September 12, 2011, 4:47 AM
Sept. 12, 1977| Anti-Apartheid Leader Steve Biko Dies in Police Custody
Teaching and Learning with the New York Times
Learn about key events in history and their connections to today.
On Sept. 12, 1977, Stephen Biko, one of South Africa’s most influential anti-apartheid activists, died after being beaten by South African police during an interrogation. South African authorities claimed that Mr. Biko’s hunger strike caused his death.
A leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, Steve Biko had founded the Black Consciousness Movement, which emphasized black pride and a rejection of white ruling-class values. Unlike African National Congress leaderNelson Mandela, who sought cooperation between races, Mr. Biko believed that the development of black culture and identity (i.e., black consciousness) would lead to black liberation from apartheid.
The Sept. 13 New York Times reported that many anti-apartheid leaders did not believe the reported cause of Mr. Biko’s death, and that there were fears that his death could spark violence. The article quoted Zulu Chief Gaisha Buthelezi: “I will not be able to curb my people, and indeed I soon may not want to curb my people, when they adopt an attitude of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Mr. Biko’s autopsy revealed that he died not of hunger strike, but of a brain hemorrhage from being struck multiple times in the head. The government nevertheless asserted that Mr. Biko’s injuries were self-inflicted. It was not until 1997 that five officers admitted while testifying before the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel established in 1995 to investigate and bring to light offenses committed during the apartheid era, that they had killed Mr. Biko.
Connect to Today:
Steve Biko’s widow objected to the commission’s decision to hear the officers’ testimony, fearing that her husband’s killers could receive amnesty. The commission ruled that the murder was not a political crime. While the officers’ applications for amnesty were rejected, they ultimately escaped prosecution due to lack of evidence.
Amnesty for criminals may seem difficult to justify, but this type oftransitional justice has been invaluable to countries like South Africa seeking to heal the wounds of systemic brutality and oppression. As a 1997 New York Times op-ed piece explained, “Without the lure of amnesty, it is likely that no one who knew of Mr. Biko’s murder would have talked, making convictions impossible.” It further noted that the Commission “trades the impossible for the possible, namely information that is indispensable for healing after apartheid.”
On a related note, in June 2011 the British government subpoenaed Boston College for its collection of oral histories of Irish Republican Army figures who spoke on the condition that their testimony and identity would not be released until after they died. However, the British sought to prosecute them for crimes committed during the decades-long conflict known as the Troubles. Many academics fear that the release of the oral histories will discourage other participants from telling their stories for the historical record.
Do you believe that those who committed crimes in the past should be granted amnesty or anonymity for their testimony under certain circumstances? Why or why not? How do you think a country or group of people can most effectively address past injustices to lay the foundation for a more just future?