Saths Cooper — Accused Number 1

BY Millard Arnold, May 3 2022



In the forty years since Steve Biko’s death, (‘Saths’) Cooper – accused number 1 in the SASO/BPC trial – has fashioned an astonishingly brilliant career filled with international accolades and distinguished awards. From serving as the vice chancellor and principal of the University of Durban-Westville (prior to its merger), to being appointed as President of the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) – the first psychologist from outside Europe and the United States, and the first from Africa, to occupy the position. Moreover, and perhaps far more significantly, his contributions in the field of psychology assisted South Africans recover from the trauma of apartheid, understand each other better and furthered the cause of racial tolerance. Saths has excelled as an activist, organiser, leader and change agent.

Forty years ago, however, he was simply a terrorist.

Seemingly, little has changed when you meet him now. He still has that quiet reserve and vigilance that suggest a coiled readiness to respond to any provocation. There is a certain self-assuredness made even more pronounced by eyes that are both wary and penetrating. It is easy to recognise his quiet but forceful assertiveness and appreciate how it impacts on those around him. Indeed, Saths’ accomplishments over the years, simply reflect the opinion and leadership qualities that acting  Judge Boshoff articulated about him in his judgement in the SASO/BPC trial:


… he was a founding member of BPC. He served on a BPC ad hoc committee to organise the formation of BPC, convened, attended and participated in the BPC inaugural convention in Pietermaritzburg in July 1972, and in particular took part in the discussion at this convention which resulted in the recommendation that BPC concentrate for the first three years on a membership drive and then organise a nationwide strike of Black workers to cripple the economy. He was the public relations officer of BPC from July 1972 to March 1973, and attended the first national convention of BPC at Hammanskraal in December 1972. He was the virtual head of BPC and BAWU in Durban, and his flat was a constant meeting place of BPC members and officials in Durban. He attended and participated in a SASO Sharpeville commemoration meeting in Durban in March 1972. He organised or assisted in organising the Sharpeville commemoration meeting in March 1973, the symposium in Durban in September 1974, and the national “Viva Frelimo” rallies in September 1974. He compiled and/or issued a number of BPC documents, and on his arrest, and also shortly thereafter, a number of BPC documents were found in his possession in his flat …


Indeed, it is little wonder that he was accused number 1 in the SASO/BPC trial. It may well have been a ‘trial about ideas’, but it was also very much a trial about Saths Cooper. In reading the trial transcripts and the judgment, there was little doubt that Saths was one of the catalysts and tactician behind the events which gave rise to the trial, and it was clear in reading the judgment, that Judge Boshoff had little difficulty in finding him guilty of terrorism.

Saths is today not unlike what he was 40 years ago: insightful, analytical, calculating and decisive. He gives very little away and is exceptionally mindful of the message he gives when he does. Guarded, yes, but always shrewdly aware of how best to manage the circumstances in which he finds himself.

Saths and I have known each other for more than 30 years; it has been a friendship that grew out of my publication of Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa, strengthened in the US whilst he was obtaining his PhD at Boston University and subsequently deepened here in South Africa once I made it my home.

As the number 1 accused and a colleague, contemporary and close friend of Biko’s, it was fascinating that despite our long history, we never spoke in any great detail about his relationship with Biko, the trial itself and his feelings and emotions that he had to come to grips with when he contemplated a long period of incarceration and the tragedy of Biko’s death.

Over the years, thousands of words have been written, movies have been made and music created, all venerating the memory and genius of Biko, so much so that it is difficult to know the truth of the man. Could it be possible that one man could emerge from the bubbling cauldron of South Africa’s explosive racial and political maelstrom with the insight, composure, and breadth of leadership that so many claim he had? That may have been a question for some, but certainly not for Saths.

Reminiscing, he began our discussion on a philosophical and literary note, not surprising given his enormous interest and involvement with the theatre.

‘When Shakespeare wrote,’ Saths says, ‘“some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, he must have had Biko in mind, because he was all of that. He was born into a political family; he attained greatness as a leader and ultimately had greatness thrust upon him through his death. He had it because he grew up in a time when his brothers around him were involved in the struggle, and came from that background to Marianhill and went to medical school, interacted with a whole lot of others and was involved in NUSAS. He was then central to the SASO separation from NUSAS, and his philosophies, thoughts and ideas were at the cutting edge of what made SASO and BPC possible.’

There is political consciousness and then there is a consciousness that flows from within a person whose inner being is reflective of a calmness and focus that makes them alive to all that is around them. Biko had both. ‘Indeed,’ Saths reflects, ‘Steve had a psychological insight into human beings and therefore his writings were clearly humanist. He talked about people being shadows of themselves that needed to be addressed and overcome so that their full potential could be realised. People have potential, even if that potential had been thwarted by structural and other elements in society. There is a psychology to Black Consciousness … ’

Potential in all of its aspects was an important ingredient in Biko’s understanding of what was required to change fundamentally the dynamics of South African politics. Saths and Steve met in 1968 when both were university students in Durban and immediately recognised that in each other, there was a kindred spirit.

‘Steve had this canny ability to recognise potential in individuals. He took Strini Moodley, who was working as an administrative clerk, and said “come to the office and get involved in the SASO newsletters”. Strini himself had doubts, but as Steve anticipated, he turned out to be excellent in the role. Steve saw the potential in Strini.’

In April 1972, Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, who had been the president of the Student Representative Council at Turfloop, the University of the North, delivered a fiery commencement address that sharply criticised the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which led to his expulsion from the university. Barely a month later, in his opening remarks to the second annual General Student Council meeting, Themba Sono, the President of SASO argued for a more conciliatory approach to apartheid structures, contending that the organisation needed to ‘coalesce our efforts and coagulate our plans even with detractors’, and furthermore, ‘seek out people who differ with us and we have to try to convert them to our way of thinking. This includes everybody – black or white whether they are security police, liberals, non-whites, etc.’, maintaining that SASO needed to be ‘strong as an oak and flexible as a willow’, Saths recalls. Sono’s position was bitterly opposed by SASO’s rank and file and on the same evening a resolution distancing SASO from Sono’s address was carried by a unanimous vote. The following morning a motion to expel Sono was passed without opposition. He was labelled a ‘security risk’ for the organisation and the ‘black community’ at large, and was expelled and asked to leave the conference site immediately. The council meeting was still on, Saths recalls, when Soma Reddy delivered Steve’s message instructing him to marshal the universities. ‘Steve’s view was that we had to mobilise the universities, because if we don’t mobilise the universities now, when this Tiro thing was happening, we would lose a massive opportunity. I asked questions; I was more interested to know why Sono got expelled because he was very popular. I asked all those questions and Soma Reddy said this is happening because of the Turfloop stuff. I immediately started mobilising – there were a few campuses in Durban; University of Durban-Westville, Springfield Training College, Bechet Training College, ML Sultan Technical College, University of Zululand, so we looked and said the hardest one to crack would be Durban-Westville. We started with Durban-Westville and it was the first campus that went on boycott in solidarity with Tiro. They went on strike on a Sunday, the day before exams were to begin. We crafted that very well and went in strategically. It was put to a vote and there were eleven abstentions. Amongst the abstentions were former constitutional court judge, Zak Yacoob, and Pravin Gordhan, who were at that time Natal Indian Congress members. Once that campus went on boycott then Zululand and other campuses followed suit. Across the entire country, people walked out of universities – Fort Hare, Western Cape – everywhere. All of these campuses went on strike in 1972, and some of them were still boycotting deep into 1974.’

The black university shutdown on such a massive scale and the realisation of an organised, dedicated and well-structured student movement startled the government and led to an immediate response. By February 1973, waves of banning orders were issued on student leaders. Biko was restricted to the magisterial area of King William’s Town and Saths to that of Durban. Those living in big cities were placed under house arrest and Saths, Strini Moodley, Drake Koka and Bokwe Mafuna, who were both living in Johannesburg, had house arrest orders placed on them.

It did not daunt or deter the young rebels. ‘Banning orders continued,’ Saths recalls, ‘They were unrelenting, but nevertheless, you had people who stepped up to the plate. When the first lot of us were banned, others filled those roles. As they were banned, still others came forward to fill those roles. Things continued that way until 1974.’

Caught on the back foot, government realised it was facing a low-grade but escalating insurgency. At this time, ‘the state police machinery catered for the banned organisations,’ Saths explains, ‘the largest section of the security police was internal communists, anyone who was listed, banned or house-arrested. When Black Consciousness was on the rise, the largest section became what they called Swart Mag. (Black Power). This would have been by 1973. My first visit to the Security Police Headquarters on Fisher Street in Durban was in October 1971, soon after Ahmed Timol was killed in detention. The charts they had on the hierarchy of who was responsible for who you could see on the wall. It was kept in Captain Nayager’s office, the highest ranking Indian in the Natal Security Police. I saw there was Swart Mag, but it wasn’t that big. When I returned there in 1973 the whole thing had changed; Swart Mag was the biggest section and the rest were minute. The organogram had changed dramatically and it continued that way. Now there was internal opposition.’

By 1974, the security situation became increasingly more difficult for the state when the Portuguese government finally succumbed to the liberation struggles it was facing and announced that it would withdraw from Angola and Mozambique and that MPLA and Frelimo – both avowedly Marxist political parties – would be coming to power. The Portuguese announcement was greeted with great jubilation by black South Africans, and presented an opportunity for SASO and its political wing, the BPC, to capitalise on the unexpected, but highly welcomed developments.

‘Muntu Myeza was the secretary general of SASO,’ says Saths. ‘SASO’s offices were in Durban, on Beatrice Street. I was banned from entering the offices, but I met with him there anyway. We decided that we couldn’t sit idly by. Frelimo is going to assume power right next door and we needed to do something about it. That is how the “Viva Frelimo” rallies developed. As we were discussing this, we were communicating this to key leadership in different parts of the country – Steve was one of them. I remember Mamphela Ramphele took the message from Durban – I think she was doing her junior internship – to Kings William’s Town and came back the week that the rallies were scheduled, and said that Steve supported it.

‘In calling for nationwide rallies, we took the issues to the state, and forced the envelope with them. The rallies were scheduled for Wednesday the 25th of September 1974. On the Monday, two days prior to the rallies, Jimmy Kruger, the Minister of Justice, Police, Prisons – a powerful man like John Vorster before him, banned the rallies. On Tuesday the papers published our statement that we were “not aware any banning” and even if we were, as Muntu, the official spokesperson stated, “the will of the people shall not be suppressed by a foreign settler white minority.”

On the morning of the rallies, the Government Gazette announced the banning of the rallies. We had dispatched a team to go to Mozambique to locate a Frelimo representative who could address the rally. Remember, Frelimo was a communist terrorist organisation like the communist terrorist threat that the liberation movement, particularly those in exile, represented. We had now taken the audacious step of not only celebrating a communist takeover in Mozambique through a rally, but inviting communist leaders into South Africa to address our gathering. It was a major shock to the apartheid system.

‘There were threats from Afrikaner commandos. There was one Cornelius Koekemoer in Newcastle, who was quoted in newspapers saying “if the government does not act, we will, we will mobilise commandos to come and put this rally down”. On the Wednesday, effectively the rallies were banned, but we were waiting for the guys to come back from Mozambique with some indication as to whether they had succeeded in establishing contact or not, because we had advertised that Frelimo would be at the rally. There was a sense of morality that if we were advertising we had to keep to that. The likelihood of anybody from Frelimo coming was very low, but let us at least get a message from them. The second prize was that if the rallies went on, whoever was in Mozambique would get a message back to us. They  got the message from José Montero, but the rallies were banned. The entire Curries Fountain Stadium was surrounded by police and military. We met and decided that obviously people were going to arrive at the stadium, and the only radio was state radio and they were not going to take any statement from us asking people not to come, they were just broadcasting that it was banned. There was no newspaper being published that evening, no social media, no other way of communication, so the plan was that one of us would go to the stadium and approach the officer in charge to say that we know it is banned, but allow us to address the people to say they should kindly .

‘In the confusion on the day, that request was not honoured, and as a result, people were charged and dogs were set upon them. Numerous people were arrested including the editor of the Daily News at the time, a few reporters and countless others. It was a racially mixed group of people. As Saths ruefully noted, ‘so much for Black Consciousness being anti everybody else. All of us were arrested.’

Saths, who was under house arrest at the time, was not at the rally. As the arrests were taking place, colleagues suggested that he flee the country.

‘I refused. I said no. I am leading this and if I leave, what does it say? I stayed and the police came for me and knocked on the door and I refused to admit them because I would have disappeared and what would have happened? It was just after midnight and I could see them through the keyhole. The lights were off so they could not see me; they hammered on the door and eventually I could hear the lock being turned. I had barred the door from the inside. The lock had turned and I knew it was my wife trying to open the door. She had been arrested at the rally, but I could hear the voice of my lawyer, Shun Chetty, outside and that is when I opened the door. With Shun and my wife was Steenkamp, the head of security in Durban, and he was livid. He had the regional commissioner in full regalia with him and he said “you forced me to bring the regional commissioner here and your lawyer is here and I want to tell you that you are under arrest. My men will proceed to search the premises.” They searched and eventually I was arrested and taken away. That was the morning of the 26th.’

Saths was supposed to have been brought to court the next day, Friday, but it didn’t happen. He had no access to attorneys and was told that he would be brought to court on Monday.

‘Monday came and went and the detention got changed from the Criminal Procedure Act awaiting trial charges, a 48-hour kind of thing, to a 14-day detention. I couldn’t speak to my attorneys at all and even though the Criminal Procedure Act allowed such access, it was denied to me. Fourteen days expired and then it was commuted to Section 6 of the Terrorist Act which was closely linked to the Irish Act that the British had imposed because of the IRA stuff that happened in the sixties.

‘Soon after that I was transported to Pretoria and kept there. All of us that had been arrested were brought out of detention – Section 6 detention prohibited access to anybody – to a special session of the magistrate’s court in Pretoria on the evening of the 31st of January 1975 and charges were announced against us and that there would be a charge sheet following. About eleven of us were the original accused and a few more were added, so we became fourteen accused with one female, Nomsisi Kraai.

‘Eventually, in late 1975, charges against some of the others were dropped and nine of us remained as accused. The case unfolding was quite different. The first charge sheet brought against us when there were fourteen co-accused, was all sorts of things but our lawyers successfully moved to quash the charge sheet. On the return date, when the charges would have been quashed, the deputy attorney general Cecil Rees stood up and announced that the charge sheet had been withdrawn. He precluded the judgment of quashing and said all the accused would be held in custody until the next charge sheet. There was a limbo period and our lawyers tried to say we should be entitled to bail, but of course bail was refused as usually bail under terrorism and that Act was only through the attorney general allowing it to happen. We were now being held awaiting trial, but there were no charges against us. Within two days the charge sheet was served and the charges against five of the accused were withdrawn, so now it was the nine of us. The second charge sheet was quite specific in terms of what those charges were.

‘Nonetheless, the second charge sheet was still weak, but the evidence led thereafter – the arguments made thereafter by the state – referred to the first charge sheet. The whole atmosphere of creating conditions of antipathy to the state got drawn into the argument. So each time there was an objection to that line of questioning by our advocates, the judge said “carry on, ask the question”.

‘Steve was brought to visit us, soon after we were awaiting trial in 1975. It was obviously a legal tactic claiming that we needed him as a witness and he needed to consult attorneys and lawyers and so on. The apartheid state maintained that semblance of legality within the system that if the judge says that is how it is, then that is how it will be. Steve came up again on another occasion that I am aware of, before June the 16th. Steve had a lot of people wanting a piece of him and he would visit us in court as well. A few times it was in the guise of consultation with us but he did his own thing. After the state’s case closed, we were ready to go within a day or two.

‘Our case was that we would have our witness line-up with Steve going first, then it would have been Rick Turner and this whole thing about Black Consciousness being anti-white and Rick could answer that as a white guy. I would then go into the witness box as the first accused. We would lead with Steve and Rick and then disperse  them with other witnesses, Fatima Meer for example, and then the experts and then the remainder of the accused. That was the plan, but that’s not how it worked out.

‘Free from his restriction order, Steve took his time and decided to drive up to Pretoria from King William’s Town. It was vintage Steve. I don’t know if he even had a licence to drive at that time; he meandered and stopped at every conceivable town along the way. When he was supposed to be in the witness box he was somewhere in the Free State or the Northern Cape or wherever. Rick Turner was already up – also released from his banning in Durban – so he became our first witness. He had a difficult time in the witness box as they regarded him as a traitor; he was English speaking, and he was a redhead and therefore had to be a communist. Rick explained what Black Consciousness stood for, not what the state was alleging, and that the Black Consciousness Movement was definitely not anti-white. Steve was supposed to be next up, but he was still not around. As the accused, we were not upset or annoyed because we knew why he wasn’t there. We knew that this was for Steve, in a sense, a little bit of freedom from being restricted to King William’s Town. When he finally arrived and we met with him, he laughed and said he just took his time. The same thing had happened to Fatima Meer. Word on the grapevine was that she was going to be detained in the post-June 16 period, so we called her in as a witness earlier. She testified and then they did detain her.

‘It was the advocates who were a little dismayed at Steve’s absence because they had planned their entire strategy around putting him on first. David Soggot was upset because he had planned that he would lead Steve and lay the foundation for our arguments in support of Black Consciousness. But then Steve wasn’t there. Following Rick’s evidence, I entered the witness box because we did not want to take an adjournment. Our other advocate, Harry Pitman, led me and I was cross-examined by Cecil Rees. I was in the witness box for about a week, during which time Steve appeared. Immediately after me, Steve went into the witness box.

‘What was fascinating is that Steve was a key figure in creating Black Consciousness as an ideology, but his cross-examination was left to the junior member of the prosecuting team, Kevin Atwell, and not the deputy attorney general, Rees. I think it was deliberate on the part of Rees, who in an arrogant and dismissive way was saying “Who is this guy? I’ve dealt with white communists; I’ve dealt with accused number 1; this guy is not that important.” Part of it could have been that Steve’s name was not prominent whereas during detention we acknowledged what we had done. Each of us, after torture and beatings, would say so and so was there. It just so happened that the interrogators never asked about Steve, they asked about incidents and events.

During this period, Steve was not as well-known. He was a leader, but in a sense we did not have a hierarchy, and that was probably a weakness of Black Consciousness, because if you had a hierarchy and there was a president or a key figure that the rest of us rallied around, the picture might have been a bit different. As I said, during our detention and torture, we acknowledged what we did, but we did not divulge names that were not prompted, and if they were prompted, you would try to diminish anybody else’s involvement so that you committed yourself to the action, so that someone else did not have to suffer the consequence. I remember Steve saying – it would have been in February 1975 when we were all together in a big communal cell and were asked for statements – “man, you wrote a lot” and we said yes, because if we didn’t write we were beaten up and tortured. I don’t know how many times you wrote a few lines and they rejected it, and then they would beat you up. You incriminated yourself, not anyone else.

‘But the highlight of Steve’s testimony was his education of Kevin Attwell. Steve adopted a professorial attitude, much like teaching a kid ABCs, and Attwell was completely out of his depth. Perhaps Rees sensed that as well. Rees was sitting there, stoically trying to buttress Attwell, but probably thought thankfully that he didn’t do the cross-examination.

‘There were a few things at play; one, Steve wasn’t named; two, the racist attitude of “who is this guy?”; three, Steve was part of this group and was banned and they would have known from the police records and files what kind of person he was. Rees definitely would have known because his office had all the state apparatus at their disposal, through their informers, the police records, plus everything else. He must have thought “well, do I allow myself to go up against this guy? No, let Attwell deal with him and we will move on.” Steve’s evidence-in-chief was much longer than the cross-examination because Attwell just did not have the capacity to take it any further. In his evidence-in-chief, Steve talked about his writing and what he meant in Fear an Important Determinant in South African Politics and so on. As he started referring to one of his articles, the judge says “Mr Rees, this can’t be true that he is the author if it, as accused number 9 [Strini] is being charged with it.” Strini was the editor of the SASO newsletter, Frank Talk. Throughout our detention, security police wanted to know who Frank was. It became a joke with us; we just said we don’t know who Frank was; it was a pseudonym. Strini acknowledged in his statement to the police, after being beaten, that he was Frank and he wrote the stuff. Strini was on trial simply because of his association with Steve and was convicted for articles he did not write.

‘Another reason that Biko’s cross-examination was left to a junior was that there was still the belief that maybe there was some white communist behind this thing, which incidentally was not too far away from the old ANC leadership thinking that some of its comrades must be giving these youngsters some guidance from behind the scenes. Even Mandela said it could not be that NUSAS did not play a role in doing whatever we did. We had to disabuse him of all of that. The belief that blacks can do things for themselves and create not only organisations, but take the struggle to the state in that fashion and clearly in your face, without violence or instructions from others, was totally foreign within the liberation movement.’

In early 1976, Tom Manthata, Drake Koka, Kenny Rachidi, Seth Mazibuko and other key members of the Soweto Students Representative Council, visited the accused in Pretoria. The delegation was noticeably alarmed and informed the accused that trouble was brewing and that the issue of Afrikaans as a medium of education was being defiantly rejected by the students. Their concern was that with the accused standing trial, the ramifications of a violent eruption would likely have a serious impact on the trial’s outcome and that any chance they had of getting released was likely to backfire on them. That was the principle concern and why they had come in for a consultation.

‘Knowing some of my co-accused,’ Saths relates, ‘I immediately spoke up and said we are in the leadership, but you are in the leadership outside; we are in prison. You need to do what you need to do because the struggle continues. Things were happening outside and we couldn’t be part of shaping how that happened.’

A little more than a month after Biko’s testimony, which had been given widespread coverage by the press and word of mouth, Soweto erupted as predicted and the unfolding chaos sent the country into a violent, downward spiral. June the 16th had become a part of the struggle legacy. It had other implications as well, Saths recalls:On the 17th of June the judge’s attitude changed completely. From that period on, we knew we were going to be convicted.’

The proximity of Biko’s court appearance in May and the resurgence of Black Consciousness in Soweto in June were no coincidence.

As Saths explains it: ‘We had constant surveillance during the seventies and yet we took the struggle to the apartheid state, without a single hand grenade, without a single firearm, and created the ability for people inside the country to feel that they could stand up and object; that they could be part of a protest, and would be able to participate in restoring a sense of pride, dignity and integrity within themselves. Walk taller, raise their fist in greeting, which all happened from the early seventies.

‘We greeted each other with a clenched fist salute; the amandla slogan would be . Remember, at the time the ANC salute was a thumbs-up sign; the PAC’s was a flat palm because in some way you could say there is Africa with the horn. We used to say ours was a fist; you are bringing the flat palm together with the thumbs-up sign. That was our version of black solidarity; that was the message we had. Everyone started using the black power salute; it was not used before us. Ours became clearly a unification of all these things. Steve’s mission was to bring together the different elements of the liberation movement and he was murdered in police custody because of that. Knowing Steve, he was over six feet, with two security policemen attacking him, he could easily take them on. He probably took them on and they went in to him in a very big way and injured him terribly.’

Judgment was rendered in December 1976, but well in advance the accused knew they were going to be convicted. When the verdict was read, for Saths and the other accused, ‘there was a sense of euphoria as it was now over. There was a day in-between and then we appeared for sentencing. Nearly all of us were clean shaven and appeared in court without beards or anything. We didn’t want the prison wardens to shave us. The judge asked why this was happening, so the advocate said that we were preparing for sentencing. The judge was taken aback a little. The sentencing happened in an interesting way – Boshoff found five of us guilty; myself, Muntu, Lekota, Nefolovhodwe and Nkomo, guilty on two counts; the first count was conspiracy and the second count was the Frelimo rally. On the first count, all nine accused were found guilty, even though Strini, Zithulele Cindi and Lekota were not involved. Maybe because they were associated with the Frelimo rally organisers – the common purpose doctrine established in the SASO/BPC trial – they were found guilty. On the second count, it was just the five of us. He sentenced each of us to the minimum of five years. So effectively, the five of us had two five-year sentences, which we would serve consecutively. As the judge got up to leave, there was a roar from the crowd. He went back to the microphone, saying that four years were to run concurrently and then left the court. If the crowd had not been not in an uproar, it would have been ten years.

‘That evening we were convicted felons and the next morning we were transferred to Pretoria Central Prison, to death row. We were kept in the death cells for a while, and from there transported by truck, collectively. We were shackled together, at least with one other person, and taken down to Cape Town. It was quite a hair-raising trip in the back of a speeding truck. We stopped over somewhere in the Karoo area overnight and arrived the next afternoon at the docks in Cape Town. In the afternoon of the 23rd of December we were ferried to Robben Island and were put in isolation cells. We remained in isolation until about February. The prison was built in an H-block system; two cells on both sides and a passage in-between. This was again, the Swart Mag section; it was fenced off on its own. We were the first group to arrive there, together with some students from the University of the Western Cape and there were others from the Eastern Cape. From early 1977 onward, it got full. During 1977, a wall was built to separate each of the sections because they did not want us contaminating the rest of the prison. Initially, there were internal fences and there wasn’t that much segregation. There were general cells, a Namibian section, and the single cells block. After the arrival of the Black Consciousness , the fencing was increased, watchtowers were built and the walls were built to completely isolate the Swart Mag. We would greet prisoners with the clenched fist and sometimes there would be a response. Mandela talks about that in his book as well. When we got to prison, we began to insist on minimum prison rules.

‘It was September 1977 when Dullah Omar visited us. There was a regulation which enabled the minister to prevent any attorney from entering any prison and or consulting with specific prisoners. It affected only one attorney, Shun Chetty, and only one group of prisoners, the SASO/BPC trialists. As Shun was prohibited from meeting with us, Dullah Omar, who was his Cape Town correspondent, would visit us. Dullah had been coming to Robben Island to see other prisoners and that was how the link with Mandela grew. Mandela said “when you are meeting with Mr Omar, ask him to make an application to come visit me,” and so the connection began. That would be from about 1979. We were in the isolation block, because we had defied the head of prison and the commanding officer. What Dullah Omar would do was name each of us he wanted to see and then the prison would say whom he could meet with. On this particular day, Terror Lekota was the one granted a visit to meet with Omar. When Lekota returned he told us Steve had died in detention. We knew of Steve’s death within a couple of days of its occurrence and when Lekota returned with the news, there was silence in the cell block and each one was thinking their own thoughts. Steve escaped Robben Island, but they got him in the end.’

Saths and his fellow colleagues served out their sentence, and were released in 1982. I was always intrigued that the SASO/BPC trial was, at the time, the longest running terrorist trial in the history of South Africa, yet when people speak of political trials in South Africa, the only two that are ever mentioned are the 1956 Treason Trial and the 1963–64 Rivonia Trial.

‘Winston Churchill wrote that “History is written by the victors,”’ Saths muses. ‘It is true, victors tend to diminish others’ contributions. Yet, interesting – and this is a fact: when Mandela became president in May 1994, soon thereafter the ANC government announced public holidays and March the 21st, Sharpeville Day was initially not there and June the 16th was not there initially either. Ironically, in that year, 1994, the biggest events in the country were the celebrations in honour of 1976.’

It was clear to Saths and others of the Black Consciousness Movement that the contributions of the Pan African Congress, AZAPO and other dissent groups were not to be acknowledged by the newly installed ANC government.

‘The PAC was in parliament [in 1994], and remember that AZAPO stayed out of government – which was a terrible mistake. The PAC objected to the absence of Sharpeville as a public holiday, so what the victors ended up doing was calling March 21st Human Rights Day. Everyone knew the 10th of December was the international date for Human Rights Day because of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To declare March the 21st Human Rights Day in South Africa was really an undisguised attempt by the ANC to effectively alter the perception of Sharpeville as a PAC initiative – which everyone knows it was. Now it looked like the victors had organised it.’

Saths points out that the historical record shows that in March 1960, Walter Sisulu was secretary general of the ANC and he issued a statement asking people not to heed the call of the upstart PAC, which had recently broken away from the ANC. Sisulu argued that to call on people to leave their passbooks at home was reckless and adventurist. Yet despite Sisulu’s intercession, people turned up in the thousands on March the 21st and we know the results; it took the apartheid struggle to a new level because it became a matter of some significance on the agenda of the United Nations.

Saths relates how Mandela had told him in prison that when he went on his mission north, country after country asked him who he was because they only knew of Robert Sobukwe. Mandela came back determined to counteract the growing awareness across the continent of the momentous role the PAC was playing in the ongoing liberation struggle. That is when Tambo and others left the country to form the ANC in exile, because in terms of the liberation struggle and the aftermath of Sharpeville, the world knew more about the PAC than they did about the ANC.

Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan. In one single day, the Soweto uprising of June the 16th inspired everyone to claim responsibility for its occurrence, including apparently the unlikely saviour, Idi Amin, who days after the event is alleged to have boasted ‘you see what I have created’. For whatever reasons, very few wish to link June the 16th to Steve Biko and Black Consciousness.

It is difficult to conceive that June the 16th was not initially a public holiday. For the day which changed South Africa forever not be recognised was an absurdity, despite the fact that it was eventually declared a holiday and subsequently called Youth Day. For Saths, it therefore is no surprise that the SASO/BPC trial is ignored by most analysts and historians, because the inconvenient truth is that few wish to acknowledge the pivotal role played by the Black Consciousness Movement.

‘If you look at the month of September,’ he says, ‘the 12th of September was Biko’s murder; the 24th of September is about national heritage; the 25th of September was the Frelimo rallies. Besides braaiing, September is about a focus on Black Consciousness and Biko, and it has been on the rise for the last ten years at least. If you look at Black Consciousness or Biko, there’s a whole Google site devoted to him and Black Consciousness and awareness of the philosophy always rises in September.

In the end, the question must be asked as to whether today, South Africans understand and appreciate what Biko stood for and achieved. In some ways, the ultimate expression of Biko’s lasting contribution would have to be the many attempts to claim either him or his ideas in some form or fashion.

‘Saths says, ‘Thanks to some of the pithy quotes in No Fears Expressed, people think they understand him. They pick a few of those, and are instantly transformed into knowing Black Consciousness. Contextually, they are not. If you read the paragraph – it may have been written in 1971 or 1972, but it has relevance to BEE and corruption. Claims to understand him will be made, of course, but he is not appreciated in the way that he ought to be. Steve had the foresight to link with other teenagers and twenty-year-olds – young people – to create this ideology. We would argue into the early hours of the morning about different issues and Steve would write these . The good thing was that Steve wrote and captured the essence of many of those discussions. This is not to diminish the fact that he was largely responsible for what he wrote, but when he confronted something and was testing it out, he would throw a question. Maybe in the middle of us having a few beers and relaxing, a discussion would evolve. Sometimes they would be in strategic sessions, like a workshop, or a particular conference event.

‘I will give you one example; you know those publications that were out there, Ebony, the Amsterdam News, the Harlem , the Black News and so on? There was this thinking that we need our own voice, we need our own vehicle. There was this guy, David Tebe in Soweto who was involved in the local council. David had been to Harlem and spent time in the late sixties back and forth and came back with a host of different publications. The reason I am mentioning him was because we had a conference for two days where we talked about creating a black press that eventually gave rise to the Black Review. We had various people giving their input and the key point was how to fund it. We said we should be careful with advertising and not advertise certain things. Bokwe Mafuna and I adopted the position that we needed advertising; however, we should select which advertisers. Steve, in true Black Consciousness fashion, adopted an opposing position. Steve’s position was “if you say that, how do we stop? So why don’t you just argue straight for no advertising?” It was like a dare, because we said skin lighteners we were not going to advertise. Booze we should think about because people will be affected by it. Biko said he accepted the skin lightener stuff, but the booze we drink, so we are adopting a confusing position. We then took him up on his challenge and moved that there should be no advertising and we won, but that stalemated the newspaper. We had a resolution because he goaded us to one we didn’t want and in the end it was an unintended consequence of the intellectual conversation we were having, where neither side came away with what we wanted. It was that kind of discussion.’

Forty years is a long time to cherish a memory. It is easy to forget that which is no longer a part of your life. But for Saths Cooper, Biko is etched indelibly in his mind’s eye now and forever.

‘Steve stood head and shoulders above the rest of us,’ Saths declares with warmth and passion. ‘He embodied the essence of life. Personable, quick to laugh, poke fun at others and take a joke, yet able to cut to the chase on complex issues. Devastating in debate, but diplomatic when required. Above all, he engendered a sense of trust and engagement, which is why all those who came in contact with him left feeling better from the interaction. His mission of uniting the liberation movement was gaining traction. He posed a serious threat to the apartheid state and death at their hands was inevitable. Biko and Black Consciousness were the only game in South Africa from 1969 till the late seventies. His murder created a gap which the ANC deftly filled. In my experience, Sobukwe, Mandela and Biko stand out as the holy trinity of South African liberation leadership. Steve would not have allowed the mess that we’ve unfortunately inherited. I miss his easy-going nature, razor-sharp mind and quintessential leadership qualities that he wore as a second skin. The course of our history would have been qualitatively different if he’d not been cut down at the age of 31, before his prime and long before his extraordinary potential could be fulfilled. South Africa was robbed of an amazing talent and a most remarkable man when it lost Steve Biko.’


All our sources show ‘Sathasivan’ as opposed to ‘Sathasivian’ as the full name, please clarify.


Would ‘presiding’ perhaps work better?


Who is ‘they’? Should it rather be ‘We’?


Could this rather be ‘disperse’?


Shouldn’t this be ‘intersperse’?


Where is ‘there’? Is it a hand gesture? It needs to be explained …


Could another word be used instead? Maybe “activists”?


‘pieces’ rather?


Should this be Harlem News?


‘Thebehali’ is also referenced in some sources so not sure whether to leave this as is.