‘Abusive prison conditions in apartheid South Africa’

The Prisons Act of 1959 modernised the regulations for South African jails. But section 44(f) also created a new crime: publishing ‘false information’ about prisons or prisoners, ‘knowing the same to be false or without taking reasonable steps to verify such information’. Publishing pictures of prisons and prisoners were prohibited. Everyone understood that the government’s aim was to suppress news about prisoners, that nothing could now be published about prisons. So nothing was. The next year this became critical: the Sharpeville massacre was followed by the banning of the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress and a six-month State of Emergency was declared. Several thousand anti-apartheid activists were detained without trial and more than 18,000 black men were packed into prisons as alleged ‘vagrants’. During the Emergency, as the Rand Daily Mail’s African affairs reporter, I worked with Obed Musi (an exceptionally brave reporter) of Golden City Post to expose the deaths of scores of the ‘vagrants’ at Modderbee prison, Benoni, from pneumonia caused by lack of food, clothing and blankets in the winter cold. I asked the prisons department for comment, making publication possible; later, I found the comments were lies. Questions I asked at other times were ignored or evaded. In 1961, I gained first-hand knowledge of our prisons: I was jailed for a few days in the Old Fort in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, for refusing to identify an informant. I was isolated in the ‘white’ section but managed contact with several prisoners. Soon enough, information began reaching me about widespread abuse and cruelty inflicted on the masses of black criminal prisoners, the morethan a thousand black political prisoners on Robben Island, and the dozen or
so white political prisoners in Pretoria Local Prison.

In 1965, editor Laurence Gandar assigned me to start an investigative unit, the country’s first, to be a very modest model of the ground-breaking investigative journalism of the London Sunday Times’ Insight. Prisons were our first target. I consulted the Mail’s chief legal adviser, Kelsey Stuart, about section 44(f): what were ‘reasonable steps’? Stuart’s skilled advice was crucial to making the Mail what it was, going against the ‘when in doubt, leave out’ maxim which newspapers invariably applied, and instead pushing to publish the maximum. I drew up a 112-point questionnaire about prison conditions, contacted lawyers and spread the message in Johannesburg’s underworld that I wanted to speak to ex-convicts.

Luck intervened. Holidaying in Durban I met Harold Strachan, an artist newly released after three years’ imprisonment for teaching Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, to make bombs. In hours of interviewing and recording him, I was impressed by his detailed descriptions of what he had suffered and witnessed in prison. I became convinced of his accuracy and truthfulness.

Luck intervened. Holidaying in Durban I met Harold Strachan, an artist newly released after three years’ imprisonment for teaching Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, to make bombs. In hours of interviewing and recording him, I was impressed by his detailed descriptions of what he had suffered and witnessed in prison. I became convinced of his accuracy and truthfulness.

Starting on Wednesday, 30 June 1965 we published Strachan’s recordings over three days with the headline: ‘Three years “inside”: The staggering story of life in some of our prisons’. Some of the details might seem tame in light of terrible things now reported in prisons. But at the time they were electrifying, revealing the unknown, especially because we were in such outright defiance of the authoritarian government.

The first police raid on the Mail was on a Thursday, and they seized my text to prevent publication of the third report. But we outwitted them and the Mail carried it in full the next day. Anticipating police action, I had taken the precaution of getting Strachan to go on holiday with his family before publication began; he returned home on Friday morning to find a car full of dishevelled and angry security policemen who had been waiting since the day before to serve a banning order on him. So we foiled them that way too.

I was also following leads at Cinderella Prison, Boksburg. The Johannesburg Sunday Times published ahead of us, but on 30 July the Mail waded in with another massive report: ‘Detailed evidence of the electric shock torture and beating of prisoners at Cinderella Prison have been given by two jail warders and two African ex-convicts.’ I wrote after interviewing Head Warder Johannes Theron, Warder Gysbert van Schalkwyk, and Isaac Setshedi and Filisberto Taimo. Stuart questioned each of them and they signed my reports under oath. It was a horror story.

We were subject to a series of police raids to seize documents. From the prime minister down, we were assailed for our ‘abominable lies’. Afrikaner nationalist newspapers, abetted by some English-language newspapers, abused us as traitors with heavy threats of what was going to be done to us. The SABC, the government-controlled broadcaster, ran a sustained smear campaign against us. Official rage was all the greater because our initial reports, and then the government’s crude responses, went worldwide. The government went for our informants, arresting and charging them with perjury and giving ‘false information’ about prison conditions. We had an early taste of how far the government would go: Van Schalkwyk, aged 22, broke in court under an unscrupulous prosecutor, Percy Yutar (who later, in an Appellate Court ruling, had to pay me damages for libel). Overnight, public opinion – among whites, that is, because blacks knew the truth from bitter experience – turned against us. At the Mail, many colleagues were hostile towards Gandar and me.

The might of the state was thrown at us for the next four years. Unending court actions, seizing our passports (I got mine back more than five years later), police surveillance, death threats and shots fired at the Mail building in Main Street, Johannesburg; many of my ex-convict contacts were frightened away.

The Mail paid for the legal defence of all our informants. But we had no hope: Stuart had advised that any criminal charges would have to be based on each report taken as a whole. However, prosecutors plucked out a sentence here and there, or a few words, and put together a string of charges, each with its own penalty. Serving prisoners were subject to irresistible pressure to testify against us: the prospect of early release or merely better treatment. The government could draw from an almost limitless pool of prisoners, plus warders, to testify about a specific event in a specific prison at a specific time on a specific day. It was impossible for us, except only occasionally, to refute the avalanche of lies.

Strachan was convicted. Sentenced to 18 months, he was, surprisingly, released after a year – into banning and house arrest. The Cinderella informants were all jailed – except we got Isaac Setshedi acquitted on appeal. He showed astonishing courage: the police arrested him and tried to intimidate him by inventing murder and robbery charges; when he stood firm they tried blandishment, giving him fried eggs for breakfast. Setshedi stuck with the truth.

Finally Gandar and I were put on trial. Virtually all the prosecution’s 100 witnesses were organised perjurers. Even the brilliant Sydney Kentridge, our lead counsel, could not break most of them as they told their rehearsed stories. From the start, it was a foregone conclusion that Judge-President Piet Cillie would find us guilty, and we expected to be jailed. He did convict us but our defence was so strong that even he could not impose prison sentences. Gandar was fined and I was given a suspended sentence. That was hailed as a victory. I felt I had been through a replay of Frans Kafka’s The Trial. It ended in July 1969 and I resumed full-time journalism.

Cillie’s judgment gave the government what it wanted: nothing could be published about prisoners or prisons unless the department of prisons approved it. Silence again descended. But it was different behind the high walls. The government could not admit it while in the midst of its public denunciations of our reports, but change swept through prisons. On Robben Island, much of the cruelty ended and living conditions improved. Black criminal prisoners throughout the country were now issued as a matter of course with socks and shoes and jerseys; the three-quarter ‘tsotsi’ shorts were replaced by long trousers. Life became more bearable.

There was another plus. The board of the Mail’s owner, South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN), consisted of white, conservative members of the English business establishment. Most were deeply upset about the Mail’s brutal conflict with the government, especially because of hints that they might also be charged. At least a year’s profits went into paying for the four years’ prison saga. But not the slightest pressure was applied to Gandar and me to recant. Our greatest and unlikely defender was the chairman, a mild-mannered accountant, Cecil Payne. It was a triumph for press freedom.

The board did try to get rid of Gandar because of his political views. An editorial revolt made them think again: Gandar was made editor-in-chief in charge of opinion, and Raymond Louw was appointed editor. He took the Rand Daily Mail to new fighting heights during the next decade.

Three years ‘inside’: The staggering story of life in some of our prison

By Harold Strachan as told to Benjamin Pogrund, Rand Daily Mail, 30 June 1965

I was sent first to the Port Elizabeth North End Prison and was there for about five weeks. The European section of this prison was generally known among prisoners as a ‘hobo’ gaol, occupied mainly by short-term prisoners … We had a flush toilet in the cell which is quite unusual for prisons I have been in. But an interesting thing about this toilet was that you didn’t only defecate in it, but you also washed in it; you brushed your teeth in it. They had sufficient bathroom facilities. They had a very spickand- span shower room with hot water and everything laid on, but we weren’t allowed to use this because it had been beautifully polished – floor, taps and so forth – and mats were laid on the floor to keep it nice and tidy, and prisoners were seldom allowed to go in there. It was kept clean for inspection.

We were obliged to shower twice a week in cold water in another shower house in the back of the corridor where we were. The section warder would not allow us to go even to this little bathroom in the morning, and hard as it is to believe, one would stand up with one’s toothbrush while a man was actually sitting on the pan, wait for him to finish and say: ‘Come on, get up, I want to brush my teeth.’

And he would get up amidst all this bloody stink, and he would flush the thing. Then a man would flush it again and then dip his toothbrush in the water and brush his teeth. Or wash his hands and face in it …

In other ways too, the place was appallingly dirty. the blankets were covered with semen. They smelled of sweat; were exceedingly thin and worn out, and the place was terribly cold. Many of the windows were broken. The food came from the kitchen in aluminium dixies, always grubby, never free from grease. Some of the hoboes in the jail were quite comical. There was a bloke, for example, with socks tattooed on his feet and a collar and tie tattooed on his neck, and he came in wearing just a jacket, shirt and shoes.

Ordeal in a prison yard … They laughed as a man crouched naked – waiting

By Harold Strachan as told to Benjamin Pogrund , Rand Daily Mail, 2 July 1965

I want to talk about assaults. I did not see any serious assaults at Pretoria Central. The worst assaults I have seen were on non- European prisoners at Pretoria Local Prison. For example, I remember walking back to our section from the exercise yard, conducted by a head warder. There were two doors on either side of the passage through which we were walking and through these two doors across the passage, Africans were carrying heavy bags of food on their shoulders, bent forward. We had to walk past and as a political I was never allowed to see or come into contact with any non-European prisoners. Instead of asking the men to keep away the head warder kicked one of them in the belly. The man sort of staggered back, holding onto the bag on his back.

This is typical – this happened often. I saw it from my cell window. Orders were often accompanied by a blow. We saw Africans being driven into their section – we peeked through our windows – they were driven in like animals by poyisas [black warders] with sticks and with leather straps. They used the long double strap of their truncheons or keys as a whip. Each man as he came past running would get a blow with the whip. Our window at one time overlooked the yard and the non-European reception office at the Pretoria Local and we could see these men being driven across the yard for showering or other purposes by these poyisas with these straps. We could see these men also being hit with fists and open hands. We could see them coming in a column two-abreast, that is, ‘two two’ as they put it, and being thrashed as they rushed into the prison. We could hear the same men rushing up the stairs and then into the section above us with the same cries as we had heard in the yard, and we could hear the blows following.

This was general. But the worst I saw anywhere in gaol were those on Africans at the hospital, and sometimes non-European patients in the hospital at Pretoria Local. For most of my time there the hospital yard was straight under my window. All prisoners when they came into prison went to the hospital to get examined and so forth. Non-European prisoners who had to see the doctors were brought out at about 6.15 in the morning, and it could be freezing cold in Pretoria. They stood naked, 60, 70, 80, of them at a time. Huddled up like birds trying to keep warm, like poultry, stark naked. They had to stand with frost thick on the ground, barefoot, clutching each other to try to keep warm. Shivering. And they would stand there until the doctor came at 9 o’clock. Sometimes later. Now and then one of these poyisas would allow them to pick up a garment to drape over their shoulders. Otherwise they just stood naked until the doctor came.

I have seen prisoners get a blow, as they were inoculated, or from one of the prisoners who worked in the hospital. Sometimes this happened in the presence of a doctor. I also saw occasional assaults on the patients themselves. I saw one man who was apparently suspected of smuggling dagga, dragged out of the hospital by a warder – Kruger – whom we called ‘Florence Nightingale’. This warder was a burly man with a deformed face. He dragged out this prisoner who was wearing the hospital grey robe, and forced him to kneel down on all fours, stripped naked in front of all the other patients who were allowed to sit around in the sun during the day.

They were laughing at this man and other African prisoners standing around were also laughing at him. Forced him to kneel while the African prisoner who acted as hospital orderly stood with an enema can of soap and water. The enema was administered. The prisoner was stood up; blood was dripping down his legs; he was not allowed to get rid of this soapy water. It was blue soap. I saw them making it. He had to stand with his buttocks clenched together with his hands.

He was then forced to jump around from leg to leg, doing a sort of quick march, a sort of knees up to a horizontal position but still clutching his buttocks so the stuff couldn’t come out. The burly warder kicked him as he jumped in this way, kicked him on his arms, his back, his hips and his belly. Until finally a pot was brought out by one of the African prisoners … On another occasion I saw a prisoner carried into the prison yard on a blanket, the corners held by other African prisoners. He might have been shamming because many prisoners, like soldiers, swing the lead, and they like to get into hospital where the food is slightly better. Anyway this man was put on the ground and he was lying there immobile. After a while he stirred. Two of the warders had a consultation and apparently decided the man was shamming.

One of the warders took his wooden truncheon and, sitting down, let it fall on the forehead of this man on the ground – I suppose about 20 or 30 times. Bong, bong, bong – as you might do with a pencil on a table, letting it fall with its own weight. But this was a truncheon falling from six inches. As it turned out, the man was unconscious – fortunately, for he didn’t feel this lot going on.

Behind prison bars there’s torture

By Harold Strachan as told to Benjamin Pogrund, Rand Daily Mail, 30 July 1965 Detailed evidence of the electric shock torture and beating of prisoners at Boksburg’s Cinderella Prison have been given by two jail white warders and two African ex-convicts. Warder Gysbert van Schalkwyk, 22, said a black prisoner, Aaron, was questioned about money found in a cell:

Chief Warder Louis van der Merwe instructed the prison hospital’s warder, Erasmus, ‘om hom te brand’ (to burn him). Aaron, naked, climbed on to a bed with a red rubber top, on which a convict hospital orderly had sprinkled water. Six convicts held Aaron down – four holding his legs and two his arms. Then Aaron had water sprinkled over his body by a convict. Erasmus had two wires with shiny points at the ends. The wires were connected to a beige-painted machine, which was normally used in the hospital for heat treatment. This machine was plugged into an electric power-point in the wall. Erasmus held the one shiny point on Aaron’s shoulder and arms. The other point he just played anywhere on Aaron’s body – on his stomach, his legs, private parts, chest, neck – and when Aaron screamed, also on his mouth and tongue … I have seen this shock treatment being done many times. I have seen at least 15 to 25 convicts getting this treatment. All the warders at Cinderella Prison know that it happens. But they are too scared to talk about it.