Martyr

Biko

by Donald Woods
Paddington Press, 288 pp., $10.95

Many people hailed as martyrs, and almost all would-be martyrs, have been more or less crazy. Stephen Biko was as far from crazy as it is possible to be, and he neither wanted nor even expected martyrdom. He became a martyr nonetheless: one who bore witness, both through his life and through his death, to the faith and love that were in him.

If we can assume the existence of a God who is Love, Biko is a martyr in the full, traditional, spiritual meaning of the word. Without that assumption, and extending the word in a legitimate secular sense, Biko remains a martyr: not just a passive victim, but one whose life-and-death testimony goes out to the world and changes it.

Some part of that testimony—a part that has to do with the circumstances of Biko’s death—has already reached the world, mainly in the form of press reports of the strange and sinister evidence given by South African security police and doctors during the thirteen-day inquest on Biko at Pretoria.

I shall cite just two extracts, which I believe to be the keys, respectively, to the positions of the security police and of the doctors.

This for the security police:

Mr. Kentridge (for the Biko family): Where do you get your authority from? Show me a piece of paper that gives you the right to keep a man in chains—or are you people above the law?

Colonel Goosen (head of the Eastern Cape Security Police): We have full authority. It is left to my sound discretion.

Mr. Kentridge: Under what statutory authority?

Colonel Goosen: We don’t work under statutory authority.

This for the doctors:

Dr. Gordon (medical assessor): Why didn’t you say that unless Biko went to hospital you would wipe your hands of it?

Dr. Tucker (medical witness): I did not think at that stage that Mr. Biko’s condition would become so serious. There was still the question of a possible shamming.

Mr. Kentridge: Did you think the plantar reflex could be feigned?

Dr. Tucker: No.

Mr. Kentridge: Did you think a man could feign red blood cells in his cerebral spinal fluid?

Dr. Tucker: No.

Mr. Kentridge: In terms of the Hippocratic Oath are not the interests of your patients paramount?

Dr. Tucker: Yes.

Mr. Kentridge: But in this instance they were subordinated to the interests of security?

Dr. Tucker: Yes.

Between them, those two colorless bits of evidence show how the stage was set for Biko’s death.

But the most important parts of Donald Woods’s book are not those that deal with the circumstances and alleged circumstances of Biko’s death, but the parts which deal with Biko’s life, what he was like as a person, what he was trying to do. Donald Woods and Stephen Biko were close friends. This is doubly remarkable: close friendships between blacks and whites are in themselves obviously rare in South Africa, and there is a special paradox in this …

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