Apartheid enforcer sticks to `farcical' story on Biko killing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Twenty years after the death in detention of black consciousness leader Steve Biko, five former security policemen yesterday asked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty for killing him.

In a hushed and packed hall in a Port Elizabeth township, former major Harold Snyman, 69, who led the final interrogation of one of the anti- apartheid-struggle's greatest sons, admitted the policemen had lied to a 1977 inquest into Biko's death, which concluded the death was accidental.

Mr Snyman said that after receiving head injuries during questioning, Biko, naked and sleep-deprived, did not receive immediate medical help as had been claimed. Though Biko collapsed and his speech was slurred, officers shackled him by his hands and feet in standing position to a metal grille where he remained for an entire day "to break down his resistance".

It was another day before he received medical treatment. Even when surgeon Ivor Lang finally examined him he decided Biko was shamming and sent him to his cell. Three days later Biko was found lying on the floor frothing at the mouth. He was then flung in the back of a police Land Rover, still naked and in chains, for a 700-mile trip from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria Prison Hospital where he died on 12 September of brain damage.

But despite yesterday's testimony, Mr Snyman stuck in essence to his incredible inquest story; Steve Biko died because five white security policemen had to fight to defend themselves against one black activist who "went wild" because he did not want to stand for questioning.

Yesterday, lawyer George Bizos, who represented Biko's family at the 1970s inquest - condemned as a state-sanctioned whitewash - said the policemen were still not making full disclosure and that their actions were not politically motivated. The men need to establish both to be granted amnesty by the TRC, the independent body which is working to expose apartheid- era atrocities by offering indemnity in exchange for truth.

Donald Woods, the South African journalist who befriended Biko and was a central character in Cry Freedom, Sir Richard Attenborough's 1987 cinematic tribute to the black consciousness leader, said yesterday that if the police officers stuck to the inquest line "it would be a farce". Gideon Nieuwoudt, former police sergeant and convicted murderer who is also applying for amnesty for Biko's death, has already been accused this week of making a mockery of the truth and reconciliation process. The former activist, Mkhuseli Jack, says that while he will not oppose Nieuwoudt's application for torturing him, Nieuwoudt's claim that it only happened once is a blatant lie.

The Biko family has opposed amnesty every inch of the way. Last year Biko's widow, Ntsiki, and the families of other murdered activists challenged the constitutionality of the TRC in the country's highest court. They argued that the Commission, a foundation for South Africa's transition to black majority rule, was a vehicle for political expediency and robbed them of their right to justice. Once amnesty is granted all civil and criminal action against perpetrators is ruled out.

Even the TRC's staunchest supporters understand the anger of families like the Bikos. In September 1977, while Mrs Biko struggled with her loss, National Party minister Jimmy Kruger was entertaining an NP congress with jokes about Biko's death. Mr Kruger at first claimed Biko had died on hunger strike. The delegates split their sides when he said South Africa was so democratic that prisoners had the democratic right to starve themselves to death.

The amnesty applications of Mr Snyman, Mr Nieuwoudt and former captain Daniel Siebert and warrant officers Jacobus Beneke and Rubin Marx continue today.