On 12 September, South Africans commemorate 40 years since the death of Bantu Stephen Biko, anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko died in police custody in 1977 after sustaining a serious head injury from being beaten by security police.
Police beatings and tortures of political prisoners during the apartheid era were a common occurrence, presumably to frighten and intimidate dissenters. South Africa’s police were internationally notorious for death in detention. South African History Online reports that between 1963 and 1990, there were 73 deaths in detention. But the exact numbers are hard to pin down, given the massive cover-ups by apartheid police and the use of “resident sweepers”, brought to light by the reopened inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol in police custody.
One might believe the era of indiscriminate police brutality ended with the apartheid regime, but the numbers tell a different story. From April to September 2016, 154 detainees died in police custody, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). The police watchdog’s 2015/16 annual report found that 216 people had died in police custody.
As we commemorate the death of Biko, who fought against an oppressive regime that was superficially dismantled, the way the police handle detainees – whether political or criminal – remains disturbing.