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In police hands
It was what every political activist dreaded, and it happened to me at about 10pm on 17 June 1975. The police had blocked the driveway of my home – and momentarily I did not realise who they were. I took out a cosh to protect myself, but after the police surrounded me and identified themselves, I threw it in the back of the car. They wanted my car in the garage, but would not let me switch on the ignition. I sat at the wheel as they pushed it into the garage.
There were about 30 of them, and they immediately set to work searching through my private belongings.
For some hours, I had been posting illegal political pamphlets in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. I was thoroughly exhausted. I just wanted to get to bed and rest – I had just been pleasantly anticipating a bath and the sleep I needed so badly.
The preceding months had been very stressful. I had been preparing a special edition of 10,000 copies of the underground pamphlet Vukani!/Awake!, including a translation of the Freedom Charter into isiZulu. Each copy of the newspaper had to be painstakingly produced then inserted into an envelope. And each of these had to be stamped and secretly posted. My routine had been to give my lectures at Natal University, Durban and then drive home to sit at the typewriter, operate my duplicating machine or prepare envelopes and put them in suitcases. I would get to sleep very late and repeat the same routine the next day.
Now, I was in police hands. This intrusion into my privacy was to become characteristic of my life as a political prisoner for the long years to follow. From the moment I was arrested, there was nothing about me that the state did not want to know or have access to. There was nothing I could shut away from the police and say this is 'not your business'. The law now gave them unfettered access to every corner of my life.
One of the police present was Major Stadtler, later to become a supposed expert on 'terrorism'. He seemed fairly affable and tried to engage me in discussion about my clandestine activities while the others searched.
The police clearly savoured their victory. They had spent many nights tracking down the irritant who had been issuing illegal pamphlets. Now they had me. I remember they made me ask permission to go to the toilet. Even there, I was constantly under their gaze.
South Africa had laws against assault, but they provided no protection for someone in my situation. I knew I could be held for long periods without scrutiny, without access to lawyers or other people from 'outside'. Numerous court cases, at every level of the judiciary, had confirmed exclusive access of the police to detainees, even where assaults were alleged. And, as I expected, and soon found out for myself, they did abuse their powers.
The events of that night marked a crucial turning point. From that moment on, I passed from being an independent person and fell under direct control of the South African apartheid state. In the years that followed, which saw me in and out of jail and detention, I would not be free of police intrusions. Even now – when this chapter in our history is over – I have habits that persist from this period of constant surveillance.
After they searched my house for some hours, the police took me to Security Police headquarters, then in Fisher Street, Durban. The offices and rooms were bare – because they were used almost exclusively for interrogation.
I had never been in these headquarters before – although I had seen similarly furnished offices at the so-called Commissioners of Bantu Administration in Durban, where baldly numbered desks were marked with government stamps. The Commissioners of Bantu Administration were presiding officers in courts who decided cases between Africans (then called 'Bantu' by the government) concerning customary law. They also implemented the notorious pass laws that made the free movement of Africans subject to severe restrictions and criminal penalties. Everything in these functional rooms was meant to move things along as quickly as possible – with a swift conversion of accused persons into convicted offenders. The furnishings were as bare as the summary justice dispensed here. No one spent much time in these rooms.
Long before my own arrest, I had read and heard about various people being tortured by South African police, particularly after the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1960. When I became involved in illegal activities, I knew I faced the prospect of being assaulted, or even killed, in detention. In preparing for my life as an underground activist, I had met several people who had been brutally tortured.
An array of legislation had been developed by the apartheid regime that shielded the police from public scrutiny, and it became routine practice to try to extract information and confessions through various forms of assault. Generally, courts accepted these confessions and refused to give credence to allegations of torture.
In the period before my own deployment, I tried to prepare myself as much as possible for coping with solitary confinement and physical torture. All of this was of some assistance when I found myself in the hands of the South African Security Police. Terrifying as it was, I was nevertheless on familiar ground. I had been warned, trained, prepared. It was terrible, but nothing my torturers said or did was surprising.
Perhaps I am underestimating the impact that torture has had on me; that in 'coping' with it, I do not fully appreciate its damaging effects. But what concerned me back then, apart from getting by, was avoiding the betrayal of my comrades and the liberation movement. To be successful, I had to have some capacity to determine events – even in a situation that was so singularly weighted against me. Although I was a lone captive, having some idea of what to expect – and knowing something of my fate – gave me a fighting chance, however slight.
On the other hand, there was nothing in my own life experience to prepare me for the ordeal of falling into the hands of a group of single-minded sadists who, in the final analysis, felt no glimmer of sympathy for me as a fellow human being. Indeed, I had grown up in a family where violence had no place. And I had never personally experienced violence. But I was now in an environment that was based on, and sustained by, violence.
In 1975 I was a young, very idealistic revolutionary, and I was prepared to die for my beliefs. I felt a strong connection with all those who had gone before me, and with all those who had faced similar tortures; and I felt a responsibility to the traditions of our liberation movement. That is what gave me strength. That is what made my resistance possible. And that is why I did not simply succumb to torture or lapse into despair.
Writing this now, 24 years after my arrest, I don't seem as single-minded as I was back then. I now tend to see myself as having been rather naïve. All the same, it remains true that single-mindedness was the weapon that got me through.
When I arrived in England to study law at Oxford in 1969, I immediately began to 'pester' Alan Brooks, a UK contact in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, about the possibility of doing 'something useful' on my return to South Africa. I was 23, and I wanted to meet those in the struggle who could give me a meaningful task to perform. I was aware that contact with the South African liberation movement – if one were serious – carried real risks.
People had been prosecuted or jailed for minor links with the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP).
The ANC had been declared illegal in 1960 and the SACP in 1950. Together, the two bodies made up the core of the South African liberation movement, under ANC leadership. The SACP, after allowing a few years to elapse, reconstituted itself as an underground organisation in the 1950s. After the ANC was banned, it also operated underground. There had been little preparation for this change, which meant the core people of the underground were fairly well known as ANC members. This both limited their effectiveness and their 'life span' as underground operatives.
The Sharpeville massacre of April 1960 demonstrated that engaging the apartheid regime on purely open, legal and peaceful grounds was no longer possible. Many had anticipated this repression. The ANC reasoned however, that it was first necessary for the mass of ordinary people to be convinced of the need for armed struggle before it could be embarked upon. And it was only on 16 December 1961 that the formation of the ANC's military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), later known as MK, was announced.
At political meetings in Britain, students and activists did not hesitate to pass resolutions supporting armed struggle in South Africa. However, South Africans who supported these resolutions could be prosecuted if they returned home. Wide-ranging legislation allowed support for armed struggle to be penalised, with minimum jail sentences of five years. Sometimes I would have to leave meetings in the UK that veered in that direction. It was not easy to explain the legal implications that made this necessary, without also declaring that I did, in fact, support armed struggle. I also secretly read a lot of ANC and SACP literature. Other South Africans read the material quite openly, but they could claim they were merely curious or fulfilling their academic duty.
My political development can probably be traced back to my early life with my family. I was born in 1945, and grew up in the Western Cape in the aftermath of World War II. A white South African from a liberal Jewish family, I had imbibed certain core values, the most significant of which were the need for honesty and unselfishness. Translated into political terms, this meant concern for one's fellow human beings and trying to alleviate conditions that were degrading to others.
As a young boy, I encountered some anti-Semitism, both as an undercurrent and overtly stated. Unlike some other Jews who became politically active, anti-Semitism did not drive me towards Zionist organisations. I was never religious, nor even particularly conscious of being Jewish – except in the context of anti-Semitism. The experience of anti-Semitism, however, heightened my awareness of racism in general and my conviction that if racism towards Jews was objectionable, it was equally so in the case of black people.
My parents were members of the liberal Progressive Party. As a youngster at school and in my early years as an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, I embraced liberalism, which then seemed the clearest alternative to apartheid racism. It was only later that I understood the baggage liberalism shared with capitalism. In the mid-to-late 1960s, the ANC and SACP were almost invisible in South Africa. There was little mention of them in newspapers. Membership was illegal and – from what I could see – there was nothing one could join. I did not know about the activities of the liberation movement outside the country; and what one did hear was filtered through South Africa's hostile, white-controlled media.
At the time, liberalism seemed to offer a way to combat apartheid and advance equality. In the 1960s, public protests were liberal protests. With the ANC and SACP banned, the liberals occupied the public space of the anti-apartheid struggle.
I became involved in student politics during my first year at university, but by the end of the 1960s – as a junior lecturer – I felt at a dead end. Liberalism, I concluded, was getting us nowhere. Protest politics were in my view morally correct, but seemed not to have a strategy for change. Until then, I had thought that liberalism represented what was right, against the values of the apartheid state and racism. It was when I began to think of how moral commitment translated into concrete goals that I doubted whether liberalism provided much guidance.
I did not agonise over the moral basis of liberalism – whether it had found an accommodation with apartheid relations of domination. I only knew it was getting us nowhere. Eager to do something that would make a difference, I concluded that it was necessary to join the forces employing armed struggle to bring down the apartheid government. My conceptions were rather vague and possibly romantic.
In late 1969, I also began reading Marxist literature. I obtained a book by Emile Burns, and the name hand-written inside the cover was 'A Fischer'. The book had belonged to Bram Fischer, the famous Afrikaner Communist, who was then serving a term of life imprisonment for his activities against the regime and who died a prisoner in 1975. The book's Marxist viewpoint shocked me. It reinterpreted aspects of history in a way that made me feel the wool had previously been pulled over my eyes. It also delivered a blow to my conceit. Until then, I had believed myself to be a well-educated and intelligent person who understood politics and the world. Obviously, I still had a lot to learn – with Marxism not the least of these things.
At this time, I was already a very successful young academic, very ambitious, publishing like mad and obviously 'making it'. But all this was suddenly interrupted – by my presentation of a thesis that contained extracts from the writings of the eminent banned author, Jack Simons. I was told to withdraw the quotations, as including them contravened the law.
In South Africa at the time, individuals were 'banned' from political activities either because they were communists, or alleged communists, or deemed to be furthering the aims of communism. This entailed various restrictions on the freedom of movement and other activities of the banned individual. It also imposed restrictions on others. In my case, I was not permitted to quote a banned person such as Simons.
I refused to simply 'lift' Simons's ideas without giving him credit for them, and withdrew the thesis instead. In a sense, this was one of my first adult decisions based on principle. It was also costly to me personally. (Simons, with whom I was in correspondence at the time, thought my decision was wrong and silly, and that I should simply have used his ideas without acknowledgement.)
Also around this time, I was looking after a flat owned by relatives. It was in Clifton, a suburb of Cape Town, and my relatives' son arrived one night with dagga cookies. Dagga is the South African word for cannabis or marijuana. I had never tried dagga but found the cookies tasted pleasant and I ate a lot of them.
Long after the guests had left, I found my mind roving. I thought about my life, my reading of Marxism and the withdrawal of my thesis, and how I had considered myself such a 'hot shot' academic. But, as I now understood from Marxism, my ambition was really not so exceptionally brilliant. It simply conformed to the norms and excessive competitiveness of bourgeois society. With the aid of Emile Burns on Marxism and dagga cookies, I started to look at my life afresh.
I was about to study overseas, and hoped to find ways of contacting activists in England. I was already ambivalent about undertaking a doctorate at Oxford. I really wanted to 'slough off my bourgeois values'. For the first time, I now had free access to revolutionary books. And I wanted to read them all.
At Oxford, my mind was torn in contradictory directions. On the one hand, I was reading revolutionary literature – Che Guevara on guerrilla warfare, Huberman and Sweezy on socialism, Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Lenin and so on. I was also exposed to a fair amount of political activity – such as Marxist lectures and seminars, ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement rallies, even meetings of the Black Panther Party of America. On the other hand, there were my law books, which were dull by comparison.
I chose a thesis topic that tied in with my political concerns – on civil disobedience. But I found it hard to find a supervisor who would allow me scope to explore the issues in the way I wanted. The supervisor allocated to me was very famous, but I felt his vision was too narrow and that I was unable to continue with my thesis.
The choices before me seemed stark: obtaining a doctorate that could not satisfy me; or continuing to study revolutionary writings – writings that Oxford seemed to treat as separate from and irrelevant to my thesis. I also wanted to break from the competitive Oxford environment – to reject the Oxford stamp of approval (that is, eschew a doctorate) and concentrate on what was necessary for my personal and political development.
I was very unhappy, but still grappling with what this new discovery, Marxism, meant for my life – and I applied it in a rather far-reaching, extreme and rigid manner.
Eventually, my abhorrence of Oxford elitism persuaded me to leave the university.
Excerpted from "Inside Apartheid's Prison"
Copyright © 2017 Raymond Suttner.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Preface to new edition,
Introduction to new edition,
1 In police hands,
3 Underground, 1970s,
4 Torture and silence,
5 We'll give that Jew a hiding!,
6 Awaiting trial,
7 Letters, awaiting trial,
8 Statement from the dock,
9 The judgment: 'Conduct reprehensible',
10 In 'Maximum',
11 Letters from 'Maximum',
12 Serving my sentence,
13 Letters, 1976–1982,
14 Out, then on the run,
15 Underground letters,
16 John Vorster Square,
17 'Pack all your things!',
18 Letters from detention, 1986–1988,
19 House arrest,
20 Speech to the United Nations,