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A look back in history | When Steve Biko died in detention

One of the darkest periods in SA's history pushed then Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods to his own banning

“Sikhahlela indoda yamadoda”, “We salute a hero of the nation”.

Those were the bold words printed on the Daily Dispatch front page bearing Steve Biko’s cartooned face on September 14 1977. 

A bold statement by the paper at a time when Biko, a man who was banned by the apartheid state, had died in custody. 

“Biko dies in detention”, this was the actual front page headline by the paper, published two days after Steven Bantu Biko died.

Biko, who had been banned numerous times before, had inspired youths with his strong character pushing the Black Consciousness Movement at the height of the brutal apartheid state.

What followed were events that only toughened the apartheid state which also led to the editor of the Daily Dispatch, Donald Woods, being banned following his active role in pursuing the then prime minister John Voster to be held to account for Biko’s killing.

The Dispatch carried several tributes to Biko, including one by his wife Ntsiki Biko, which was carried by the paper on September 15 1977.

“Steve Biko was a good man, he was a good father, but above all he was a leader,” Ntsiki Biko was quoted saying at the time.

It was the first time she opened about the death of her husband.  

Biko was arrested on August 18 1977 under the Terrorism Act and detained in Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha.

He was later transferred to Pretoria and died in hospital from injuries he sustained from being assaulted.

“His death in detention did not come unexpectedly to me. I knew that because he was a man of such firm convictions and beliefs, only death could stop him from what he believed in,” Ntsiki Biko was quoted saying in the same article.

The Dispatch dedicated several pages in the days following Biko’s death, documenting his story, and calling for apartheid SA to be kicked out of the United Nations.

It further covered events in the lead-up to and during his funeral. Its editor, Woods, was also increasing pressure to get to the truth about Biko’s death.

He penned several opinion pieces on the subject, all published in the Daily Dispatch. On September 14, the paper carried his editorial headlined “Death of a martyr”.

“Many South Africans are mourning today. Steve Biko is dead. The nation has lost a great man, a person who represented the best aspirations of a new SA — a SA freed of racial discrimination, detentions without trial and unexplained deaths in detention,” read the editorial.

Wood’s numerous opinion pieces earned him his banning order. On October 19 1997 he was banned for five years under the Internal Security Act. The following day the paper reported this - with a front page headline titled “Editor banned.”

It further carried a story about the banning order, which it explained was served on Woods shortly before 5pm at Jan Smuts Airport, now OR Tambo International Airport. 

“He was due to leave last night for the US, where he was to attend a conference held by the influential African American Institute,” reads the story.

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