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Detentions without Trial during the Apartheid Era

By Robert Vassen

Throughout most of the English-speaking world, the writ of habeas corpus was adopted, respected and practiced. Habeas corpus is a Latin term translates as “let us have the body” and was issued to any detaining authority to produce the detained person in court and show just cause for holding this person in detention. If the authority believed it had just cause, a formal charge had to be laid and evidence brought to court to prove the case. If the authority could not justify the detention, the person had to be set free.

In South Africa, this writ was practiced without exception until the end of the 1950s. In fact, the only meaning given to, or associated with, ‘detention’ related to school children in primary or high schools who were held back after regular school hours as punishment or in some cases as a ‘last chance’ to complete unfinished homework assignments.

In 1963, the then Minister of Justice, B.J.Vorster, gave new meaning to ‘detention.’
On the 10th July, 1963, the most senior members of the African National Congress, The High Command, most of whom had been living “underground,” were caught at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. To accommodate the capture of these senior ANC members, the General Laws Amendment Act, Number 37 of 1963 was rushed through Parliament and applied retroactively to June 27th 1962, mainly but not exclusively so that the people arrested at Rivonia could be detained and held in solitary confinement. On the 6th October, 1963, these Rivonia Trialists were formally fingerprinted and charged. Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a five-year sentence on Robben Island, was brought back to join these senior members and all were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment and flown to Robben Island on the 13th June, 1964 to serve their sentences. It should be remembered that as political prisoners, a life sentence meant life, with no chance of parole.

Under this General Law Amendment Act, the security police, also known as the Special Branch, were given the authority to arrest anyone they suspected of being engaged or involved in any act against the State and to hold them incommunicado for 90 days at a time. The once highly respected and almost sacred habeas corpus fell away. This act, usually referred to as the 90-Day Act, was passed to give the Special Branch the authority to interrogate and to extract information, and the public was not entitled to any information including even the identity or whereabouts of people being detained. Detainees could literally and effectively “disappear.” If no charges were to be laid, the Special Branch had to release the individual or individuals after 90 days. At the time, Vorster boasted that this was repeatable “until this side of eternity.”

In her book, 117 Days, Ruth First gave a vivid account of this repeatable process: of how she had been handed her clothing and possessions and told she was free only to be re-arrested as she exited the police station where she was being held. When this process of being released and then re-arrested proved to be too cumbersome, the government introduced and passed the 180-Day Detention Act (the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act, Number 96 of 1965). Eventually, this 180-day law would be replaced yet again by the Terrorism Act, Number 83 of 1967, which allowed the government to detain individuals indefinitely until all questions had been answered satisfactorily or no further purpose could be achieved by holding the detainees.

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