OPINION

How Steve Biko allegedly died

Extract from failed amnesty application by four of Security Police officers involved in BC activist's death

The following is an extract from the hearing from the failed amnesty application by four Security Police officers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the death of Steve Biko. The applicants were Major Harold Snyman who led the investigation team that interrogated the black consciousness activst, Daniel Petrus Siebert, Jacobus Johannes Oosthuysen Beneke, and Rubin Marx. Gideon Johannes Nieuwoudt’s application was adjudicated separately and also rejected. The hearing was held in Port Elizabeth from 8 to 11 September 1997. 

MR BOOYENS [representing Snyman, Siebert, Niewoudt and Marx] ADDRESSES COMMITTEE AND GIVES SUMMARY OF APPLICATION: Thank you, Mr Chairman. Mr Chairman, we intend leading the evidence of Mr Snyman first. I think it may be desirable in the circumstances just to very briefly set out what the nature of the evidence would be, without at all suggesting that that is comprehensive.

The evidence will be that the late Mr Biko, whom I will hereinafter refer to him as the deceased, had been arrested in a road block on the 18th of August 1977. He was thereafter taken to security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth, where he was kept in detention at Walmer Police Station.

A team consisting of the four persons that I appear for, was put together with the purpose of questioning the persons arrested. That would be Mr Jones and Mr Biko as well as some others; in connection with certain pamphlets that had been spread in the Port Elizabeth area as well as certain activities - other activities.

On the 6th of September 1977 the questioning of Mr Biko commenced in the morning at security police headquarters. The evidence will be that Mr Biko was brought in from Walmer Police Station and once brought into the same office as his would-be interrogators, he was told that he should remain standing when he sat down.

After approximately half an hour and during some rather fruitless efforts of getting information out of Mr Biko, he again sat down uninvited; whereupon the applicant, Mr Siebert, grabbed him on the front of his clothing and forcefully pulled him up from the position in which he was seated.

Thereafter, Mr Biko, the evidence will be, apparently lost his temper. He pushed, had thrown a chair in the direction of Mr Siebert and aimed a blow at him. A scuffle ensued which was initially between Siebert, but at the same time the applicant - that I do not represent - also joined in from an adjoining office and; in what one could perhaps describe as a shoulder-type rugby tackle, bumped into Mr Biko.

A full scuffle ensued in which Siebert, the applicant, Niewoudt and the applicant I do not represent, were involved. During the course of the scuffle there were blows being exchanged, although nobody is really certain whether any of these blows landed and eventually during the course of the scuffle, the parties grabbed hold of each other and moved towards what would for convenience sake be described as the northern wall of the office in which they were.

In the process of the scuffle, Mr Biko lost his balance and the four people; that would now be Siebert, Niewoudt, the deceased, as well as the applicant I do not represent. Initially Mr Biko's head hit the wall and all four parties fell down.

It was noted that Mr Biko appeared to be, one could use the word stunned, confused, in any event his condition was such, we are not suggesting that these are accurate medical descriptions; that he did not get up immediately.

He was thereupon handcuffed where he was lying on the floor and after a while he was pulled up at the instructions of Snyman and cuffed to a door - some bars of a door that was in the office, with his hands spread out to his sides, with handcuffs as well as with foot-cuffs being threaded through the bars of the door.

It was noted that he still seemed to be confused and Snyman went to report the matter to Goosen, the then commander of the security branch. Goosen came in, spoke to Mr Biko. It was apparent that he was probably not compos mentes and Goosen gave instructions that the members Snyman and Siebert should continue with their work, whereas Niewoudt and Mark would watch Mr Biko and as soon as he recover, the questioning would continue.

The deceased was left in this standing position for the best part of the day and his condition did not improve. During the evening when the night staff took over, his cuffs holding him against the bars were unlocked, but the leg-iron was kept on and he was offered some mats to sleep on.

The next morning; that would be the 7th, it was noted that Mr Biko still hadn't recovered whereupon the district surgeon was contacted, who examined Mr Biko and reported to Col Goosen that he could find nothing wrong with him.

However, his condition still appeared to be a state of confusion. He was kept at the security police offices throughout the day and observed, but no further efforts to question him were made, due to the fact that his state remained more or less the same.

Throughout the day of the 8th he was seen again by the doctors and then on the evening of the 8th he was removed to a prison with the intention that he would be examined there.

He was kept at the prison until the Sunday - Sunday the 11th of September and after some medical examination and it being reported that nothing apparently could be found wrong with him, he was during the course of the morning removed from the prison and lodged in a cell at New Brighton Police Station again. I correct that, Mr Chairman, it is Walmer Police Station.

During the late afternoon, Goosen gave instructions that due to the fact that the deceased apparently was not recovering, he should be sent to Pretoria Central Prison, that he can be observed in the prison hospital there.

A Land Rover station-wagon was made ready after all efforts to obtain a military flight to fly him to Pretoria proved fruitless, according to Goosen, and he was driven to Pretoria where the parties arrived on the morning - early hours of the 12th of September. He was lodged in Pretoria Central Prison, where he died on the same day.

Subsequent to that, once the news of his death became known, Goosen gathered all the policemen on the next Saturday and statements were prepared. These statements were false in many aspects. The most important being, that it is was in fact alleged that Mr Biko was questioned by the security policemen involved on the 6th for the whole day and an incident which apparently caused his injury only occurred on the 7th.

That is - would appear already from what I've said earlier on, was false.

Subsequent to that, in a further investigation, the policemen stuck to the story and also at a later inquest hearing this false evidence was perpetuated.

That, in a nutshell, Mr Chairman, is what the evidence on behalf of these four applicants would cover and I would ask leave to call Mr Snyman.

MR BIZOS [appearing for Mrs Biko and Peter Jones] ADDRESSES COMMITTEE ON APPLICATION: Mr Chairman, our learned friend made a preliminary statement and we would ask for leave to very briefly state in broad terms the basis of our opposition so that the issues before you may be clarified in order to weigh up the evidence as you hear it, having regard to what we are going to submit.

We are going to oppose these applications on behalf of the family on two main grounds.

Firstly, that in the detailed statements made for the benefit of the Committee, where the new versions appears, which has been summarised by our learned friend; there is no full disclosure of the facts and that the new versions, even though substantially similar to that given at the inquest in 1977, has merely been modified in order to try and explain away some of the concrete evidence which did not fit with the false version that was put up under oath during the course of the inquest in 1977.

Secondly, that there is recitation of what was their political

objective, is not the sort of objective that is envisaged in the Act and to summarise our position briefly, that torturing helpless detainees held under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act for the purposes of extracting information from them; either false or true to the point that they finish up dead is not a political objective that any civilised society can tolerate.

There will be refinements to these main submissions, but those in the main are the grounds upon which we oppose this application.

CHAIRPERSON: Mr Mpshe, is there anything you wish to say at this stage?

MR MPSHE: Nothing to add, Mr Chairman.

CHAIRPERSON: Mr Erasmus, I should have asked you?

MR ERASMUS [appear on behalf of Mr J J O Beneke] ADDRESSES COMMITTEE ON APPLICATION: Meneer die Voorsitter, baie dankie. Ek gaan nie onnodig u tyd mors nie ... (intervention).

INTERPRETER: The speaker is not activating his microphone.

MR ERASMUS: I will not waste your time unnecessarily. My client will give testimony that will in the main be the same as the clients of Adv Booyens.

My client claims that he was not part of the investigative team; that in fact he was a mere observer who stood in the door of the interrogation room and that he saw that the deceased, Mr Biko, bumped or threw a certain chair at Capt Siebert.

He also saw that Mr Biko aimed a punch at Capt Siebert and that in an effort to bring Mr Biko under control and to inhibit any further threatening attack or assault, that he took Mr Biko into a secure hold.

That in fact a shuffle did occur during which all of the applicants present took part and that beyond that the testimony would be the same as that sketched to you by Adv Booyens.

My client, through the course of the afternoon of the 6th of September 1977, guarded the deceased and noted that he appeared disorientated, or possibly confused.

He was replaced by the night guard, a further set of police officers and during the afternoon of the 7th of September 1977, resumed guarding Mr Biko.

He was not involved in any of the transport arrangements or other arrangements with regard to Mr Biko's transfer to Pretoria and his involvement ended on the 7th of September 1977.

The rest of the transcript can be accessed here – PDF. The decision of the amnesty committee rejecting the application can be found here