CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Tackling the Question of Legitimacy in Transitional Justice: Steve Biko and the Post-Apartheid Reconciliation Process in South Africa

Kaley L. Martin, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Social Sciences

Dept/Program: Political Science

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research

Mentor(s): Eileen Doherty-Sil

Date of this Version: 01 January 2015



This thesis seeks to determine and understand the impact of the Steve Biko case on the effectiveness of the post-apartheid reconciliation process in South Africa. The Biko case in an example of a highly visible challenge to the South African government’s chosen method of post-apartheid reconciliation, as Biko’s own family did not believe in the process and fought elements of it from its inception.

Steve Biko was a noted anti-apartheid activist who founded the Black Consciousness movement, which advocated for black South Africans to be proud of their blackness. Biko died mysteriously and suddenly in police custody in 1977. The apartheid government conducted an inquest into his death but found no evidence of wrongdoing or criminal activity. After the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, the new government of South Africa negotiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to attempt to mend the wounds of both white and black South Africans during apartheid, avoiding typical Nuremberg-style trials. However, this unique method of restorative justice, which would provide amnesty to human rights violators who divulged the whole truth of their crimes and could demonstrate that they acted for political motives, greatly upset Biko’s family. His family members desired prosecutions of the apartheid police involved in Biko’s death, and they challenged the constitutionality of amnesty, with the support of Black Consciousness group AZAPO and other victims’ families, to the newly formed Constitutional Court of South Africa. However, they lost their case, and soon thereafter had to face five apartheid police officers’ applications and hearings for amnesty in the death of Biko. In the end, all five officers were denied amnesty, yet there was not sufficient evidence to subsequently prosecute them for their crimes.

After detailing and analyzing the handling of the Biko case, while also discussing the truth versus justice dilemma in the pursuit of peace through transitional justice in divided societies, I will argue that the Biko case actually reinforced the legitimacy of the entire reconciliation process in South Africa, even though Biko’s family members lost their case against the government and did not see Biko’s killers prosecuted.


Political Science

Suggested Citation

Martin, Kaley L., "Tackling the Question of Legitimacy in Transitional Justice: Steve Biko and the Post-Apartheid Reconciliation Process in South Africa" 01 January 2015. CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, University of Pennsylvania,

Date Posted: 28 May 2015




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