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In South Africa, the truth survives

The recent death in Johannesburg of South Africa's foremost pathologist, Jonathan Gluckman, releases me from a 16-year pledge of confidentiality to reveal his role in exposing the truth about the brutal death in police detention of black consciousness leader Steven Biko at a time when the minister of justice was attempting a coverup.

I had just become editor of the Rand Daily Mail, a crusading newspaper that struggled through the dark years of apartheid to expose the evils of the system.

Gluckman was one of the unsung heroes of South Africa. At the time of his death at 78, he was still working on cases in which he believed the police had killed people in their custody.

The truth was his passion, and that is what led Gluckman to phone me on the morning of Sept. 29, 1977, with a request that I call at his rooms. Biko had died in detention two weeks before, and Minister of Justice James Kruger had announced that death was caused by a hunger strike.

Gluckman had attended the post-mortem examination on behalf of the family, he told me, and it was clear Kruger was lying. He showed me the post-mortem report. Far from dying of hunger or dehydration, Biko was actually overweight at 193 pounds at the time of his death. He had died of brain damage. Moreover, the government doctor who had examined him in the interrogation cell where he was being held without trial must have known this, for they had ordered a lumbar puncture that showed an excessive number of red cells.

What to do about it? Kruger was obviously attempting a coverup and had hinted that there might be no need for a public inquest. We had to publish the news to force him to hold an inquest. But we would have to conceal Gluckman's role in doing so, both for reasons of medical ethics and because he would be a material witness if the inquest were held. So I made my pledge of confidentiality.

Back at the office I briefed a senior reporter, Helen Zille, and dispatched her to Port Elizabeth to see the doctors who had examined Biko in detention.

Zille met the three doctors. Their alarm at being confronted with the facts convinced us that they had known what was wrong with the prisoner and had joined a conspiracy of silence. They blustered, half answered some questions, then took refuge in the excuse that there might be an inquest to avoid answering more.

So we found ourselves in the awkward position of knowing the facts but not being able to source them clearly. Zille and I composed a carefully worded report that began: "An investigation by the Rand Daily Mail _ which included interviews with doctors who examined Steve Biko in detention _ has revealed that the black consciousness leader showed no signs of a hunger strike or dehydration."

The report went on to say that our investigation indicated that Biko had died of brain damage and that the facts we had unearthed contradicted Kruger's statements. We published the report under a banner headline: "No Sign of Hunger Strike _ Biko Doctors."

Next day the roof fell in. Kruger protested that the report was false and demanded an instant hearing of the Press Council, a body set up by the Newspaper Press Union _ the proprietors' organization _ in the face of threats by Prime Minister John Vorster to pass a press control law if the newspapers did not "discipline themselves."

I refused. I didn't want to be bullied by Kruger into having an immediate hearing. But the president of the Newspaper Press Union, members of his executive and eventually my own managing director called on me in a relentless buildup of pressure throughout the day to get me to accede. If I did not, they said, Vorster would cite it as proof that the Press Council was inadequate and he would introduce his legislation. I would be responsible for getting us a press control law.

Eventually I yielded. That night I appeared before the Press Council, constituted like a court with a retired Appeal Court judge, Oscar Galgut, presiding. I was represented by Sydney Kentridge.

As the hearing got under way, it quickly became clear that if a refusal to hold an urgent hearing was considered unacceptable to Vorster, so was an acquittal.