Biko autopsy files stolen in the '90s


SOUTH AFRICA, A photograph of Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) founder Steve Bantu Biko.

JOHANNESBURG - Slain anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko&39;s original autopsy files were stolen in the early 1990s, a principal curator at the University of Witwatersrand&39;s Historical Papers department said.

Michele Pickover on Friday said when the university came into possession of the autopsy files belonging to Dr Jonathan Gluckman, the pathologist appointed by the Biko family to perform a post-mortem after his death, the activist&39;s files were not among them.

"Dr Jonathan Gluckman&39;s files came to us at Wits in 1995 from Medical Rescue International.

"But when they arrived I immediately looked for the Biko file and it wasn&39;t there. They said they&39;d had a break-in and somebody stole the file from the cabinet," Pickover said.

She said this was before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set to begin. The hearings began in 1996.

"It was before the TRC, it was still coming up."

She said based on Gluckman&39;s other files, Biko&39;s file should have had photographs as well as an autopsy report.

"It&39;s not just a report, it has got photographs in it. Compared with the other (Gluckman) files, they have other information in them."

She said the files had been stored at Medical Rescue International&39;s Braamfontein offices.

"Then they asked us to keep them on their behalf."

She expressed doubt about allegations that the Steele family was in possession of the original report.

"I doubt that the family stole it; that file was stolen way before."

Pickover was not sure how Medical Rescue International had come to be in possession of Gluckman&39;s files.

On Wednesday the High Court in Johannesburg halted an auction of Biko&39;s "original" post-mortem document, about an hour before it was due to be auctioned by Westgate Walding Auctioneers. Bidding on the document was meant to start at R70,000.

Biko&39;s son Nkosinathi said in his founding affidavit his family and Biko&39;s foundation were not aware of the report until Monday. He learnt of the report around 1pm on Monday when he was informed in an e-mail of an advertisement for the report&39;s auction.

Biko, who is also the foundation&39;s chief executive, said the respondents had refused to stop the auction.

He was concerned that if the auction proceeded, it could have been sold to a foreigner and taken overseas. And if sold to a local person, it could have been "hidden, destroyed, manipulated, defaced, interfered with or resold".

On its website, Westgate Walding says the documents from 1977 contain certificates from pathologists, a certificate in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act, and a 43-page post-mortem report.

The photographs referred to in the text are not present, but the report on Biko&39;s brain has the signature of Dr Neville Sydney Proctor on each page. Proctor was an anatomical pathologist from the University of the Witwatersrand.

"It is unknown if another copy of this document exists. The history of the document is of interest," says Westgate.

It was given to Maureen Steele, Gluckman&39;s personal secretary. Gluckman was an independent pathologist.

"Dr Gluckman was very concerned about the safety of such documents as his offices had been bugged and he had received numerous death threats. He therefore asked Mrs Steele to keep the copies of such documents," says Westgate.

Steele recently died and the documents went to her children, who did not want them. It was unknown if the children gave them or sold them to Westgate Walding.

Two of Steele&39;s children, Clive and Susan, were listed as respondents in the court case.

In his affidavit, Biko says: "Dr Gluckman was appointed by the family because we wanted an independent report as the police had claimed that Steve Biko died as a result of an extended hunger strike, a claim which later proved to be false."

Nkosinathi Biko said the report belonged to the Biko family, and the foundation wanted it for preservation purposes.

"It is also my late father&39;s autopsy report. At the very least the report is emotionally sensitive and of familial significance to the Biko family… It is a report that the Biko family wished to preserve and display to all South Africans to further the legacy of my late father."

The foundation raises and spends money for advancing human rights and democracy in South Africa, in accordance with the values Biko promoted.

In the 1960s and 70s, Biko was a student leader and later founded the Black Consciousness Movement to mobilise the black population against the apartheid government. On August 18, 1977, he was arrested at a police roadblock and interrogated. He was tortured in prison and died in a prison cell in Pretoria on September 12, 1977.

The court also ordered Westgate to stop the auction of the post-mortem report of Ahmed Timol, another anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1972.

The court ruled the auctioneers would retain ownership of the documents, and both the Biko and Timol families had until the end of January to challenge this.