Closeup/International Affairs

A nation of murders

The Terror is alive and well and in South Africa

Arturo Gonzalez November 14 1977
Closeup/International Affairs

A nation of murders

The Terror is alive and well and in South Africa

Arturo Gonzalez November 14 1977

A nation of murders

Closeup/International Affairs

The Terror is alive and well and in South Africa

Arturo Gonzalez

South Africa goes to the polls November 30 in a climate of tension which might almost have been tailor-made to persuade the state’s four million white voters to give Prime Minister John Vorster a renewed mandate of almost landslide proportions. The immediate reason for the country’s taut nerves is a government clampdown on the black population which has seen the banning of 18 of its organizations, the closure of two of its newspapers, the restriction of the freedom of seven white opponents of the official policy of apartheid and the arrests of scores of black leaders. This draconian action in turn followed weeks of national disquiet over the death in custody on September 12 of Steven Bantu Biko, the blacks’ most charismatic leader. Biko was first said by Justice Minister Jimmmy Kruger to have died after a hunger strike, but he now is believed to have been beaten to death by police. The case of the 30-year-old Biko, however it develops, is the most startling in the macabre roll call ofdeath in South A frica ’s prisons. It is not an isolated case.

“Biko’s death is the big one, the one they cannot get away with, the one they can’t explain away,” insists 43-year-old Donald Woods, the feisty, bespectacled, greyhaired terrier of an editor whose liberal East London Daily Despatch consistently snaps at the heels of South Africa’s government. Woods himself was arrested last month in the government’s crackdown on the press.

• Abdullah Harón fell down “eight stairs” at the Caledon Square police station in Cape Town and died of bruises, contusions, a broken rib and internal hemorrhages. When the International Committee of the Red Cross asked to look into

this situation and that of other detainees in South Africa, it was granted limited access.

• Luke Mazwembe, age 32, cleverly found a razor and some twine in his cell and managed to make a noose to hang himself. A State pathologist refused to exclude the possibility that “Mr. Mazwembe had been killed and then hanged to fake a suicide.”

• Mapetla Mohapi, age 25, wrote a suicide note (which amazingly was found by the authorities more than 24 hours after his body had been cut down from the cell bars from which it was hanging) in handwriting other than his own. “As a banker I would never have passed the signature on the note as genuine,” testified graphologist H. F. Allardice of Durban at the suicide inquest—which, as always, was held months after the detainee’s suicide. As usual, the police version of the death prevailed.

• James Ntomdela, age 38, “fell downstairs” and died. Professor J. J. F. Taljaard, an independent pathologist, examined the corpse and testified the fatal injury was “more consistent with a kick in the stomach than a fall down stairs.” Or, the professor agreed, “he could have run into a clenched fist.”

• William Tshwane, a Soweto student, was just never seen again after the police grabbed him. The authorities merely told the family that he had died behind bars and that they themselves had buried the body.

• Doctor Hoosen Haflejee, age 25, was a dentist at King George V Hospital in Durban before he was found hanging dead by his trousers in a cell in the Brighton Beach Prison. Said one who saw his body, “It looked as if it had been in three very rough rugby games on hard ground, or had been in a fight. We counted at least 25 abrasions and were very surprised by the number.” The police had, unfortunately for independent pathologists, cut away a lot of tissue from the major injured areas of the body “for investigation.”

The sickening list goes on and on and on. These nonwhites of South Africa are dying without ever being accused of a crime, without ever having their day in court. They are held incommunicado at the discretion of South Africa’s Special Branch for as long as the police want to keep them behind bars. Steve Biko died with an arrest sheet as long as your arm—but he had never been convicted of a thing by anyone, anywhere.

“I treat a lot of those who are lucky enough to get out of jail,” says a black Soweto physician, himself a former detainee, who would be instantly back behind bars if his identity were revealed. “One tactic seems to be to bring the prisoner into the interrogation room and then drop him with a karate chop, just to say hello. Now some of these black prisoners are tiny men. and those Afrikaner police are big, strong lads. I think sometimes that they lose their suspect with that first fatal chop, and that’s when they have to string up their late prisoner in a cell or heave him out a window or down a stairwell like they did with Matthews Mabelane and George Botha.

“After the chop, they keep the prisoner standing for hours, days. You defecate and urinate where you stand. The two interrogators—they usually work in pairs, wearing civilian clothes and no indication of rank or name—sit and eat and drink in front of you. They’ll even order in a third meal and leave it temptingly in front of you. All the time they say the same thing— ‘Praat, kaffir, praat!’—‘Talk, nigger, talk!’ I’ve treated people with their feet swollen up to twice their normal size after that kind of session.

“The abuse handed out by the average South African policeman isn’t too sophisticated—just punches and kicks. But when the fellows in civvies come in from John Vorster Square—the Special Branch headquarters—then things can get fairly hairy for the detainee. They’ll strip a man. tie his wrists to his ankles and then hang him upside down from a bar. They sw ing the man back and forth and on each swing slash at his exposed genitals with a birch. I’ve treated men with testicles the size of their heads after such abuse.

“They use other tricks too—suspending a victim by his neck, treading on the feet of detainees after putting stones in their shoes. Focusing bright lights on them 24 hours a day, suffocating them in canvas hoods, tying weights to their genitals and forcing them into a make-believe sitting position until their legs give out and they collapse. Nat Scrache, a black journalist, signed every confession they put in front of him after they’d given him electric shocks on his ears, chest and testicles. His doctor tells me his prostate gland has been ruptured by the squeezing of his testicles with pliers.”

These periods of jail-cell torture are often interrupted by months of solitary confinement—when wounds heal while the mind collapses. Mrs. Alma Hannon, a Johannesburg psychologist, says: “Many detainees will compromise themselves— even incriminate themselves—in order to get contact with another human being after long periods of solitary.” Hallucinations, mental disorientation, a sense of insanity develop. She recalls one detainee who had forgotten the names of his brothers and sisters after months in a cell alone.

A former detainee says, even more simply, “The entry of even a tiny fly into your cell becomes the biggest moment in your life. You find yourself talking to him, ‘Hello fly, how are you today?’ ” Then after the weeks of solitary comes more interrogation and more mishandling.

The police go to great lengths to keep complaints about this mistreatment out of the press or public eye. By law the local newspapers are forbidden to report on the activities of detainees which effectively silences most reporting. Two independent doctors who were asked by the family of the “suicide” Mapetla Mohapi to look into his death were subsequently put into prison by the police. Woki Kambule, a Soweto school principal, was quizzed about his son Jomo, a university student. Major H. J. Olivier of the Security Police, warned the educator “not to talk to the press or to contact Jomo” and there was a suggestion—a hint of a threat—that “something would happen to Jomo if I did not obey. It was the most terrible, sinister morning of my life.”

There is never the remotest chance of a parliamentary investigation of the appallingly high number of nonwhite “suicides” that take place in police cells. John Vorster’s party controls 122 seats of the country’s 171-seat parliament now—and will probably improve on this after the suddenly called November 30 election. When beleaguered by criticism in the generally liberal English-language press in the country, the Afrikaners simply stonewall the issue.

Why this reign of physical and mental torture—and even frequent police-manipulated murder—in a civilized state which prides itself on its Christian piety? Inevitably, it’s a fear of Communism that dictates white sentiment that a no-holds-barred defense of South African values is mandatory. “We have no option but to meet force with force,” says Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger.

In a depressing article recently run in The Citizen, a Johannesburg paper, Aida Parker wrote: “It is imperative that the police extract information from potential enemies of the existing order. They are dealing with well-trained, highly disciplined suspected Communists, subversives and terrorists. Merely asking such people if they will be kind enough to assist the police in their investigations won’t get you very far.” The result is an ends-justifies-the-means philosophy, which permits South African police to exercise the same brand of totalitarian control over the country’s population that the Vorster government insists it is fighting to prevent.

Mlunguishi Mxenge, a 42-year-old lawyer says: “Beyond a shadow of a doubt. South Africa is now a police state through and through. You have a situation in which everybody knows the truth, but nobody does anything about it. In case after case we run into the absolute power of the Security Branch. They are literally running the show.’’

The result is that South Africa boasts—if that’s the right word—one of the largest prison populations in the Western world. Great Britain has 70 prisons to hold wrongdoers among its 56 million inhabitants. South Africa, by comparison, needs 242 prisons for malefactors among just 25 million people. Twenty-five percent of South Africa’s nonwhites spend at least one night in jail each year for violating the white man’s laws. When contronted with uncomfortable questions about the surprisingly high number of prison “suicides,” Prime Minister Vorster refers constantly to a dog-eared piece of Communist propaganda which allegedly instructs red recruits to “commit suicide rather than betray the organization.”

He seems to have no believable answer to an even more basic question: why don’t any white Communist detainees seem to take their own lives with the same enthusiasm as nonwhites? Nor does the South African government seem to have a response to the even more fundamental judicial question: how can they be sure that all these nonwhite “suicides” are really diehard Communists when none has been convicted or tried, or even officially charged?

Vorster responds, quite correctly, that magistrates can, and sometimes do, visit nonwhite prisoners and look into claims of police killings in detention. But he fails to reveal, says John Dugard, a leading South African law professor, that “the magistrate is dependent for promotion on the same Justice Minister who wants a ‘satisfactory’ verdict from the inquest and the result is whitewash after whitewash.” Criticism of the present stern anti-terrorist law which permits suspects to suddenly disappear into the hands of the police and to be held incommunicado, for years if necessary, is rising in volume and the issue promises to figure prominently in the election now going on. A top legal authority, Kowie Marais, a respected, recently retired South African Supreme Court Judge says. “I have become a complete and unequivocal enemy of this country’s security laws.”

Helen Suzman, the indefatigable opponent of Afrikaner racialism for 25 years, insists: “South Africa is slowly, but surely, slipping into the morass of a police state with scarcely a ripple . . . Section 6 of the Terrorism Act killed Steve Biko just as Section 6 of the Terrorism Act killed 19 other unfortunate people during the past 18 months—and 44 others during the 10 years this iniquitous act has been on our statute books.”

In only one case have the South African police ever been brought to the bar of the country’s justice over the death of a detainee. Four police interrogators were tried concerning the “suicide” of black nationalist Joseph Mdluli last year. They were acquitted—but a very respected judge later admitted the victim’s fatal wounds were “most probably inflicted by the police.” The state has conveniently decided not to reopen the case.

When news of Steve Biko’s “hunger strike suicide” was first released, the ruling South African Nationalist political party was in the middle of a convention. The crude Kruger from the platform tried to play the “suicide” for laughter, saying “One of my lieutenants committed suicide in prison yesterday, but I don’t blame the prisoners.” He bantered with the delegates that it was a prisoner’s democratic right to starve himself to death if he wanted to. And he summed up the prevailing white attitude with the simple statement: “Biko’s death leaves me cold.”

At Biko’s funeral a black named Fikele Bam softly summed up the heartfelt sentiments of the 20 million disfranchised people of color in South Africa to whom Biko was a symbol of hope. “His death has not left us cold. It has left us boiling hot. Boiling hot with grief. Boiling hot with anger. Boiling hot with impatience.”

It is this heat that will one day soon set South Africa afire. Y?