed toward the South African Government, which is White-minority controlled. After he speaks eloquently in court and advocates non-violence, the security officers who interrogated him visit his church and vandalise the property. Woods assures Biko that he will meet with a Government official to discuss the matter. Woods then meets with Jimmy Kruger (John Thaw), the South African Minister of Justice, in his house in Pretoria in an attempt to prevent further abuses. Minister Kruger first expresses discontent over their actions however, Woods is later harassed at his home by security forces, who insinuate that their orders came directly from Kruger.

Later, Biko travels to Cape Town to speak at a student-run meeting. En route, security forces stop his car and arrest him asking him to say his name, and he said "Bantu Stephen Biko". He is held in harsh conditions and beaten, causing a severe brain injury. A doctor recommends consulting a nearby specialist in order to best treat his injuries, but the police refuse out of fear that he might escape. The security forces instead decide to take him to a police hospital in Pretoria, around 700 miles (1 200 km) away from Cape Town. He is thrown into the back of a prison van and driven on a bumpy road, aggravating his brain injury and resulting in his death.

Woods then works to expose the police's complicity in Biko's death. He attempts to expose photographs of Biko's body that contradict police reports that he died of a hunger strike, but he is prevented just before boarding a plane to leave and informed that he is now 'banned', therefore not able to leave the country. Woods and his family are targeted in a campaign of harassment by the security police, including the delivery of t-shirts with Biko's image that have been dusted with itching powder. He later decides to seek asylum in Britain in order to expose the corrupt and racist nature of the South African authorities. After a long trek, Woods is eventually able to escape to the Kingdom of Lesotho, disguised as a priest. His wife Wendy (Penelope Wilton) and their family later join him. With the aid of Australian journalist Bruce Haigh (John Hargreaves), the British High Commission in Maseru, and the Government of Lesotho, they are flown under United Nations passports and with one Lesotho official over South African territory, via Botswana, to London, where they were granted political asylum.

The film's epilogue displays a graphic detailing a long list of anti-apartheid activists (including Biko), who died under suspicious circumstances while imprisoned by the Government whilst the song Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika is sung.

    as Steve Biko as Donald Woods as Wendy Woods as British Acting High Commissioner as Ken Robertson as State Prosecutor as Jimmy Kruger as Captain De Wet as Dr. Mamphela Ramphele as Bruce Haigh as Lemick as Father Kani as Mapetla

Development Edit

The premise of Cry Freedom is based on the true story of Steve Biko, the charismatic South African Black Consciousness Movement leader who attempts to bring awareness to the injustice of apartheid, and Donald Woods, the liberal white editor of the Daily Dispatch newspaper who struggles to do the same after Biko is murdered. In 1972, Biko was one of the founders of the Black People's Convention working on social upliftment projects around Durban. [3] The BPC brought together almost 70 different black consciousness groups and associations, such as the South African Student's Movement (SASM), which played a significant role in the 1976 uprisings, and the Black Workers Project, which supported black workers whose unions were not recognised under the apartheid regime. [3] Biko's political activities eventually drew the attention of the South African Government which often harassed, arrested, and detained him. These situations resulted in his being 'banned' in 1973. [4] The banning restricted Biko from talking to more than one person at a time, in an attempt to suppress the rising anti-apartheid political movement. Following a violation of his banning, Biko was arrested and later killed while in the custody of the South African Police (the SAP). The circumstances leading to Biko's death caused worldwide anger, as he became a martyr and symbol of black resistance. [3] As a result, the South African Government 'banned' a number of individuals (including Donald Woods) and organisations, especially those closely associated with Biko. [3] The United Nations Security Council responded swiftly to the killing by later imposing an arms embargo against South Africa. [3] After a period of routine harassment against his family by the authorities, as well as fearing for his life, [5] Woods fled the country after being placed under house arrest by the South African Government. [5] Woods later wrote a book in 1978 entitled Biko, exposing police complicity in his death. [4] That book, along with Woods's autobiography Asking For Trouble, both being published in the United Kingdom, became the basis for the film. [4]

Filming Edit

Principal filming took place primarily in the Republic of Zimbabwe (formerly called Southern Rhodesia until April 1980) because of the tense political situation in South Africa at the time of shooting. Richard Attenborough was later criticised for filming in Zimbabwe while the Gukurahundi genocide was underway. In his autobiography, Entirely Up to You, Darling, Attenborough wrote that he didn't know about the repression taking place, but castigated President Robert Mugabe for seizing white-owned farms after 2000. [6]

Other filming locations included Kenya, as well as film studios in Shepperton and Middlesex, England. [7] The film includes a dramatised depiction of the Soweto uprising which occurred on 16 June 1976. Indiscriminate firing by police killed and injured hundreds of black African schoolchildren during a protest march. [4]

Music Edit

The original motion picture soundtrack for Cry Freedom was released by MCA Records on 25 October 1990. [8] It features songs composed by veteran musicians George Fenton, Jonas Gwangwa and Thuli Dumakude. At Biko's funeral they sing the hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika". Jonathan Bates edited the film's music. [9]

A live version of Peter Gabriel's 1980 song "Biko" was released to promote the film although the song was not on the film soundtrack, footage was used in its video. [10]

Critical response Edit

Among mainstream critics in the U.S., the film received mostly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 76% of 25 sampled critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 6.61 out of 10. [11]

"It can be admired for its sheer scale. Most of all, it can be appreciated for what it tries to communicate about heroism, loyalty and leadership, about the horrors of apartheid, about the martyrdom of a rare man."
—Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times [12]

Rita Kempley, writing in The Washington Post, said actor Washington gave a "zealous, Oscar-caliber performance as this African messiah, who was recognized as one of South Africa's major political voices when he was only 25." [13] Also writing for The Washington Post, Desson Howe thought the film "could have reached further" and felt the story centring on Woods's character was "its major flaw". He saw director Attenborough's aims as "more academic and political than dramatic". Overall, he expressed his disappointment by exclaiming, "In a country busier than Chile with oppression, violence and subjugation, the story of Woods' slow awakening is certainly not the most exciting, or revealing." [14] Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times offered a mixed review calling it a "sincere and valuable movie" while also exclaiming, "Interesting things were happening, the performances were good and it is always absorbing to see how other people live." But on a negative front, he noted how the film "promises to be an honest account of the turmoil in South Africa but turns into a routine cliff-hanger about the editor's flight across the border. It's sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom." [15]

Janet Maslin writing in The New York Times saw the film as "bewildering at some points and ineffectual at others" but pointed out that "it isn't dull. Its frankly grandiose style is transporting in its way, as is the story itself, even in this watered-down form." She also complimented the African scenery, noting that "Cry Freedom can also be admired for Ronnie Taylor's picturesque cinematography". [12] The Variety Staff felt Washington did "a remarkable job of transforming himself into the articulte [sic] and mesmerizing black nationalist leader, whose refusal to keep silent led to his death in police custody and a subsequent coverup." On Kline's performance, they noticed how his "low-key screen presence serves him well in his portrayal of the strong-willed but even-tempered journalist." [16] Film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film a thumbs up review calling it "fresh" and a "solid adventure" while commenting "its images do remain in the mind . I admire this film very much." He thought both Washington's and Kline's portrayals were "effective" and "quite good". [17] Similarly, Michael Price writing in the Fort Worth Press viewed Cry Freedom as often "harrowing and naturalistic but ultimately self-important in its indictment of police-state politics." [18]

"Attenborough tries to rally with Biko flashbacks and a depiction of the Soweto massacre. But the 1976 slaughter of black schoolchildren is chronologically and dramatically out of place. And the flashbacks only remind you of whom you'd rather be watching."
—Desson Howe, writing for The Washington Post [14]

Mark Salisbury of Time Out wrote of the lead acting to be "excellent" and the crowd scenes "astonishing", while equally observing how the climax was "truly nerve-wracking". He called it "an implacable work of authority and compassion, Cry Freedom is political cinema at its best." [19] James Sanford, however, writing for the Kalamazoo Gazette, did not appreciate the film's qualities, calling it "a Hollywood whitewashing of a potentially explosive story." [20] Rating the film with 3 Stars, critic Leonard Maltin wrote that the film was a "sweeping and compassionate film". He did, however, note that the film "loses momentum as it spends too much time on Kline and his family's escape from South Africa". But in positive followup, he pointed out that it "cannily injects flashbacks of Biko to steer it back on course." [21]

John Simon of the National Review called Cry Freedom "grandiosely inept". [22]

In 2013, the movie was one of several discussed by David Sirota in Salon in an article concerning white saviour narratives in film. [23]

Accolades Edit

The film was nominated and won several awards in 1987–88. [24] [25] Among awards won were from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Berlin International Film Festival and the Political Film Society.

Award Category Nominee Result
Academy Awards [26] Best Supporting Actor Denzel Washington Nominated
Best Original Score George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa Nominated
Best Original Song "Cry Freedom" – George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa Nominated
Berlin Film Festival [27] Peace Film Award Richard Attenborough Won
Guild of German Film Theaters Won
British Academy Film Awards [28] Best Film Cry Freedom Nominated
Best Direction Richard Attenborough Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role John Thaw Nominated
Best Cinematography Ronnie Taylor Nominated
Best Editing Lesley Walker Nominated
Best Original Score George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa Nominated
Best Sound Jonathan Bates, Simon Kaye and Gerry Humphreys Won
Golden Globe Awards [29] Best Motion Picture – Drama Cry Freedom Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Denzel Washington Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Richard Attenborough Nominated
Best Original Score – Motion Picture George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa Nominated
Grammy Awards [30] Best Song Written for Visual Media|Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television "Cry Freedom" – George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa Nominated
MTV Video Music Awards Best Video from a Film Peter Gabriel – "Biko" Nominated
NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Motion Picture Cry Freedom Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Denzel Washington Won
National Board of Review Awards [31] Top 10 Films Cry Freedom Won
Political Film Society Awards [32] Human Rights Won

The film is recognised by the American Film Institute in these lists:

Box-office Edit

The film opened on 6 November 1987 in limited release in 27 cinemas throughout the U.S.. During its opening weekend, the film opened in 19th place and grossed $318,723. [35] The film expanded to 479 screens for the weekend of 19–21 February [36] and went on to gross $5,899,797 in the United States and Canada, [37] generating theatrical rentals of $2 million. [1] Internationally, the film earned rentals of $13 million, for a worldwide total of $15 million. [1]

It earned £3,313,150 in the UK. [38]

Home media Edit

Following its cinematic release in the late 1980s, the film was released to television in a syndicated two-night broadcast. Extra footage was added to the film to fill in the block of time. The film was later released in VHS video format on 5 May 1998. [39] The Region 1 widescreen edition of the film was released on DVD in the United States on 23 February 1999. Special features for the DVD include production notes, cast and filmmakers' biographies, film highlights, web links, and the theatrical cinematic. [40] It was released on Blu-ray Disc by Umbrella Entertainment in Australia in 2019, and in 2020 by Kino Lorber in the US. It is also available in other media formats such as video on demand. [41]

The Death Of Steve Biko

Wikimedia Commons Protests in South Africa pressured the government in Johannesburg to end apartheid.

But even after he was banned, Biko refused to be completely silenced. He gathered local intellectuals together to spread Black Consciousness in his hometown. To further publicize his ideas, Biko invited Donald Woods, the white editor of the Daily Dispatch, to meet with him.

Woods was a liberal who was critical of apartheid and often gave space for black activists to speak out, so Biko was eager for a chance to raise awareness of his work through one of South Africa’s oldest newspapers.

Woods was fascinated by Biko, but wary of what he thought were racist attitudes in the activist’s earlier writings. Initially, Woods didn’t understand the slogan “black is beautiful” or the concept of black pride and what it had to do with overthrowing apartheid.

Gradually, Biko won him over, and Woods agreed to publish Biko’s ideas, helping both him and the Black Consciousness Movement to gain international attention.

But by 1977, Biko’s movement was straining under banning orders and police attacks. And Biko was about to take a huge risk. Leaving his home to meet with other activists, Biko traveled to Cape Town despite being banned.

On the return journey, he was stopped at a police roadblock. Though Biko was heavily disguised, the officers definitely knew who he was. Arrested, stripped naked, and placed in shackles, Biko was interrogated and badly beaten for nearly a month.

Even after suffering a debilitating head injury, he was still kept in shackles on a filthy floor. Finally, on September 12, 1977, Steve Biko succumbed to his horrific injuries.

Biko’s imprisonment, death and the aftermath

In the wake of the urban revolt of 1976 and with prospects of a national revolution becoming apparent, security police detained Biko, the outspoken student leader, on 18 August 1977. He was thirty years old and was reportedly extremely fit when arrested. He was detained in Port Elizabeth and on 11 September moved to Pretoria Central Prison, Transvaal (now Gauteng). On 12 September, he died in detention - the 20th person to have died in detention in the preceding eighteen months.

A post-mortem was conducted the day after Biko’s death, at which his family was present. The explanation given by the Minister of Justice and Police, Jimmy Kruger, was that Biko died while on a hunger strike. This explanation was not sufficient for observers and people close to Biko. The medical reports received by Minister Kruger were not made public.

As Biko was the twentieth person to die in police custody, a number of newspapers did their own private investigations and learned that Biko died from brain injuries. Their investigations also revealed that Biko was assaulted before he was transported to Pretoria without any medical attention. Three South African newspapers carried reports that Biko did not die as a result of a hunger strike.

Kruger took one of these papers, the Rand Daily Mail to the South African Press Council to lodge a complaint after it had published a front-page story claiming that Steve Biko had suffered extensive brain damage. The Star, another daily press, came out in support of the Rand Daily Mail and pointed out that newspapers would continue to write about the circumstances surrounding Biko’s death because the police were found to be responsible.

The World and Weekend World newspapers also continued to cover reports about the death of Biko. The two newspapers augmented earlier reports by pointing out that Biko was not the first person to die while in detention. Moreover, all these deaths happened under mysterious circumstances. In addition, the Johannesburg Sunday Express said that sources connected with the forensic investigation maintained that brain damage had been the cause of death. In Britain, it was learned from South African sources that fluid drawn from the victim’s spine revealed many red cells - an indication of brain damage.

A photograph of Biko lying in his coffin was taken secretly just before the funeral, and sent by an underground South African source to Britain. This was seen as added proof that the anti-apartheid student activist had been beaten to death while in prison. Kruger claimed that he had never fired any police officer for brutality or any related misconduct, and he strenuously denied the beating of Biko in an interview with the American Time magazine.

Biko’s brutal death made him a martyr in the history of Black resistance to White hegemony. It inflamed Black anger and inspired a rededication to the struggle for freedom. Progressive Federal Party parliamentarian, Helen Suzman, warned Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, that “The world was not going to forget the Biko affair,” adding, “We will not forget it either.”

Kruger’s reply that Biko’s death “left him cold,” echoed around the world. A widespread crackdown on Black student organisations and political movements followed. Just before the Biko and deaths in detention inquest, police honed in on the remaining Black Consciousness resistance organisations.

In the process, two of Biko’s White friends, the Reverend Beyers Naudé and Donald Woods were banned, and Percy Qoboza, editor of The World, was banned for allegedly writing exaggerated articles about the manner of Biko’s death. Prime Minister Vorster then called an election, and a large majority of White voters called for Vorster’s Nationalist Government to remain in power to face the formidable challenge of a distinctly polarised Black population.

An international outcry, and condemnation of South Africa’s security laws led directly to the West’s decision to support the United Nations (UN) Security Council vote to ban mandatory arms sales to South Africa (Resolution 418 of 4 November 1977). The South African problem had been on the international agenda almost from the start of the United Nations, and was acknowledged as an international “problem” by the Western powers after Sharpeville in 1960.

It was also kept on the agenda through sustained Afro-Asian diplomatic efforts that were conducted under the auspices of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Institutional pressure on the Western powers “to do something” about South Africa was intensified after the Soweto riots in 1976, particularly following the death of Steve Biko in police custody.

These events led to a new round of Security Council meetings and a mandatory arms embargo – the first time that action had been taken against South Africa under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Codes of conduct for Western businesses operating in South Africa were also introduced, due to a newspaper campaign in Britain that accused Western businesses of profiting from Apartheid by paying their workers below subsistence wages.

In South Africa, urban conditions for Blacks continued to deteriorate, as large numbers of impoverished Bantustan inhabitants – now ignored by the labour recruiters – bypassed influx control mechanisms in their search for employment. Consequently, informal settlements outside the cities became overcrowded as the state halted the provision of new urban housing. Transport also deteriorated and discontent mounted among both workers and the unemployed.

At the same time, the relative success of the workers’ strikes and other institutional shortcomings inspired the Black Consciousness Movement. The United States Congress also called for a probe into Biko’s death. The congress sent a letter of request to the South African Ambassador, Donald B Sole, in the USA. The letter requested that an international panel of experts be established to investigate the death of Biko. The letter’s demands were not limited to Biko’s death, as it also requested an investigation of South Africa’s detention practices. Moreover, the letter stated that the death of Biko highlighted South Africa’s human rights record and would add to the country’s further isolation.

SASO, the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) and the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) were defunct by the end of 1977. The principal leaders were either in jail, in exile, or dead. The establishment of new movements drawing on the experiences of 1976 was needed, with the immediate task of constructing a new unified ideology.

Although many people were still nervous about political activity following the 1977 crackdown on BC organisations, the Azanian Peoples’ Organisation (AZAPO) was formed in 1978 as a successor to the proscribed Black Consciousness structures. It was an attempt at further espousing and re-inventing the Black Consciousness philosophy, which Biko bequeathed to South Africa. It launched a student wing, the Azanian Students’ Organisation (AZASO), made up of university students. AZAPO and AZASO therefore filled the organisational vacuum in the townships created by the banning of the ANC, PAC and the BCM. At this stage, no obvious conflict between the new groups and the ANC tradition existed.


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