Twenty years late, Biko's killers confess

Click to follow
Twenty years after the death in detention of the black consciousness leader Steve Biko, five South African former security policemen have confessed to being involved in his murder.

Biko, arguably the anti-apartheid movement's most famous martyr and the hero of Sir Richard Attenborough's 1987 movie Cry Freedom, died in police custody on 12 September 1977, aged 31.

In the 1970s Biko's radical black pride message set the townships alight and changed the course of the liberation movement. It is widely accepted that, after the last of his many arrests, he was beaten and tortured during interrogations at security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth, before being transported in the back of a landrover, naked and fatally injured, 700 miles to Pretoria, where he died.

It is claimed he was denied medical assistance and that a police cover- up followed.

The cruelty and brutality of the apartheid regime was encapsulated in the infamous response of Jimmy Kruger, then justice minister. "His death leaves me cold," he said.

Despite the best efforts of the Biko family's counsel, led by Sidney Kentridge QC and George Bizos, President Nelson Mandela's long-time legal adviser, an inquest in the late 1980s found no one was to blame for his death.

The five former policemen - all former officers at Port Elizabeth - are reported to be finalising an amnesty application in connection with Biko's death to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the body charged with healing South Africa by exposing its violent past and laying the foundations for a better future.

A TRC spokeswoman last night confirmed South African newspaper reports of the joint amnesty application. The breakthrough on the Biko case represents one of the TRC's greatest coups and strengthens its claim to be a better vehicle than the criminal courts for dealing with the past.

The application however will almost certainly anger Biko's family. Yesterday Biko's eldest son Nkosinathi, 26, said the family could not comment before it had discussed the matter.

But last year Biko's widow, Ntiski, backed by the Azanian People's Organisation (Azpo), which claims to be the true carrier of the Biko torch, challenged the legitimacy of the TRC in the Constitutional Court.

They argued the TRC was an instrument of political expediency and that its amnesty powers robbed victims' families of justice. A successful application for amnesty, granted to those who freely confess to past atrocities if they can prove political motivation, bars any future criminal charges or civil claims against perpetrators.

The family lost their challenge when the 10 constitutional court judges ruled that without the offer of amnesty there would be a disincentive to tell the truth.

Nation divided, page 9