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Steve Biko Died of Brain Damage in Prison

Steve Biko Died of Brain Damage in Prison

Bantu Stephen Biko was one of South Africa's apartheid-era important political activists, Donald James Woods was a South African journalist, and anti-apartheid activist who would not rest until the true story of Biko's death was uncovered.

Steve Biko Died of Brain Damage in Prison.
Steve Biko's abuse in a South African prison.


The South African Minister of Justice, James Kruger, a hard-lined devotee of apartheid at first proposed Steven Biko had died of a hunger strike; this was far from the truth.

In 1973, the Apartheid government unofficially banned Steve Biko. Under the ban Biko was restricted to his home town of Kings William's Town in the Eastern Cape – he could no longer support the BCP in Durban, but was able to continue working for the BPC – he helped set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted political prisoners and their families. Biko was elected Honorary President of the BPC in January 1977.

Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977 under Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. On August 21, 1977, Biko was detained by the Eastern Cape security police and held in Port Elizabeth. From the Walmer police cells, he was taken for interrogation at the security police headquarters. On September 7th 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 bed initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury.

By September 11, Biko had slipped into a recurrent, semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to hospital. Biko was, however, transported to Pretoria a 12-hour journey which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on September 12th alone and still naked lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage.

The South African Minister of Justice, James Kruger initially suggested Biko had died of a hunger-strike and said that his death "left him cold". The hunger strike story was dropped after local and international media pressure, especially from Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Dispatch. It was revealed in the inquest that Biko had died of brain damage, but the magistrate failed to find anyone responsible, ruling that Biko had died as a result of injuries sustained during a scuffle with security police while in detention.

The brutal circumstances of Biko's death caused a worldwide outcry and he became a martyr and symbol of black resistance to the oppressive Apartheid regime. As a result, the South African government banned a number of individuals including Donald Woods and organizations, especially those Black Consciousness groups closely associated with Biko. The United Nations Security Council responded by finally imposing an arms embargo against South Africa. Biko's family sued the state for damages in 1979 and settled out of court for R65,000 then equivalent to $25,000.

The three doctors connected with Biko's case were initially exonerated by the South African Medical Disciplinary Committee. It was not until a second inquiry in 1985, eight years after Biko's death, that any action was taken against them. The police officers responsible for Biko's death applied for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings that were held in Port Elizabeth South Africa in 1997.

"The Commission finds that the death in detention of Mr. Stephen Bantu Biko on September 12, 1977 was a gross human rights violation. Magistrate Marthinus Prins found that the members of the SAP were not implicated in his death. The magistrate's finding contributed to the creation of a culture of impunity in the SAP. Despite the inquest finding no person responsible for his death, the Commission finds that, in view of the fact that Biko died in the custody of law enforcement officials, the probabilities are that he died as a result of injuries sustained during his detention.

Steve Biko Died of Brain Damage in Prison.
Steve Biko Died of Brain Damage in Prison.

Date of birth December 18, 1946, King William's Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Date of death September 12, 1977, Pretoria prison cell, South Africa

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Being African in America I have grown up learning about different ethnic cultures. My mother is a historian of African culture and history and her influence expanded my activities to several best-selling cookbooks, magazine columns, self-branded products, and a popular African culture and food blog.

Elegant but earthy The African Gourmet and Chic African Culture highlights African culture, food recipes, modern and ancient history.