South African Anti-Apartheid Activist Stephen Biko Died in Police Custody Forty Years Ago Today

After Stephen Biko’s death following a brutal police interrogation in 1977, an atrocity that the South African government tried covering up, the anti-apartheid newspaper editor Donald Woods, who’d known Biko, quickly wrote and smuggled out of the country a manuscript* that was his combined biography of Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) he’d been a key leader of, and an exposé on the case. The book added fuel to the controversy in Western countries about the conduct of the corrupt regime. It was an amazingly timely and powerful book, and instilled in me a love for ripped-from-the-headlines books, the sort that I’ve been partial to ever since. Biko was published in 1978 around the time my siblings and parents and I were getting ready to open our bookstore, Undercover Books, and it was among the first books I ordered for our opening stock. With the scandal that ensued from Biko’s death, ownership of Woods’s book became a crime in South Africa. I was very proud we sold many copies in Cleveland. Woods lived many years in Britain, and was still on the scene when Nelson Mandela finally became free.

*When I said above that Donald Woods smuggled his manuscript for Biko out of South Africa, I could’ve added that he carried it out himself, in clandestine fashion, so it could be published in the West. He and his family fled the country in a land cruiser sort of vehicle, in back country, crossing a frontier to a neighboring country where there was no guard post. A brave man with nerves of steel.


Netanyahu’s Deplorable Choice

I deplore Israeli PM Netanyahu’s refusal to travel to South Africa for celebrations and observances of Nelson Mandela’s life. As a counter to that decision. I’m going share a celebratory photo of then-President Nelson Mandela taken with South African Jews. His decision shamed and dishonored the noble legacy of many Jews typified here, of Jewish people–in South Africa and abroad, the latter category of which I am one–who all worked to end apartheid in our lifetimes. Photo credit to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency who also published a comprehensive timeline chronicling the relationship between Mandela and the Jewish community.

One of the best commentaries I’ve read on this issue was by columnist Bradley Burston in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Nixing Mandela Funeral as too Costly, Bibi Shows World What He’s Truly Made OfMandela-and-the-Jews JTA. Here’s how it ends:

“Never has Netanyahu sent a message quite this infuriating, with so much apparent success. He is betting, apparently, that the moderate majority has expectations so low, its resources of outrage so overtaxed and depleted, its capacity for response so beaten flat, that it will do little more than shrug and trudge on. And this bet may well be the smart money. What we are stuck with, in the end, is the message that Netanyahu is sending to the world. The world that Netanyahu’s Israel is determined not to be a part of. “The whole world is coming to South Africa,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said at the weekend. The world, yes. Israel, maybe not.”