On Sunday September 25 1977, over 20 000 black South Africans converged in King Williamstown about 922km from Johannesburg to pay their last respects to Steve Bantu Biko, a non-violent but militant black, radical leader who mysteriously died in police custody on September 12.
By Tendai Makaripe
He was the 20th man to die in police custody since the June 16 1976 riots which originated in Soweto and spread throughout South Africa profoundly changing the socio-political landscape in the country.
Twenty-six others activists died inexplicably in police custody after Biko.
The then 30 year old Biko was arrested at a roadblock on August 18 on his way from Cape Town where he had gone to advocate for the unification of the African National Congress (ANC), Black Consciousness Movement, Pan African Congress and the New Unity Movement.
Writing in his book, “Biko”, late liberal white South African journalist, Donald Woods, Biko’s personal friend, wrote that Biko was handcuffed, put in leg irons, chained to a grill and subjected to 22 hours of interrogation in the course of which he was tortured and badly battered, sustaining several blows to the head which fatally damaged his brain, causing him to lapse into a coma.
His condition deteriorated and a day before his death, Biko was transported over a journey of a thousand kilometres in a police van without any medical escort.
James Th1omas Kruger who was the minister of Justice then lied to the world that Biko died as a result of a week-long hunger strike but pictures of Biko’s lifeless body taken by Woods showed the activist sustained countless injuries on his body.
The story of Biko’s unfortunate death ignited serious global debates regarding the treatment of arrested, detained and convicted persons.
In colonial Zimbabwe, a number of nationalists including Robert Mugabe, Leopold Takawira, Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, Enos Chikowore, Edson Zvobgo and Maurice Nyagumbo were also exposed to serious torture by the Smith administration with some like Leopold Takawira dying as a result of punitive prison conditions.
Being a diabetic, Takawira required a specific diet but unfortunately he was continuously given sadza which compromised his health.
Resultantly, he collapsed in his cell one morning only to be ferried to hospital around 4pm where he eventually died a few hours upon arrival.
Fast forward to 2019, nearly four decades into independence, Zimbabwe is still treating some detained and convicted political prisoners almost the same way apartheid South Africa and the Smith regime used to do it.
It is pitiful that this is happening in a constitutional democracy which glorifies the national charter as the supreme law of the land whose obligations: “… are binding on every person, natural or juristic, including the State and all legislative, judicial and executive institutions…”
That this is prevailing in a nation that boasts of one of the longest bill of rights in the world is disturbing.
As many as 1000 people were arrested and taken into custody for allegedly participating in violent activities that were prevalent in some parts of the country recently.
Some of the detained persons were beaten and sustained serious injuries while in custody.
Last week lawyers protested against torture of political detainees, accusing some magistrates of being complicit in human rights violations by denying accused persons bail and fast tracking trials.
In an interview with ITV news, clergyman Evan Mawarire who stands accused of subversion but is currently out on bail vividly narrated the horrors he experienced during his stay in remand prison.
“I was locked up with over 300 young men whose limbs were broken after being beaten by soldiers and police. I have never seen the kinds of injuries that I saw there. It is agonising to hear grown men cry out of pain from wounds sustained,” he said.
The violent beatings of detainees are a direct contravention of section 53 of the Constitution which explicitly provides that: “No person may be subjected to physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Additionally, section 50(5) (d) of the constitution states that “Any detained person has the right to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity …ablution facilities, personal hygiene, nutrition …medical treatment.”
While other rights may be limited, the right to human dignity is an absolute right which should be enjoyed by every person that is why various international instruments and domestic law speak passionately about it.
In S v. Makwanyane, a prominent constitutional court case, the South African Constitutional Court concurred with the United States Supreme Court that: “Even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity”, and the German Federal Constitutional Court noted: “Respect for human dignity especially requires the prohibition of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”
The same court in August and Another v. the Electoral Commission and Others clarified the status of prisoners in society stating that they are not second-class citizens and that they remain, although physically restricted, members of a democratic society.”
So strictly speaking, the right to dignity is at the epicentre of prisoners’ rights in any constitutional democracy and the State has a duty to ensure that this right is respected.
This obligation is inescapable and the state cannot claim that it is an innocent and helpless bystander when prison conditions fail to meet legal standards.
The writer is alive to the fact that prisons are not democratic institutions but establishments of coercion, reflecting the state’s legitimate ability to deprive people of their liberty but everything should be done according to the dictates of the supreme law.
It is also important to note that the traumatising effects of prison have a long lasting psychological impact on detainees therefore the prison system should be an arena where injustices and divisions are addressed not a platform used to intimidate, degrade, or perpetuate exclusion and human rights violations.