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Sept. 11-12, 1977: Anti-Apartheid leader Stephen Biko Dies From Brain Damage After Beating By South African Police

September 11, 2003

On Sept. 11, police transported Biko more than 700 miles to Pretoria lying naked and chained on the floor of a police van the entire journey after being beaten unconscious. He died the next day from brain damage. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript On September 11th, 1977 South African police were transporting Stephen Biko, the leader of the black consciousness movement in South Africa more than 700 miles to Pretoria. He was lying naked and chained on the floor of the police van the entire journey after being beaten unconscious.

Early in the morning of September 12 he died of brain damage on the floor of his prison cell.

Widely considered one of the great leaders of the struggle against apartheid, Steve Biko is credited with developing Black Consciousness–the militant ideological and psychological tools which were crucial in the fight against apartheid.

For years, the United States government backed the apartheid regime in South Africa, designating opposition groups such Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as terrorist organizations.

Steve Biko was arrested in Port Elizabeth in August 1977 by the South African police force. He was detained for three weeks without trial, and was kept naked and shackled in his cell.

In the early morning hours of September 12, Biko died from multiple injuries including brain damage in a Pretoria prison cell. He was 30 years old. The medical treatment of Biko was subsequently described by a Supreme Court judge as " lacking any element of compassion, care or humanity".

News of his death sparked outrage and protest around the world and the South African government was forced to order an inquest. After testifying, the police and doctors involved were exonerated. The official explanation was that Biko had died of a self-imposed hunger-strike.

In his death Biko became a symbol of the martyrdom of black nationalists whose struggle focused critical world attention on South Africa.

  • Nkosinathi Biko, Steve Biko’s son speaking from South Africa.


Amy Goodman: "Biko" by Peter Gabriel here on Democracy Now on this special second anniversary of September 11th in the United States as we travel from one September 11th to another, now going back to September 11th 1977, South African police were transporting Stephen Biko the leader of the black consciousness movement in South Africa more than 700 miles to Pretoria he was lying naked and chained on the floor in the police van the entire journey after being beaten unconscious. Early in the morning of September 12th he died of brain damage on the floor of his prison cell.

We go now to his son, who we reached at the airport in South Africa, Nkosinathi Biko to talk about what happened in 1977 to his father, Stephen Biko.

Nkosinathi Biko: Well, my father was arrested in 1977 on August 18th coming back from a trip to Cape Town where he had sought to bring about unity between the various political formations, the African National Congress, the Black Consciousness movement, the Pan-Africanist Congress and the New Unity Movement.

On his way back he was arrested at a road block and taken into custody and between that period and September 7th, he sustained massive injuries on his head. On September 11th, the condition had deteriorated to such an extent that he was transported over a journey of a thousand kilometers in a police van without medical escort and in the condition that he was. And he died on September 12th. This year of course marks the 26th anniversary of his death.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the significance of your father and South African history, not to mention what the loss meant to you?

Nkosinathi Biko: Well, I think that he was very instrumental in redefining the way we viewed ourselves as a nation. I think that he spoke a lot about the need for black people to be central in defining and articulating their own aspirations and that nobody was going to lead them out of the oppression that they were under. I think it happened at very key time in South African politics because there had begun to be a political lull having the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress having been banned in the 60’s. So his contribution, which comes in the late Sixties and through the Seventies brought about, I think, a new energy that led of course to what we call droling (SPELLING) Mass Action of the Eighties which led to the collapse of Apartheid in the early Nineties.

Amy Goodman: Nkosinathi Biko, remembering his father Stephen Biko leader of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, murdered by South African forces, September 11th /12th , 1977.

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