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 friendship between a white liberal and a black man who believed that white liberals should be excluded from the black movement.

Nonetheless, friends they became, and it is as a bereaved friend that Donald Woods writes. He does not allow his grief and anger to distract him from his task of telling about his friend Biko as he knew him. He writes crisply and clearly, like the excellent journalist that he is. His own personality, which is unusual and attractive, comes through here and there, in touches of jauntiness, humor, panache, but only in so far as these touches seem to illuminate Biko himself.

For the rest the author effaces himself: as far as possible, he lets Biko himself speak—through recollected utterances, recorded interviews with him, and trial transcripts. The most revealing of these, by what it shows of Biko’s intellectual powers and style, and moral and political purpose, is the set of excerpts from his testimony for the defense at the 1976 Supreme Court trial of nine young blacks charged with subversion.

Considering the nature of this political trial, Biko was an extraordinary witness: no bravado, no defiance, no propaganda, just patient, lucid, courteous, clearly truthful, explanation and narrative. His repartee, when he was forced to use it, was joltingly effective. Thus:

The Judge: But now, why do you refer to you people as blacks? Why not brown people? I mean you people are more brown than black.

Biko: In the same way as I think white people are more pink than white.

Or again:

The Judge: Now you say you people stand for one man, one vote?

Biko: Yes.

The Judge: Now is it a practical concept in the African set-up? Do you find it anywhere in Africa?

Biko: Yes, we find it, even within this country, for whites.

But Biko’s preferred manner was that of elucidation.


Biko: Basically Black Consciousness directs itself to the black man and to his situation, and the black man is subjected to two forces in this country. He is first of all oppressed by an external world through institutionalized machinery and through laws that restrict him from doing certain things, through heavy work conditions, through poor pay, through difficult living conditions, through poor education, these are all external to him.

Secondly, and this we regard as the most important, the black man in himself has developed a certain state of alienation, he rejects himself precisely because he attaches the meaning white to all that is good; in other words he equates good with white.

Black Consciousness sought to end that alienation, to root out from the minds of black people that “internalization of the value system” of white South Africa, which means, for blacks, internal acquiescence in the notion of their own innate and permanent inferiority. The regime therefore was right in its own terms in seeing Black Consciousness as subversive; it was entirely nonviolent, but its activities were more profoundly subversive of the entire apartheid system than any terrorist act could be.

The nine were convicted.

I believe that Stephen Biko’s testimony at that trial was the effective cause of his death the following year. It was not so much the substance of Biko’s evidence that must have hurt: it was the gentle, effortless manner in which his personality and intellect towered over those of his puzzled white judge. It was the visible, audible, existential refutation of the notion of white superiority. That was why Biko had to be broken, humiliated, made to feel at least the physical reality of white power.

Unfortunately for his tormentors and their masters, in their efforts to reduce Biko to what they considered his appropriate level, they actually killed him, which was, from their point of view, a political blunder.

Biko’s death, the reports of the inquest, the writings and escape of Donald Woods, and now this book—all made it that much more embarrassing, for example, for a Western government in the Security Council of the United Nations to have to veto comprehensive mandatory economic sanctions against South Africa.

This in turn has been among the reasons why Mr. Vorster has recently been showing considerable and astute flexibility over Namibia, seeking to put the responsibility for any break on his SWAPO enemies.

By his life, by his teaching and example, above all by simply being what he was, Biko exerted a significant pressure on the South African regime. By the manner of his death, and by the story which Donald Woods has to tell in this book, that pressure has become more formidable.

This Issue

June 15, 1978