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Steve biko apartheid movement { December 8 1997 }

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Monday, December 8, 1997 Published at 10:19 GMT
Steve Biko: Martyr of the anti-apartheid movement

The Truth Commission hearings into the death of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, have reopened the controversy about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Mr Biko died of head wounds in policy custody on September 12 1977. The police first claimed he died of hunger strike, but later changed their story to say he hit his head against a wall in a scuffle.

But Mr Biko's supporters believe he was deliberately killed, and the police are still trying to cover up the truth.

The five policemen blamed for his death have been seeking amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with investigating human rights abuses during Apartheid.

Earlier this year they admitted beating Steve Biko severely, and lying about the date of his death, but essentially kept to the line that his death was an accident.

The family of Mr Biko fiercely oppose the Truth Commission's decision to conduct the hearing. They argue that its powers of amnesty could rob victims' relatives of justice.

After a day's testimony in September from Harold Synman, Mr Biko's chief interrogator, Mrs Ntshiko Biko said, "There is nothing new. He is lying even more than in the inquest."

The Biko family lawyer, George Bizos, disputed Mr Synman's claim that he had made "full disclosure" and that his actions were political, two of the prerequisites for amnesty.

Martyr for his cause

Steve Biko, subject of the film Cry Freedom, is widely seen as the greatest martyr of the anti-apartheid movement.

His philosophy that political freedom could only be achieved if blacks stopped feeling inferior to whites attracted enormous international attention, and is considered by many to be the turning point in the demise of apartheid.

Born in 1946 in Eastern Cape, Mr Biko quickly became involved with black politics. He gave up studying medicine to devote himself to the struggle, and founded the Black Consciousness Movement in 1969.

His movement came into its own in the mid 1970s, when the liberation movement appeared to be faltering, with many ANC leaders in jail or exile.

The government first acted against Mr Biko in 1973, restricting his movements and preventing him from being quoted in public. He was detained without charge for various periods after that, until Port Elizabeth security police arrested him for the last time in August 1977.

One question that is expected to be posed during the Truth Commission's hearings is: who encouraged the South African security police to act in the manner that they did? Many believe ultimate responsibility may lie with Jimmy Kruger, then Minister of Justice and now dead, who sent waves of outrage through the world with his comment "Biko's death leaves me cold."

The split between Biko and the ANC

Mr Biko's philosophy was more radical that ANC thinking. He believed that blacks could not rely on help or assistance from whites, and should therefore withdraw from any partnerships with white groups.

This resulted in antagonism between the two groups, with reports of ANC supporters beating and torturing black consciousness activists. Only last year the ANC paid tribute to his death by rebuilding his overgrown grave.

But the ANC says that in his later years, Mr Biko's philosophy begun to soften as he became more confident of black triumph.

According to the ANC, Mr Biko had been planning to meet Oliver Tambo, then president of the ANC, shortly before he died. They believe that it was this threat of impending unity between the two groups that may have led to his death.

Last month, on the twentieth anniversary of Steve Biko's death, President Mandela unveiled a huge bronze statue in the city where he was prosecuted and imprisoned.

The gesture acquired great national significance in South Africa, as it was the first official acknowledgement of Mr Biko's importance in the liberation struggle.

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