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The Human Rights Commission

Mr Booyens
What was the reason why Mr Biko was interrogated?
Mr Siebert
The purpose of the questioning was to find out more about his participation in a planning for the riots and the distribution of pamphlets in Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape. We wanted to ascertain what his role was and in so doing we wanted to protect the political dispensation of the day and we also wanted to charge him and to bring him before a court.1

In 1978, a selection of the writings of Steve Biko was published under the title I Write What I Like.2 This was a title used by Mr Biko (under his pen-name ‘Frank Talk’) for a number of papers and articles he authored during the 1970s.

During that time, just for engaging in many of the freedoms and human rights we take for granted today – like organising protests, political association, or distributing pamphlets – you could be arrested, disappear, be detained for years without trial, and be tortured. Like Mr Biko, you could even die. For something you said, or wrote; something that you thought? Could this be? That period was dark indeed…

Our new political democracy changed all that. One fundamental and indispensable tool was the Constitution. Relevantly, this established the Human Rights Commission, whose function is to promote an awareness and observance of, respect for, and protection of the fundamental right of all citizens as enshrined in the Constitution – in the Bill of Rights.

These rights are the following:

  • Equality
  • Human Dignity
  • Life
  • Personal freedom and security
  • Freedom from slavery, servitude and forced labour
  • Privacy
  • Freedom of religion, belief and opinion
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of assembly, demonstration and petition
  • Freedom of association
  • Political freedom
  • Citizenship
  • Freedom of movement and residence
  • Freedom to choose a trade, occupation and profession
  • Fair labour practices
  • To a harmless environment
  • Property ownership
  • Housing
  • Health care, food, water and social security
  • Several diverse children’s rights
  • To education
  • To language and culture
  • Cultural, religious and linguistic communities
  • Access to information
  • Just administrative action
  • Access to courts
  • Certain protections during detention and whilst under arrest.

The South African Human Rights Commission Act 20133 provides more specifics as to the powers, duties and functions of the Commission. The Commission has wide powers to investigate, as well as to mediate, conciliate or negotiate any dispute or any conduct relating to a violation of, or threat to a fundamental right.

A. The Commissioner’s investigations and proceedings

  1. It is an offence to:
    • interrupt the proceedings at an investigation;4
    • misbehave in any manner at such proceedings;5
    • do anything in connection with an investigation which would constitute contempt of a court of law;6
    • anticipate any findings in a way likely to influence the proceedings or findings of the Commission;7
    • do anything likely to influence the Commission improperly; and8
    • interfere with, obstruct or hinder the Commission (including any commissioner or member of staff) in the exercise of powers or the performance of functions.9
  2. The Commission may notify any person to appear before it and give evidence, produce documents, etc. It is a criminal offence to:10
    • fail to comply with such notification;
    • refuse to take the oath or make an affirmation;
    • refuse to answer any question;
    • refuse to furnish any particular information.
  3. If you give false evidence before the Commission, it is an offence.11

  4. It is a crime to disclose, without its authority, the contents of any document in the possession of a commissioner or a member of staff of the Commission.12

  5. It is a crime to disclose the contents of the record of evidence given before the Commission during an investigation, unless the Commission determines otherwise.13

  6. All organs of State must afford the Commission such assistance as may be required for the protection of the independence, impartiality and dignity of the Commission, for the effective exercising of its powers and performance of its functions, and in pursuit of its objects. It is a crime to fail to give the Commission such assistance.14

  7. It is an offence if a commissioner, member of staff or police officer acts contrary to, or exceeds the authority of, a warrant issued to him to enter and search premises, and seize articles or documents.15

  8. The same applies if they do anything like that without a warrant at all.16
  1. An extract from the transcript of the hearings of the application by Daniel Petrus Siebert for amnesty in respect of the killing of Stephen Bantu Biko. Steve Biko died, on 12 September 1977, from severe injuries sustained during this interrogation. See: www.justice.gov.za/trc – ‘TRC Amnesty Hearing Transcripts’. See also www.overcomingapartheid.msu.edu – ‘The Death of Stephen Biko’. 

  2. I write what I like: Steve Biko. A selection of his writings. Bowerdean Press, (1978) Edited by Aelred Stubbs C.R. The book was republished by Heinemann Educational Books in 1979 (and, most recently by Cambridge, in 2005) under the ‘African Writers Series’ imprint. I purchased my copy in the United Kingdom in 1982, and risked (something) in smuggling the (then-banned) book back into South Africa. A PDF version is available online, at http://abahlali.org/?s=I+write+what+I+like. It is a book every (white) person in South Africa should read. 

  3. As amended; the latest amendment was effected by Act 22 of 2014. 

  4. Section 22(c). 

  5. Section 22(c). 

  6. Section 22(d). 

  7. Section 22(e). 

  8. Section 22(f). 

  9. Section 22(g) read with section 4(3). 

  10. Section 22(a). 

  11. Section 22(b). 

  12. Section 22(g) read with section 15(9). 

  13. Section 22(g) read with section 15(9). 

  14. Section 22(h) read with section 4(2) and section 13(4). 

  15. Section 22(i). 

  16. Section 22(i).