Steve Biko’s historic memories are at risk in private hands

The National Heritage Council of South Africa is concerned about the recent attempt by the Steele family in South Africa to auction the autopsy report of the late Steve Biko who was killed by the apartheid forces while fighting for the liberation of South Africans. The Biko family and foundation should be thanked for obtaining an interdict against the auction. This is a matter that has grabbed our attention and spurred us to fast track the introduction of legislation to protect heritage properties that are privately owned.


Another legacy of Steve Biko is in the intangible history of a building that is owned by SANLAM. The Sanlam Building, 344 Strand Street Port Elizabeth,   where Steve Biko was tortured by the security police, leading to his death on 12th September 1977 is now a dilapidated structure owned by a private property developer. A number of floors in the building, leased from Sanlam, served as head-quarter chambers of the Special Branch in the Eastern Cape until 1985. Besides Biko, other political detainees known to have died under torture in the building include George Botha who was alleged to have jumped down a stairwell on 15 December 1976, and Lungile Tabalaza who allegedly jumped out of a fifth floor window on 10 July 1978.


It the draft policy of ‘Heritage in Private Hands’ that is being developed by the NHC after a lengthy research and benchmarking with other countries in the world, a conclusion is made that heritage property and objects are best protected and preserved when owned by public institutions. The policy advocates for a better recording, management and care of our heritage.


A property such as the Sanlam building would be more appropriate to serve as a public memorial and be converted to better use of for example treating victims of torture and other related psychiatric challenges in society.


It is inconceivable that private owners to such important historic objects such as Biko’s autopsy report and the Sanlam Building owners would not hand over these to government’s heritage agencies to preserve for the nation and the world.


The NHC will in the coming year make a public appeal to those who may have in their possession any item, object or property that is of heritage significance to come forward and contribute to shaping the policy that can regulate this danger of losing our heritage.


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