South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


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Detentions without Trial during the Apartheid Era


The primary aim of the government was to extract as much information from detainees as possible, and the Special Branch resorted to all means possible to get this information. Endless hours of interrogation, where detainees were deprived of sleep, was commonplace. Leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to disorient detainees was another form of coercion. Forcing detainees to stand on their toes with protruding nails on a wooden strip placed under the heels was another form of torture. Where these methods did not work, physical assaults were common. The Special Branch often worked in twos: the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ taking turns to inflict both physical and mental torture.

The aim of the detainee was to resist at all costs. This was the most difficult part of detention. Alone and subjected to all sorts of humiliation and physical and mental torture, it was difficult to remain steadfast. Always uppermost in the mind of the detainee was: “Will they break me? Will I cave in and give them what they want to know?” Some did not succumb, while others did. Two who did not ‘break’ were Mac Maharaj and Laloo Chiba, cadres in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, who served their sentences on Robben Island. Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned with them on Robben Island, wrote:
Both had been severely tortured with electric shocks and beatings, made to stand on the same spot for days on end and verbally abused. It disturbed us greatly to hear how Mac, desperate not to break under this onslaught ‘of the most sadistic and obscene nature’ had tried to slit his wrists with shards of broken eggshell. It was not until Laloo testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I realized how much he had suffered, but neither man betrayed their comrades. (Ahmed Kathrada, Memoirs, pp. 208-209; 155)
It remains a great moral dilemma how the ones who broke and gave information should be regarded. History will have to deal with that.

The other important factor in detention for the detainees was how to hold on to one’s sanity. These people were in solitary confinement and held under the worst of conditions with only a copy of the Bible. In such circumstances, how does a person retain their sanity and try to remain rational? Stories abound of individuals reciting all the poems they had ever learned in school; others made chess boards with whatever was at their disposal and spent hours playing. Yet others, who could find nothing to make marks with, played mental chess. Stories are told of detainees singing all the songs they heard or remembered. Whatever came to mind they would utilize just to keep a firm grip of reality and the world outside.
 
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