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THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH in a South African prison five weeks ago of Stephen Biko, a prominent leader of the anti-apartheid "Black Consciousness Movement" among South African blacks in the past decade, has justly provoked an international furor. But the Biko case must not serve simply as a short-lived cathartic outlet for anger and moral outrage. Rather, it should be seen as just the latest and most visible reminder of the larger pattern of ongoing government repression in South Africa--a pattern that has grown increasingly pervasive and brutal since the outbreak of anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa's segregated black townships two summers ago.
World attention is now focused on the frightening array of questions surrounding the circumstances of Biko's death. The most recent reports in one of South Africa's largest daily newspapers, The Rand Daily Mail, based on interviews with six doctors who examined Biko a week before his death, suggest he showed no medical signs of being on a hunger strike-a strike that the Vorster government has claimed was the cause of Biko's death. The Mail also indicated that Biko had already suffered extensive brain damage, possibly as the result of severe beatings on the head.
So far, the Vorster regime's only response to the Biko controversy has been a sickening mixture of callous indifference, duplicitous disclosures to the press, and continued delay in releasing Biko's autopsy report. Now in response to these latest disturbing reports, the government has issued a formal complaint against The Mail, and thus tacitly threatened a future crack-down on all newspapers critical of its increasingly unconscionable policies.
Yet Biko's death and the Vorster regime's response have only highlighted issues that have become sadly routine in South Africa. Biko was the 43rd black South African since 1963 and the 21st in the past 18 months to die while being held in prison under the Detention Act, which allows the government to imprison dissidents without specifying charges. The South African Institute of Race Relations, an organization that opposes apartheid, recently issued a report challenging the official police versions of nine of these last 21 deaths. The report also lists 662 political prisoners currently being detained in South African prisons, 97 of whom have been awaiting trial for more than a year.
Largely in response to the uproar created by Biko's death, the Vorster regime has scheduled a general election for November 30, hoping to give its government the appearance of democratic legitimacy to the oustide world. However, the overwhelming victory that Vorster's Afrikaner Nationalist Party expects to score in the election can only reflect the intensifying reactionary mood within the small minority white population that controls power in South Africa, while the disenfranchised black majority will be unable to express its opposition to the Pretoria regime. Those who have beentouched and alarmed by the Biko case should be under no illusion that the conditions dramatized by his detention and unexplained death will end until the Vorster government is stripped of all its political and military control and a black majority government comes to power in South Africa.
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