The reopening of the Steve Biko case last week, on the 20th anniversary of the black consciousness leader's death, revives memories of white-ruled South Africa's most feared state instrument: the Bureau of State Security, better known as BOSS. It was at the height of its powers from 1966 to 1979, when South Africa was led by John Vorster, a figure who had no intention of ever sharing power with blacks. BOSS was exactly what the acronym said -- in charge, and with vast powers. It operated with few legal restraints; no measure was too drastic if it served to eliminate the perceived enemies of the state.
At a hearing last week of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a one-time BOSS supervisor testified that Biko was beaten to death during an interrogation that got out of hand. During 24 days in custody, Biko was grilled by a five-man team practically without interruption. He was kept naked in his cell because, investigators said, they did not want him to hang himself. "It was not our intention to kill him," former Col. Harold Snyman said of the brain damage and other injuries that led to the 30-year-old activist's death.
About 20,000 mourners attended Biko's funeral. Several books were published about his life, and Hollywood produced a film dramatizing his story, "Cry Freedom." But as far as South Africa's apartheid government was concerned, the Biko case was little more than an embarrassment.
"It leaves me cold," Jimmy Kruger, the then-minister of police, had said of Biko's demise. At a party congress, he attributed the death to "a hunger strike." Afterward, a delegate commended him for allowing political prisoners "the democratic right to starve themselves to death."
More than 100 other people suspected of anti-apartheid activities died in security police custody in South Africa and tribal homelands. In some cases, authorities said the suspects died of natural causes, however implausible. A larger number were reported to have hanged themselves. Others "fell down stairs" and died. Or fell out of windows and died. Or were "injured in scuffles." Or "fell in shower." Except for Dr. Neil Aggett, a 29-year-old physician who became a trade union official, all the dead detainees were black.
Aggett offered a chilling glimpse of BOSS procedures. During the final week of his life, the activist was interrogated by security police for 110 hours. Even though he lodged an official complaint that he had been given electric shocks and tortured in other ways by interrogators he named, the security police did not investigate.
"Experience tells you that a procedure of that nature would be a fruitless venture," Brig. Hendrik Muller told the inquest into Aggett's alleged suicide in a police cell. "These people are detained for the purpose of interrogation and not for visits by a magistrate."
The official inquests offered virtually the only information about the work of BOSS. South African police and prison conditions could not legally be investigated by the news media, and debates even on detainees' deaths were forbidden in Parliament.
And the inquests gave the news media and the public a chance to glimpse celebrated members of BOSS, cocky officers with nicknames like "White Wolf." They seemed to regard a court appear- ance as a waste of time and an insult. Whether they came from Afrikaans- or English-speaking backgrounds, they subscribed to the government's view that South Africa was under a "total onslaught," coordinated by Communist countries, the United Nations and liberal overseas churches.
In their worldview, anyone working against apartheid was an enemy, and blacks were in any case subhuman. The No. 1 enemy was the African National Congress.
Although many ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were jailed and the group itself had been outlawed, a skeleton organization survived. Headquartered in London, it had training camps in several African countries, and the ANC's military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), carried out sporadic bombings.
To fight that opposition, BOSS did whatever was necessary.
Dr. Nthatho Motlana, a Soweto physician and ANC stalwart, once remarked that wherever three blacks gathered, one was certain to be a security police informer. That was an exaggeration, of course. But thousands of black collaborators were on the BOSS payroll. The agency's work was extremely labor intensive simply because the scarcity of electricity and telephones in black townships ruled out most methods of electronic surveillance.
Perhaps the most successful known BOSS operative was Craig Williamson.