South Africa

Uncovering painful memories at Johannesburg’s brutal apartheid prison

Just a short distance from the hustle and bustle of Hillbrow – perhaps Johannesburg’s most notorious, crime-ridden central city suburb – there is an air of calm on Constitutional Hill. So-called because the South Africa Constitutional Court has been here since 2003, visitors are greeted by a smart modern structure which houses the highest court in the land and the only one that is supposedly above the president (although he does have final say on the selection of judges).

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Inside South Africa’s Constitutional Court

While this building looks to the future, walking around the site – originally a fort built soon after the foundation of Johannesburg is 1886 – you get a sense of South Africa’s brutal past. The various structures that remain standing around the court were used as prisons and gained notoriety during the 20th century.

Mahatama Ghandi (imprisoned here for 19 days after refusing to leave a first class carriage in which only whites could travel) and Nelson Mandela spent some time here before they were transferred elsewhere. But so were many other ordinary people for much longer for simply not obeying apartheid rules, such as entering an area of the city where non-whites were banned.

The women’s prison was built in 1910 to house black and white prisoners in separate areas, the latter in much more spacious surroundings. From the outside, it seems a fairly elegant white-washed Edwardian building, but the design neatly hides the cells where women – sometimes as many as three crammed into a tight space – were shut away for breaking so-called pass laws. Others like Winnie Mandela were shut away in isolation because they were seen as more of a political threat.

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Entrance hall of the woman’s prison

“It was dark and there was nothing, just a bucket to wee in,” said an account from Nomsa Mthethwa, a so-called ‘pass offender’. “It’s a small space to stuff someone who was just naughty.”

“The people hated coming in here,” said a white wardress, her comments included on the wall for visitors to see. “They fought us and sometimes we had to use force with the baton when they wouldn’t listen.”

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Mock-up showing size of a woman’s cell – which could be shared by three people

The shops in the townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg were pretty limited, so some black women would try their luck by going to the stores in the ‘white city’. But if they were caught they could be arrested, as this account at the women’s prison demonstrates:

“My grandmother sent me to buy fish for Good Friday. I was about to cross De Villiers Street when a man came from behind and touched me on the shoulder. ‘Where’s you pass?’ he asked. I did not know what to say. I was thinking ‘Am I going to jail? I explained I didn’t have it with me and that I was going to the OK Bazaars to buy fish. He said, ‘I don’t want your stories. I want your pass.’ He walked me the gumba-gumba van. I was arrested.”

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Nearby is Number Four Building where male prisoners were kept, up to 60 in sheds designed for just 30. They slept on the floor, close up to their comrades and were given just a blanket – which was washed once a year – to keep warm. Toilets were housed in the same room, so you can imagine the smell for those sleeping nearest to these must have been unbearable.

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Some of the prisoners were transported away from the prison complex during the day to work in labouring jobs, such as in mines, and when they returned they were forced to strip naked in the open courtyard and dance in the air. It was the most degrading means of the guards checking they weren’t carrying any weapons or other banned items.

Meals for blacks were meagre in any case, but prisoners had to deal with eating their food with the waft of smell of raw sewage coming from the toilets in the yard.

“The whites ate as if they were at a restaurant where you looked at the menu and chose what you want,” said a black warder’s account. “Their menu was not the same every. They ate better food than the owners of the country. For black people, there was nothing like that. They ate rubbish.”

Most struggled to keep clean, as two thousand people struggled to use eight showers which were on just 30 minutes a day.

Those who didn’t comply with the strict prison regulations (which could be something as simple as not shaving their hair) were put into isolation sells. They were meant to be kept in these – where the lights were always on, meaning they couldn’t get any sleep – for no longer than 30 days, but some remained there for longer than a year.

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Male isolation cells

The apartheid was propped up for many years thanks to support from international allies in America and the West. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s security adviser, advised that while he should “maintain public opposition to racial oppression,” at the same time he should “relax political isolation and economic restrictions on the white states” such as South Africa.

While poverty worsened for the black majority, South Africa continued to prosper, with the value of gold outputs and the Rand soaring in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Apartheid and events like those at Sharpeville didn’t deter investors (some actually became more deeply involved with the country in this period) and white electorate supported their government. So while the rest of the world fell into recession as a result of the 1973 oil crisis, the country’s economy grew by 8% in 1974.

Given the white minority’s hold on government at this time, it must have seemed as if they would remain in power for ever. But, as we’ll find out in my next blog, the status quo would be given a reality check following both events in Soweto in 1976 and further afield and apartheid would be abolished.

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