By 11 September Biko had slipped into a continual, semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1,200 km to Pretoria a 12-hour journey which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on 12 September, 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 (Jimmy) 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 whilst 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 organisations, especially those Black Consciousness groups closely associatiated 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 enquiry 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 which sat in Port Elizabeth in 1997. The Biko family did not ask the Commission to make a finding on his death.

"The Commission finds that the death in detention of Mr Stephen Bantu Biko on 12 September 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."1

1. From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa report, published by Macmillan, March 1999.



Cold Blooded Murder!

Steve Biko

Important People in South African History