South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko died in Pretoria prison from injuries inflicted while in police custody.

Bantu Stephen Biko established the South African Students’ Organisation, and developed the ideology of Black Consciousness to challenge the apartheid system of racial segregation and white-minority rule. Having voted in favour of the Black People’s Convention in 1972, by 1973 Biko’s activities had caught the attention of the authorities. The government were concerned that the Black Consciousness Movement, and Biko himself, were a threat to the political situation in South Africa. In response a banning order was placed on him and a number of other anti-apartheid activists.

Despite the banning order severely restricting his activities by restricting him from leaving King William’s Town, Biko continued to be involved in the anti-apartheid movement and was arrested and held without charge four times between 1975-77. However, on 17 August 1977 he broke the terms of his banning order by driving to Cape Town in the hope of meeting with the leader of the Unity Movement, Neville Alexander. On his return the next day, Biko was stopped at a police roadblock and taken into custody.

While held in Port Elizabeth, Biko was interrogated while shackled, handcuffed and naked. Although the exact details of the interrogation have never been established, it has since been acknowledged that Biko was violently assaulted to such an extent that he suffered brain injuries that led to a haemorrhage. Having been sent to Pretoria for medical treatment, on 12 September Biko died in his cell of what the autopsy referred to as an ‘extensive brain injury’. His death attracted global attention and intensified international criticism of apartheid.

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