The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in its Final Report (1998) that the apartheid government’s detention of its political opponents was "widespread and systematic." The purposes of detention were to interrogate people, frequently using beating and other forms of torture; to hold people as potential witnesses to testify against their colleagues; and preventive detention to take political leaders out of circulation. Approximately 80,000 detentions occurred, all without legal charges being brought against the accused and outside the jurisdiction of the courts.
Beginning in the early 1960s, in response to successive waves of protest, the South African government enacted increasingly draconian laws which, among other things, permitted lengthy and secretive detentions of anti-apartheid activists. For example, the General Laws Amendment Act was used to justify the detention of members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe High Command while a case was prepared against them at the Rivonia Trial. The Internal Security Amendment Act in 1976, following the uprisings of students in Soweto that spread across the country, allowed for renewable 12-month periods of preventive detention and six-month detention of potential witnesses in solitary confinement. As mass protests grew in the 1980s, a new Internal Security Act was enacted in 1982 streamlining previous legislation. Section 29 of this Act allowed for detention until "all questions are satisfactorily answered" or "no useful purpose will be served by further detention." As thousands of people were held in detention in the mid-1980s, the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee sought information about detainees and provided valuable information to the media.