Truth and Healing: The Death of Steve Biko in South Africa’s Truth Commission Special Report Television Series

By Rebecca Ryan

Comparative cultures and politics senior, Michigan State University

NOTE: To watch a video about the ways in which I organized the clips, transcripts and reports as I conducted my research, click here.

“Should I begin with Dear Tata?’ Is that what I called you 19 years ago? It strikes me that now that I’m a man I do not have a name for you. You would have … me if I called you ‘daddy.’ You probably would have preferred something along the lines of Bra Steve, for that’s how you were. I was attending another funeral recently when I was thrown back in time. ‘uTata ufile’, said the speaker quoting the deceased’s six year old son. At this stage I no longer bothered to sing, so strong were the feelings that overtook me. The picture I saw before me was a carbon copy of the day we put you to rest. Nineteen years ago I’m said to have uttered exactly these words, albeit in a manner less refined and more suitable to a child of six. ‘Amabunu izinja babulele uTata’ the Boers are dogs, they’ve killed my father. I’d like to believe that my childhood naivety insulated me against the full impact of your death. My nature is quiet and my manner shy. That I had to indicate these words indicate the blow to my little heart. I could not associate death with you.”[1]

The heartfelt letter, written by South African Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko’s son Nkosinathi Biko, illustrates the impact Biko’s death had, especially on his family. From the way it is phrased in the letter, the “Boers,” or the Afrikaaners, killed Nkosinathi’s father. The way in which Nkosinathi framed his statement, even as a child, is representative of the way in which the Biko family viewed Steve’s death at the time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings were taking place — he was murdered by police officers, and those responsible for his death needed to be held accountable.

Portions of Nkosinathi’s letter were read in Episode 36 of the Truth Commission Special Report Series, an 87-part television series that was broadcast weekly on Sundays from April 21, 1996 through March 29, 1998, covering the beginning of the TRC hearings in South Africa series was funded and produced by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and was narrated and produced by South African journalist Max du Preez, whose work during apartheid was significant in its coverage of South African death squads.[2]

The South African History Archive and the South African Broadcasting Corporation launched a website in 2013 making the television series accessible online, complete with links to the TRC’s final report, a list of victims, a glossary of terms related to the TRC, hearing transcripts and transcripts of the television episodes.[3] The online archive allows users to situate the television series within the context of the larger efforts of the TRC. Although the website as since been changed to feature new content soon to be added to project, I analyzed the original introduction to the site in a previous review for MSU’s HST830: Digital South African History, and wrote about the site’s focus on the danger of forgetting as a major reason for establishing the online archive. Although the introduction on the site’s homepage has since been revised to reflect new materials SAHA has acquired, the previous introduction in March read:

South Africa seems in danger of forgetting the work of the TRC. Most South Africans have not seen the findings and recommendations of the Commission. Little has been done to build on the ideals that undermine the TRC’s initial establishment and a persistent lack of political will and resolve to follow up on the recommendations made in the TRC Report in relation to reparations, prosecutions, ongoing truth recovery and the accessibility of the TRC archive prevails. To mark Human Rights Month in South Africa in 2013, the South African History Archive (SAHA), in conjunction with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), launched this website on the work of the TRC, centering on the 87-part ‘Truth Commission Special Report’ television series, last broadcast 15 years previously. [4]

The references to the intentions of the TRC beg the question of the role the television series plays in supporting the TRC’s main goals as it shapes historical narratives of political figures, activists, perpetrators and victims of apartheid. In order to examine the relationship between the Truth Commission Special Report and the TRC, this paper will first frame the intentions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, specifically placing it in context with themes of establishing truth and promoting national healing through reconciliation as a way of moving forward to a brighter future for South Africa. The monumental case of Steve Biko’s death is used as a case study in my analysis in order to examine the tensions between the methods of the Truth Commission and its desire for a unified nation and the concern’s of Biko’s family and others, who were not supportive of the opportunity Biko’s perpetrators had to apply for amnesty of acts that supported and oppressed the victims of apartheid. In analyzing the ways in which Biko’s trial is progressively represented throughout the two years the Truth Commission Special Report was aired, the TRC’s mission of national healing, and the role the series may have played in affirming such a mission, can be better understood, while also understanding how dissatisfaction with the reconciliation process is handled on screen.

Section one of this paper explores the goals of the TRC and the ways in which the online archive of the Truth Commission Special Report interacts with the political agenda of South Africa in the late 1990s. Next, the details of Biko’s death are examined in order to provide a framework for understanding the significance of the details included in the television series’ version of Biko’s death. The third section of this project is rooted in analysis of Biko’s death represented in the Truth Commission Special Report series. Searching for episodes and systematically analyzing the ways in which Biko’s death is framed as the episodes progress can help make sense of the evolving meaning of the case throughout the two- year period and how it is eventually used as another tool to support the TRC’s main goals. Throughout my analysis, particular attention is paid to the references made to the views of Biko’s family, who openly disapproved of the TRC process if it meant that those who killed Steve Biko would not be held accountable for their actions or deliver the true details of what happened to him.


Establishing and screening the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

First, it is important to not only consider the reasons in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, but also the ways in which it was made accessible to the public. Because my paper is focused on the Truth Commission Special Report series and the ways in which it represents the Biko murder with a rhetoric in line with the process of national healing, despite lack of support on the part of the family and controversy regarding the details of the incident, it is first necessary to discuss the main intentions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The first part of this section examines the desire and presumed necessity of establishing a “true” history of South Africa under apartheid. Alex Boraine and Mary Burton’s comments about the TRC also shed light on how the commissioners viewed their role and the role of the TRC in shaping a history of South Africa. Both commissioners reference national healing and the intention of moving forward as factors in the “success” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Finally, the ways in which the TRC was more generally covered and the effects of making it available to large audiences are emphasized as the section ends. This will lead into further discussion in the later parts of my paper where the Biko case in particular will be examined more closely.

Challenges of the TRC

In the introduction of Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, editors Deborah Posel and Graeme Simpson explain the challenge South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission faced in its pursuit of the “truth” of apartheid.

“In the midst of postmodern skepticisms, truth commissions can seldom be wholly naïve about their task. Indeed, their setting, typically in the context of a politically negotiated transition from authoritarian rule, may produce contentious debates about the robustness of truth-telling standards, themselves often shaped by the politics of compromise.”[5]

The introduction goes on to state that the “aggregated truth” that is established through the truth commission activity essentially becomes the base of which all objective, informed judgments of the past are based to prevent recurrence and resolve historical conflicts.

These concepts are in line with the reasons in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. According to MSU’s online resource Overcoming Apartheid, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1995 with the passing of the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, which gave the commission the authority to investigate human rights violations that had taken place from 1960 to 1994 under apartheid. Goals for the TRC included preventing future apartheid-like atrocities from occurring, to bring together previously oppositional groups and to provide those who pledge amnesty the opportunity to honestly explain their activities during apartheid in hopes of providing answers to the families of victims.[6] Listening to witnesses, victims and perpetrators from 1996 to 1998, the TRC received statements from approximately 22,000 victims. In addition, approximately 849 people who applied for amnesty had their applications approved out of a pool of 7,112. The TRC was divided into three subcommittees: The Human Rights Violations Committee, the Amnesty Committee and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. The first “gathered testimony of politically motivated gross human rights abuse,” the second, “dispensed amnesty to perpetrators who gave ‘full disclosure’ of atrocities they had committed for political ends,” and the third provided the South African Government recommendations for relief for victims through long- and short-term reparations.[7] When the three committees finally finished their initial report, it was presented to Mandela in October 1998, with two additional reports completed in 2003. Posel and Simpson refer to truth commissions as “political interventions, usually under highly charged and volatile conditions, in countries marked by histories of extreme violence and conflict.”[8]

In the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this can be seen in the relationship between the National Party and the African National Congress throughout the transition from apartheid to democracy. Truth Commissioner Alex Boraine defends the logic behind the Truth Commission as a way to move South Africa into a productive, forward-thinking nation in his book A Country Unmasked. With the desire to move forward and for the “sake of justice,” Boraine argues that accountability for the past was necessary in South Africa, and that such accountability did not warrant criminal trials and punishments.[9] Although the international community somewhat advocated for punishment of those who had perpetuated the apartheid system, critics of such an initiative expressed concern for the effect this could have on a democratic future for South Africa. Boraine credits aspects of South Africa’s ‘peaceful’ transition away from apartheid, in part, to the collaboration between the ANC and the security services of the national party:

“Simply put, it was impossible for the ANC in particular to accept the protection of the security services throughout the negotiating process and then say to them, ‘Once the election is over we are going to prosecute you.’ If they had done so there would have been no peaceful election. It is as simple as that. The generals of the old regime had made that abundantly clear. It follows that there would have been no democratic constitution and the country would have deteriorated into a state of siege with many more deaths and further destruction of property. We really had no choice but to look for another way of coming to terms with the past.”[10]

Thus, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to allow for “tension truth-telling, limited amnesty, and reparation.”[11] The focus of the Truth and Reconciliation, from his perspective, seems to be to come to terms with the past in a way that does not alienate any specific group of people that made the transition from apartheid to democracy and freedom possible in South Africa.

Mary Burton, another commissioner who was originally born in Argentina, moved to South Africa in 1961 upon marrying a South African man. She served as a Black Sash member starting in 1965 and held the position of Black Sash President from 1985 to 1990. Burton was appointed to the Human Rights Violations Committee of the TRC, and reflected on her time with the commission in a 2005 interview with Ruendree Govinder published on the South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy site. When asked about the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Burton was somewhat skeptical about the ways in which the TRC’s success can be defined:

“I found the process a very difficult one. I think it was a duty that had to be carried out for the sake of the country because amnesty had been promised — we had to do that. That was what brought about the political reconciliation and we were charged with that task. And there were a time I felt that all we were doing was fulfilling that political requirement. Later I began to realize that perhaps the legacy that is left behind by the Truth Commission will contribute in some way to a greater understanding of the people.”[12]

Burton goes on to explain that although there were many frustrations throughout the hearings, and even finalizing the TRC reports, she does not think it would ever be possible to host a Truth Commission perfectly. However, it is possible to document the experiences of some people who suffered and perpetuated apartheid, all while crafting narratives in which the atrocities of the system cannot be denied by South Africans or the rest of the world.

Public Access to the TRC Through the Truth Commission Special Report

These notions required the hearings be public and available to the people of South Africa. Later in his book, Boraine commends the TRC’s accessibility, giving due credit to the Truth Commission Special Report series broadcasted on Sundays and hosted by anchor Max du Preez from April 1996 through March 1998. Boraine referred to the program as “sensitive and professional” in the way they covered the weeks of the hearings. In conjunction with radio broadcast, the television series likely was appreciated by many South Africans, especially in the rural areas, who were provide the advantage of hearing about the finer details of the commission.[13] The programs not only covered the TRC hearings, they also provided edited segments that could be more easily digested, pegging perpetrators’ and victims’ testimonies against each other in conjunction with supplemental interviews and images to craft narratives of the apartheid history.

Posel and Simpson also discuss the significance of making the hearings accessible to the public, insinuating that the audiences devoted to watching broadcasts of the hearings spanned far beyond South Africa. They also state that the media — particularly the global media, although the case can be argued that the SABC television series also follows the pattern — publicized the truth and that the “power of public testimonies of victims and perpetrators, coupled as they were with the drama of catharsis and the rhetoric of forgiveness, created neat, emotionally charged ‘soundbites’ of truth, and seemed to remove the need to penetrate the background or look beyond the specific testimony.”[14]

Expounding upon this concept in the book’s first essay, Janet Cherry, John Daniel and Madeleine Fullard more directly acknowledge the power of the media to establish visual realities and easily digestible narratives for public consumption — holding much more power than the actual Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report. While the media served as one of many tools at the hands of the south African government in promoting the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the “reality is that the testimony of a single victim relayed to the country by the media will ultimately have had more of an impact upon the national consciousness than any number of volumes of the report.”[15] With the understanding that the television series was an easily digestible medium for exploring the details of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it then calls to question the power that the Truth Commission Special Report had to shape the history of apartheid through its edited episodes, shifting the narratives over time as the story progresses. In the following section of this paper, the specific details of Biko’s death and the ways in which those details surface throughout the course of the two-year television series are analyzed to determine how the controversial case of Biko was represented in relation to the TRC’s goal of healing.


Steve Biko’s Infamous Death

As stated throughout the Truth Commission Special Report series in a variety of ways, the death of Steve Biko had affects on the Black Consciousness Movement, the anti-apartheid movement, South Africans and even citizens across the globe who were pushed to further disapprove of apartheid tactics when viewing the way his death was handled by the National Party in South Africa. The purpose of this section is to first explore the initial presentation of the essential details of Steve Biko’s death in the television series’ pilot episode and to compare its presentation of Biko’s arrest and death with the details provided by another scholar who took more time to interview a diverse range of people and present a more detailed play-by-play.

The Truth Commission Special Report’s introduction of Biko

The death of Steve Biko is mentioned in the first episode of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, despite the committee not hearing any applications or testimonies specifically about the case during the first week of sessions, stating “When one talks about torture and murder in the Eastern Cape, how can one not think of Steven Bantu Biko?”[16] In the first episode, Max du Preez cites Ntsiki Biko, Steve Biko’s wife, as a factor in the delay in hearing the case of his death. Ntsiki preferred a criminal prosecution to the Truth Commission process, du Preez said in the episode. Biko is first described as the leader of the Black Consciousness movement, and the history of the last decade of the struggle for the liberation would have been different had he not died in 1977. The fact that Biko’s case was referenced in the first episode, despite his case not being heard by the commission yet, speaks to the significance of Biko’s death. Although in the first episode, du Preez did not have time to provide as much background about what Biko was doing when he broke his travel ban and was arrested by police, later leading to his death, the episode does explain that Biko sustained head injuries when arrested, and he is described as being naked throughout his cell stay several times in a matter of a minute.

The controversy of the details of Biko’s death and the initial investigation of police that followed is a main focus of the first introduction of the political figure. Du Preez frames Bikos death within the context of police and political official statements that highlight that originally Biko was said to have died from a hunger strike, but that the death was later determined to be caused by a head injury sustained while he was in prison. Famous images of Biko and footage of him explaining the concept of Black Consciousness and the significance of black people banding together to defeat the psychological feeling of inferiority in South African politics. There are images of newspaper headlines featuring Biko, images of Biko standing in front of a car when describing him disobeying his travel ban, and finally images of him laying in his coffin when discussing James Kruger’s statements about Biko’s death, which Kruger said left him cold.[17] There also is footage of what presumably is Biko’s jail cell. The names of the police officers associated with Biko’s death, who eventually applied for amnesty, also are mentioned in the first episode when images of shoes walking through a jail cell and keys locking the cell are shown. At the end of the segment on Biko, images of Ntsiki and their son Nkosinathi are shown, including images of the son as a child, crying at his father’s funeral. When explaining the tension between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Biko’s family, du Preez again alludes to tension in the ways in which the two parties are approaching the case: “Nineteen years later, Steve Biko’s wife, sons and friends still demand to know which individuals killed one of South Africa’s most talented sons, and why they were left unpunished.”[18] The screen fades out to black, and the next clip then goes into an explanation of the ways in which the Human Rights Violations Committee is structured. The end of du Preez’s statement about why the police were left unpunished is especially significant in the understanding of this case. The Biko family, as we will see as the coverage develops, is mostly concerned with finding out the truth about Biko. The end of du Preez’s statement about why the police were left unpunished is especially significant in the understanding of this case. The Biko family, as we will see as the coverage develops, is mostly concerned with finding out the truth about Biko, and find it unacceptable for the police not to be held accountable for their true actions.

Exploring the Details of Biko’s Arrest That Were Excluded From Television

At this point in our understanding of Biko’s death, it is necessary consider the initial framing of Biko’s death in relation to the ways in which the death of Biko is presented by scholar Xolela Mangcu, who as received recognition for his recent book Biko: a life. In the chapter on Biko’s death, Mangcu clarifies early on that his intention is not to determine what is true or false from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final decisions not to amnesty to the police officers applications to the committee, but rather, to present the details of Biko’s death from the information he has collected:

“I am not in a position to decide which of these theories is true; suffice to say that it is not unlikely that Steve was being monitored by the security police. The Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, however, correct in denying amnesty to the five policemen who murdered Steve. What remains unclear is why they were never prosecuted by the democratic government. It is abundantly clear that they had acted out of ill will — as will be evident in the discussion that follows.”[19]

Mangcu describes the arrest of Steve Biko and fellow activist Peter Jones, who were stopped at a police roadblock on August 18 on Grahamnstown-King William’s Town road, about an hour from King William’s Town. Using the information from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Investigative Unit Report from April 1998, Mangcu notes the delay in identifying Biko in the car. Instead, police focused more on Jones, accusing him of being on his way to visit terrorist Biko. It was not until police escorted Jones and Biko to a Grahamstown police station that they began to question Biko’s identity. Mangcu argues that Jones was placed in a difficult situation when police asked the name of the man he was with because although he did not want to betray his friend by identifying him as Biko, inevitably Biko’s identity would be discovered. Biko then introduced himself to the police. Upon identifying Biko, police took him to Walmer Police Station in Port Elizabeth, while Jones was escorted to Algoa Police Station. James then spent 18 months being interrogated and tortured by police and told Mangcu that part of this torture involved his body being swollen, bruised or so sensitive at times that his only somewhat comfortable position was kneeling with his forehead resting on the floor to sleep.[20]

Meanwhile, Biko spent 20 days at the Walmer Police station, where Mangcu, like du Preez, describes Biko as being naked and given little space to move around. Mangcu adds details about Biko’s location, noting he was transferred to the Sanlam Building. In the Sanlam building, the police were somewhat resentful of Biko after hearing that he had possibly punched a warrant officer. Again, these details, although crucial in the telling of Biko’s death in Mangcu’s text, are on the emphasis of the original introduction of Biko’s death. The police in Sanlam did not allow Biko to sit down, but eventually, Biko disobeyed and Captain Siebert forced him back to his feet. At this point, the statements of the officers reveal that a “scuffle” took place in which Biko aimed to fight against Siebert’s demand that Biko remain standing. It is significant to note that several facts of Biko’s death remain undisputed as in the events that followed. Biko died from complications from a brain injury. In fact, Biko had at least three brain lesions from “application of force to his head” that occurred sometime between the evening of Sept. 6 and the morning of Sept. 7. Instead of focusing on the violence against Biko directly in the initial episode, du Preez is more focused on discussing the ways in which the initial apartheid administration misreported his death.

These complications warrant discussion of the role of doctors in prisons during apartheid, as Mangcu notes. He references the three doctors who he believes are “equally complicit” in Biko’s murder. Mangcu references the district surgeon Dr. Ivor Lang, the chief district surgeon Dr. Benjamin Tucker and a specialist from Port Elizabeth, Dr. Colin Hersch. Lang was the first doctor called to check on Biko on Sept. 7, and he reported Biko was alright, ven though the prisoner obviously was in a confused state with injuries on his body, particularly his hands, feet and face. Tucker was then called to help Lang determine what the next step would be for Biko, which ended up involving Biko remaining at the prison after Tucker was coaxed into stating Biko did not need to go to the hospital. Lang had recommended Biko be transported to a hospital located about 700 kilometers from the prison. Biko, naked and unconscious, was loaded into the back of a Land Rover and left on the floor during the 12-hour drive to Pretoria. He died the next day in a prison cell, Mangcu noted.[21]


Screening the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s exploration of Steve Biko’s death

This section of the paper highlights the variety of instances in which Steve Biko’s death appears in the Truth Commission Special Report. As the series progressed, the focus shifted from simply trying to understand what happened to Biko to finding ways to learn from Biko’s death. For example, in the early episodes, such as episode 1, Biko’s death and the inconsistencies in the cause of Biko’s death are highlighted. However, as you will see in the last two episodes in which Biko appears after it has been determined that the police officers’ stories still would not provide more explanation as to how Biko acquired brain injuries causing death, the focus shifts to what can be learned from medicine, and also how reconciliation can or cannot be reached in the Biko case. The series, as you will see, also takes the opportunity toward the end of the episodes to celebrate the figure Biko is, with multiple mentions of a statue built in Biko’s honor. In these episodes, it is necessary to consider the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission overall, and the ways in which the series handles the scenario in which truth is not acquired.

Episode 16: Politicizing Biko’s Death On Television

In Episode 16 of the Truth Commission Special Report, Steve Biko is mentioned for a second time in the series — this time without being put into the context of his family’s plight with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.[22] Instead, it is referenced in relation to the failing apartheid regime in South Africa. Biko’s death also is mentioned as a factor that further distanced South Africa from the international community, especially looking at the way his death was handled by the South African government. After briefly introducing Biko as “the giant of this period,” the television series shows the same clip used in the introductory episode, where Biko explains concepts of Black Consciousness:

“Any changes which are to come can only come as a result of a programme worked out by black people. And for black people to be able to work out a programme they need to defeat the one main element in politics, which was working against them. And this was a psychological feeling of inferiority.”[23]

Biko’s death is paired with deaths of young men and women with ANC and June 16, 1976 shooting of children. His death, along with the deaths of the children, are cited as leading to the outflow of South Africans to neighborhing African countries in which they could join the efforts of the African National Congress, du Preez explained.

The way in which Biko’s death is framed in Episode 16 as a political factor that helped the African National Congress, the newly dominant party of South Africa at the time when the episode aired, gain more support is significant in attaching his figure to the new agenda of the party. Rather than focusing on family tensions or issues related to his murderers not being punished in a criminal court, the emphasis of the episode is on the failure of apartheid, and du Preez’s framing casts Biko (and more directly, his death) into the role of an influential black figure that helped defeat apartheid — not necessarily a figure whose family is against the main efforts of the African National Congress to reshape South Africa’s history without criminal trials for those against apartheid.

Episode 33: Meeting Steve’s Killers

Episode 33 more explicitly looks at the men responsible for the death of Steve Biko, particularly his interrogation team: Colonel Harold Snyman, Bigadier Daantjie Siebert, Warrant Officers Rubin Marx and Johan Beneke and Gideon Niewoudt. Du Preez also notes that the application of Pieter Goosen has not been submitted. Goosen was head of the security police in Port Elizabeth and many considered him responsible for Biko’s death.[24] The men are introduced in the second section of the episode after a brief summary of Biko’s cause of death, which was incorrectly determined when Biko first died. “20 years later, we will know the truth,” the narrator states in the episode. Although the information was skewed when Biko’s death was originally announced, a narrator alludes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings will force the police officers to finally be honest about what happened to Biko. Faith is placed in the hands of the Truth and Reconciliation Process on the part of the narrator. The short 2:44 minute segment on Biko in this episode ends with the narrator stating: “The final applicants will finally, 20 years later, have to tell us how justice was manipulated.” Then, the story moves on to other instances where the legal system was skewed to protect the apartheid agenda.

In the episode, emphasis also is placed on the ways in which the system previously had failed to hold the individuals accountable for Biko’s death by highlighting the many moments at which point the true cause of Biko’s death was covered up. This includes early statements from the local district surgeon Dr. Ivor Lang and chief district surgeon Benjamin Tucker, who found “no evidence of abnormality or pathology” and who failed to mention the bruises on Biko’s face, chest ankles and wrist, as the episode states.

They could also not explain their failure to identify the brain injuries that would kill Steve Biko. When he was found collapsed on the floor of his cell, glassy eyed and foaming at the mouth, they drove with him, naked in the back of this van, 12 00 kilometres to the Prison Hospital in Pretoria. He died there on 12 September. The finding of Magistrate Marthinus Prins took three minutes. He concluded that nobody was responsible for Steve Biko’s death.[25]

The focus is not on Biko’s family or the ways in which people have been affected by the death, but rather that the truth has not been told about Biko. Framing the moment in which the truth will be discovered in conjunction with the amnesty applications of the police officers is significant in this case. Both the Biko family and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had the same goal — of finding out what happened to Steve Biko. But the difference is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission does not necessarily account for ways that a crime can be investigated in the event that the amnesty applicants do not tell the truth or fully disclose the details of the past. Still, a narrative in which resolution of Biko’s death will be reached is referenced in the episode.

Episode 36: Biko’s son speaks out

When Episode 36 aired, Biko’s family is the main focus. Although du Preez mentions that the police officers associated with Biko’s death have applied for amnesty, he also spends most of his airtime in the second half of the episode to present the open letter Nkosinathi Biko wrote to his father Steve Biko. “It should remind us that in dealing with truth and reconciliation, we should not forget we are actually talking about human beings,” Du Preez said of the way in which people should consider the letter.[26] He reminds audiences that for Biko’s son, the man was more than just a martyr of apartheid or a political leader, but rather, the man who taught him to fly a kite or projected movies outside for Nkosinathi and the neighbors. As mentioned earlier in this piece, the letter written by Nkosinathi is primarily focused on the effects of Steve Biko, the loss of his death for his family and the world and the ways in which Biko may have behaved or felt if he was still alive.

While Nkosinathi speaks, the camera alternates between close ups of him and the letter and the stock images of Steve Biko in his coffin, portraits, images of Steve Biko’s prison cell and footsteps/keys in the jail, and images of Biko speaking about black consciousness. This episode reframes the death of Biko by reminding audiences that although Biko’s death has been politicized, it also has been a huge loss and takes an emotional toll on his family.

Episode 53: Medical lessons to be learned from Biko’s death

Episode 53 examines Steve Biko’s death in a new way, focusing on its potential impact in the field of medicine. Steve Biko is described as a medical student whose “legacy to South African medicine has to be thoroughgoing correction of those issues in this story that might conceivably ever allow it to happen again.”[27] This of course is referring to the medical examiners who did not insist Biko receive medical attention when he was first checked, although he likely had brain trauma at that time. In a special report by Rene Schiebe, she refers to the tragedy of Biko’s death as “one of the darkest, most shameful chapters in this country’s medical history.” Truth Commissioner Dr. Wendy Orr also is shown in the episode apologizing to Biko’s family, stating “Although I’m very proud to be a doctor I can never listen to or read the chronology of Steve Biko’s death without feeling a deep sense of shame.” The medical episode is marked with themes of recognizing the wrongdoings against the Biko family, while acknowledging that the way to remedy such wrongdoings is to apologize and set up safety nets so that such mistakes are never possible to be made again.

Episode 65: Friends, family reflect on Biko’s death and look to his killers for answers

Episode 65 of the television series provides perhaps the longest sequence of coverage of Biko’s death and the case with the TRC compared to other episodes of the series. Let’s move our attention now to the Amnesty Committee hearings in Port Elizabeth. The episode begin with a statement from Max du Preez, recognizing that there are concerns among Biko’s family and friends that Biko’s killers are lying at the Amnesty Committee meetings. Du Preez begins the episode stating:

South Africans are known as a nation with a short memory, but the one hero that has never been forgotten is Steven Bantu Biko who died 20 years ago this week in a police cell. But while we remembered Biko some of the men whose actions caused his death, seem to be suffering from bad memory.”[28]

Reporter Rene Schiebe also comments on the Biko case, providing background on his arrest. The report gives information already provided in earlier episodes of the series, but this time also includes a few extra images of Biko’s Cell. Schiebe’s report also allows friends of Biko to comment on Biko’s death, where they were when Biko died and how they coped with it. Human Rights Commission Chair Barney Pityana also is shown in the episode saying “I would oppose this amnesty application with every ounce of blood that I’ve got.”

Harold Snyman was first to be shown in the episode, asking forgiveness for his acts. When George Bizos had the chance to question Snyman, he asked why Biko had been spread eagled and chained to an iron grill, even though he was injured. “It is possible that we acted in an inhumane manner,” Snyman said. “Well that is one of the franker answers that you’ve given the Committee. Can we summarize that the putting up of his arms in the manner in which you did and using the leg irons in the manner in which you did was a form of torture?” Bizos added. “That is correct your honour. That might be the case,” Snyman said. Biko’s wife also is shown and gives a statement at the end of part of the questioning, explaining that she believed Biko’s killers were lying even more on the stand in front of the TRC than they had in the previous trial. After even more interrogation in which the men refused to admit that they had killed Biko or that he had died of anything more than an accidental head injury, Nkosinathi Biko also commented toward the end of the episode. “They haven’t given us anything new to believe that they’re anywhere towards revealing the truth, the whole truth,” he said of the hearings. But George Bizos, an advocate for the Biko family, also commented on Biko’s death and his assumptions of what happened in the jail. Rene Schiebe quoted Bizos, stating “We knew that when you get taken by these people they can get anything out of you, because if they don’t get it from you voluntarily they’ll smash you up to get it and that is what they have done with all of us and that is what our, of course presumption is what happened to Steve; that Steve got smashed up and in the process of being smashed up he had a terrible blow from which he died.”[29]

Upon the end of this statement, the episode switches to a somewhat more cheerful topic — celebrations of Biko involving Nelson Mandela. While a life-size, bronze Biko statue is unveiled with Nelson Mandela present, images are shown of people remembering Biko’s life in East London. The segment ends with Singer Peter Gabriel singing about Biko as shots of the statue are shown. Although the episode highlights the lack of success the Commission is seeing in uncovering the truth about Biko’s death and somewhat references the dissatisfaction of Biko’s family with the statements being made in the amnesty application hearings, the statue provides a more positive end with singing and references of Biko as one of the greatest sons of Africa.

Episode 78: Family questions possibility of reconciliation

In the last Truth Commission Special Report of 1997, Max du Preez introduces the amnesty applications of the police officers involved in Biko’s death:

“To Port Elizabeth first. The application of the four security policemen for amnesty for the death of Steve Biko ended this week. Biko died in a police cell in 1977. But the Biko family’s quest for truth was still thwarted as the policemen who were in the room when Biko received the fatal blow to his head persisted with their denials of culpability.”[30]

Du Preez acknowledges that for the Biko family, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process did not provide the family what they are said throughout the series to have desired most — truth. After introducing the case again, highlighting the statue of Biko that had been unveiled by Nelson Mandela and reviewing the testimonies from the police officers that applied for amnesty, the end of the episode gives both Biko’s wife and son a chance to speak.

First, Nkosinathi spoke about taking notes during the inquest and hearing three directions as to what may have happened to Biko:

“I can’t even develop a watertight theory about his death because of the disappointing evidence that we’ve been hearing so far. And it goes something like this. They go into the room, they will remember many things outside of the room, they will remember many things that are very inmaterial and when it comes to the real issues, how he sustained his death, they become very general.”[31]

Nkosinathi’s frustration can be understood through his tone and the way in which he frames the clear inconsistencies in memory of the police and security guards at the prison where Steve Biko was held.

Ntsiki Biko echoed Nkosinathi’s frustration, adding she had hoped the stories that were going to be told about Biko in the hearings would have been different from the stories told in the past. Ntsiki also questions the likelihood of reconciliation being reached. In the transcript of the episode, perhaps the most significant in terms of the presence of tension between themes of reconciliation, truth and justice, Nkosinathi is first to reference reconciliation:

“People must begin to see change to move towards reconciliation otherwise you have a kind of talk that is something like this. In the office, yes we’re a rainbow nation and in the taverns and in the pubs it’s something like staff, black people staff white people. And I’m not sure if that is reconciliation. At a personal level, if there were gestures to respond to then perhaps we could work towards reconciliation.”[32]

Ntsiki adds to Nkosinathi’s comments, explaining that what she saw at the hearings was “a group of very dangerous people who didn’t take care of Steve. I think they were just inhuman, they were just not dealing with a human being when they were dealing with Steve. The comments from both Nkosinathi and Ntsiki in the episode somewhat indicate a dissatisfaction with the reconciliation process in terms of the lack of truth acquired from the hearings. In this way, it seems as though the family did not receive the type of closure they so desired. It is significant, however, that the interviews with Nkosinathi and Ntsiki are included in the episode. Clearly the interviews were conducted with a reporter (as opposed to footage of a public statement made at the hearings) and provide a reflexive look at the possibility of reconciliation in a case in which the amnesty applications do not fulfill their promise of bringing closure to victims of apartheid and their families.

Reflecting on the series, Biko’s death and themes of truth and healing

In completing this analysis, it has become clear that while cases such as the death of Steve Biko have the possibility of becoming symbolic tools to promote the agenda of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on screen, the television series also provided a chance for the public to consider the ways in which reconciliation may not be achieved. When the case of Steve Biko was first introduced in the television series, the amnesty applications of police officers, although controversial and clearly noted as unsupported by Biko’s family, also provided the potential for finally realizing the truth of Biko’s death. However, as the hearings progressed and it became clear that the testimonies of Biko’s killers would not provide such closure, the series took a different route, attempting to provide closure in the method of framing Biko’s death within larger lessons and reform in the medical and public sphere. Using interviews from doctors and featuring Biko’s celebratory statue, endorsed by Mandela, Biko’s story still ties into the notion of healing the nation.

Yet, as we examine the unchanging comments from Biko’s family members throughout the series, an important conclusion can be drawn from the television series’ framing. As demonstrated in the television series, although able to apply the common themes and missions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s goal of healing and moving forward with South Africa’s future, reconciliation for families of victims cannot always fully be achieved through a process such as amnesty hearings if the amnesty applicants do not present open testimonies of the full extent of the crimes committed.

[1] Nkosinathi Biko (Interviewee). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 36, Section 5 transcript]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[2]   “The Truth Commission Special Report Series [Background],” South African Historical Archive & South African Broadcasting Corporation, (2008-2010), 4 May 2014. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rebecca Ryan. “Review of Truth Commission Special Report,” Michigan State University, History 830, Digital South African History, 24 February 2015.

[5] Deborah Posel & Graeme Simpson (Eds.), Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1st ed.). (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2001), 1-17.

[6] “Unit 7. Exploring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy, Michigan State University, accessed 3 May 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Deborah Posel & Graeme Simpson (Eds.), Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1st ed.). (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2001), 1-17.

[9] Alex Boraine, A country unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1-46.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mary Burton (Interviewee). (25 November 2005). South Africa: Cape Town [Full interview conducted by Ruendree Govinder], Video retrieved from South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Deborah Posel & Graeme Simpson (Eds.), Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1st ed.). (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2001), 1-17.

[15] Janet Cherry, John Daniel, and Madeleine Fullard, “Researching the ‘Truth’: A View from inside the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” in Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ed. Deborah Posel and Graeme Simpson (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2001), 21-34.

[16] Max du Preez (Host). (1996-1998), Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 1 Section 10 transcript]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Xolela Mangcu, Biko: a life. (Cape Town: NB Publishers, 2012), 243-267.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Xolela Mangcu, Biko: a life. (Cape Town: NB Publishers, 2012), 243-267.

[22] Du Preez (Host). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 16, Section 2 transcript]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[23] Ibid.

[24] Du Preez (Host). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 33, Section 2 transcript]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[25] Ibid.

[26] Du Preez (Host). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 36, Section 5]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[27] Du Preez (Host). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 53]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[28] Du Preez (Host). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 65, Section 2]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[29] Ibid.

[30] Du Preez (Host). (1996-1998). Truth Commission Special Report [Episode 78, Section 2]. Retrieved from Truth Commission Special Report SAHA and SABC site:

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.