While the South African press readily covered stories of those having committed acts of treason or communism during the apartheid era, little attention was paid to what transpired once the court cases concluded and the sentences were determined. In fact, from the onset of apartheid to the height of its violence, the conditions of prisons and the treatment of prisoners by the Prison Department was largely unknown to the public. The Prison Act of 1959 had all but guaranteed that information about prisons and prisoners be left unpublished, unless first it was made public as evidence in a court of law.[1] Additionally, while attention was given to the violence in the townships and the larger struggle between the government and anti-apartheid forces, the South African public was largely ignorant of the specificities of how apartheid was carried out. In 1983, however, Barberton Prison became the target of the South African press when the “heat exhaustion trial” exposed testimony revealing excessive violence and ill-treatment of prisoners by guards. Within months, Barberton Prison became a symbol of the brutality existing within the penal system and an invitation to the South African press to begin investigating apartheid’s harshest prisons.

The city of Barberton is known to history as one of soot and soil. Located in what was then the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, Barberton became home to South Africa’s first mining fields in 1874, when Henry Barber discovered gold in the region. As workers and businessmen flocked to Barberton, the city became one of prominence. In 1884, the same year it was named in Barber’s honor, Barberton Prison was opened and would later become one of South Africa’s most notorious jails during apartheid. Although Barberton Prison was built in 1884, the addition of a female wing did not emerge until 1911. Previously utilized for prisoners convicted of common offenses such as stock theft, drug theft, and public violence, the nature of the prison did not change until the fight against apartheid intensified in the late 1940s.[2] Like many towns of its kind, Barberton felt the full force of apartheid. Over time, black Africans were forced to the perimeter. Children of different races began attending schools especially designed for them, often outside the town but within the bounds of Afrikaner influence. What distinguished the city, however, was the presence of Barberton Prison. 

Utilized by the government for those deemed most violent and dangerous, Barberton was

one of the locations to which female political prisoners were most often sent during apartheid. Unlike many of the other prisons located in the Transvaal province after 1910, Barberton held political prisoners who had been transferred from  other parts of the country, with several buildings designated specifically for different types of prisoners within the fenced prison grounds.[3] As a result, the prison housed both prisoners serving long-sentences for political dissention and prisoners considered especially violent and requiring additional security. Given the Prison Act and inadequate penal records, the identity of every prisoner who served time in Barberton is unknown. Among the prison’s most recognizable guests are Jean Middleton, Sylvia Neame, Dorothy Nyembe, and Helen Hendricks.[4] It is through many of these women and their work both during apartheid and post-apartheid that the true experiences of Barberton are revealed.

Given Barberton’s designation as the prison for the most volatile and politically dangerous, there existed an unofficial policy among guards to “break” political prisoners as quickly as possible upon arrival. In a 1973 article written for Anti-Apartheid, Jean Middleton describes Barberton Prison as “designed both to defeat and punish these prisoners, the prison is a harsh, bleak place.”[5] For some, that meant being placed on a “work team” to tend to the prison farmlands under the critical eyes of armed warders and watch dogs.[6] For others, the experience was psychological. Sylvia Neame, a fellow prisoner of Middleton’s, writes in her 2018 memoir about this provocation and confirms its deliberate nature: “the aim was to make us feel constantly uncertain of the framework in which we lived, too keep us permanently on the defensive and uncertain, to convince us that we had no rights and would only be granted ‘privileges’… we were in a constant state of psychological stress as a means of breaking us in.”[7] 

While the conditions upon arrival were harsh, the strict regulations that existed in the prisons for political prisoners only reinforced the prisoners’ initial experiences. Newspapers, television, radio, and films were prohibited. Reading was allowed, but only at night with books pertaining to “officially approved courses of study.”[8] For many of the short-term prisoners, their only recreation would be the thirty minutes of exercise rewarded after a workday of farming, washing, sweeping, or polishing.[9] Because the number of male prisoners on the compound far exceed that of female prisoners, the women received slightly better amenities. While the quality of the food and furniture often fluctuated given the race of the prisoner being served, a lucky few were given cells with lavatories rather than the more common sanitary buckets.[10] Prisoners were rarely allowed to openly communicate with one another, and a year of solitary confinement could be given as a result of a failed escape attempt or a lingering look at the wrong guard. Given that the prisoners were both political and female, they were held separately from the other prisoners, with little to no interaction with the prisoners in other buildings or other cell blocks.

This feeling of isolation within the prison was only intensified by Barberton’s physical location and the behavior of the guards themselves. Located two hundred and fifty miles from Johannesburg, the nearest city, Barberton’s inmates rarely received the visits regulation allowed. The trip was long and expensive, meaning that official visits were also less frequent. Given the lack of oversight in apartheid prisons combined with the geographic challenges of managing such a prison remotely, the verbal and physical abuse of guards continued unhindered.[11] Neame recalls the compounding of such isolation and abuse, stating, “it was demonstrably clear that we were not simply locked up in gaol in order to be isolated from the rest of society; we were deliberately separated from other prisoners and, indeed, as we would later learn, from the African Wardresses. We were treated as though we had a dangerous infectious disease.”[12] In describing specific moments within the prison walls, Middleton recounts "the screams of prisoners who sought in hysteria some momentary escape from the desolation of their lives. This hysteria is familiar to anyone with experience of women's prisons."[13] 

While conditions within the Barberton Prison Complex changed given the particular building and prisoner population, the violence was largely uniform. Middleton writes about how liberally guards flogged prisoners in referencing her time working to wash clothes in the prison: “during the months when we washed shirts and shorts from the men's prison, there was at least one set of clothes each week and usually more, that came in caked with dried blood over the kidneys."[14] Although such treatment was widely acknowledged and feared throughout the complex, much of the South African public remained both ignorant of and uninterested in the treatment of prisoners within prisons such Barberton. At the same time, though, Barberton was beginning to struggle to maintain control of its prisoners given the size of the prison site and the amount of resources allocated to the prison. By the early 1980s, Barberton had far surpassed the capacity for which it was originally intended, with buildings reportedly being overcrowded by anywhere from 21.3 percent to 236.1 percent. With the state threatening to close the most burdened prison buildings in the complex, the overcrowding seemed to be government’s greatest threat in regard to Barberton.[15] Such was the case until 1983.

On December 29, 1892, a group of prisoners was transferred from Durban Point Prison to Barberton Prison Complex, where the prisoners were immediately sent to work on the construction of a dam. Without having received food, water, or the medical examination required by prison regulations upon admittance, the prisoners were driven beyond the walls of the prison to endure temperatures reaching nearly thirty-five degrees Celsius.[16] While work teams were often suspended during the weeks between December 12 and January 5 when the sun was at its hottest, the Barberton guards chose to forgo protocol. As the work commenced and the temperature rose, prisoners began expressing concern about the heat. Despite their appeals, the work continued, as heat exhaustion took hold and guards beat prisoners to keep pace. According to an account shared by Middleton in Struggles, “as the prisoners grew confused and began to collapse, they were beaten all the harder. Witnesses described seeing other prisoners being 'pounded' and 'worked over.' One man said that when he regained consciousness after fainting, he was afraid to open his eyes for fear of being beaten again.”18 Despite pleas for water and rest, three men died that day: Ernest Makhatini, Mayo Khumalo, and Mhlakaza Xaba. Makathini reportedly presented a warder with documentation of his asthma when the exhaustion began to set in; Khumalo showed warders marks from a recent stomach operation. In August 1983, the case finally made it to court in Nelspruit. In what would become known as the “heat exhaustion trial,” eight warders were charged with “murdering three maximum security prisoners and assaulting 34 others with intent to do grievous bodily harm, by beating them with rubber truncheons as they worked on a prison dam site in temperatures of thirty-five degrees centigrade.”[17]

While the facts of the case shocked the South African public, what was most notable was the first-hand testimony given by prisoners about their experience at Barberton Prison. Given the attention the case was eliciting, guards attempted to silence many of those planning to testify, both by threatening solitary confinement and bribing prisoners with improved food quality. By the time testimony began in August, many of the witnesses had transferred prisons or had plans to do so immediately following the trial. According to Middleton’s coverage, “the witnesses all refused to give their evidence unless they had an understanding that they would not be returned to Barberton Prison.”[18] During the trial, prisoners shared stories of shots fired within the prison in order to reportedly keep prisoners from escaping. Those who had been at the construction site that day recalled being assaulted by guards and the threats that followed when prisoners failed to resume work immediately following beatings.[19] At the conclusion of the trial, six of the eight guards were found guilty and sentenced to up to eight years in prison. Although many viewed the prosecution of such crimes a success, the verdict was much more lenient than the prosecution had hoped. Rather than being convicted of homicide, the judge “found six of them guilty on various counts of common assault and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.”[20]

While the case had ostensibly come to a close, the real impact of the “heat exhaustion trial” came with the events that followed. On November 20, 1983, it was reported that civil claims had been filed against the Minister of Justice by thirty of the prisoners who had been assaulted at Barberton Prison. Additionally, it was announced in January 1984 that criminal charges would be brought against Lieutenant JH Niemand, the acting head of the Barberton Maximum Security Prison, for assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, incitement, and interfering with the course of justice. During the trial, the events of the “heat exhaustion” case were relived, and the six guards convicted of those charges appeared in court to testify against the Lieutenant.[21] As the civil claims and criminal charges continued, so too did the press coverage of the Barberton Prison, inviting both division into the town of Barberton and investigation into South Africa’s most notorious prisons. 

While the repercussions of the “heat exhaustion trail” continued, several additional incidents occurred within Barberton Prison Complex to intensify the scrutiny and the violence. On August 22, 1983, eight inmates were injured when a violent brawl broke out between prisoners at Barberton’s Maximum-Security Prison; three days later, a similar brawl took the lives of three prisoners.[22] The month of September brought with it the death of Jackson Khumalo, an escaped Barberton prisoner who suffered from injuries obtained upon recapture by prison warders. Four additional prisoners were killed when guards fired shots to prevent their escape; three prisoners and two warders were also hospitalized. The most violent incident, however, occurred on September 30, 1983. Having been transferred to Barberton to “strengthen the management” following the escalating violence, Lieutenant-Colonel J Grundling, the newly appointed head of the Barberton Maximum Security Prison, was stabbed by two inmates.[23] An additional warder was killed, as was one of the attackers. The incident resulted in a death and injury count comparable to that of the “heat exhaustion” event and signaled to the government that something at Barberton had to change.

By the end of September 1983, the “Minister of Justice promised an enquiry into Barberton Prison, to investigate the ‘unsatisfactory aspects’ referred to in the judgment, and to advise how to avoid a repetition.”[24] While this may have temporary appeased those seeking further investigation into the prison, what remained unclear was the nature of the inquiry. Rather than directly investigating the treatment of prisoners or the existence of violence, the inquiry sought to determine “the role of gang activities in the prison, whether the prisoners threaten each other's lives or intimidate each other, whether the strains of overcrowding played any part in the events of the 29th December, 1982, and whether the lives and safety of members of the prison service are adequately protected".[25] Although the launch of the inquiry temporarily distracted the attention of the South African press, the violence continued, and the Prison Department was forced to take action. In addition to strengthening the management within the prison, it was announced in October 1983 that the most violent prisoners would no longer be held at Barberton. Rather than confining them to one prison, authorities transferred many of Barberton’s prisoners to other sites, and Barberton officially became a “medium-security prison.”[26] As the Prison Department began its reform due to its newfound notoriety, the South African press began to expand its interest.[27]

While the 1983 trial resulted in no change to the press’s legal ability to access information, it sparked in both the press and the public a curiosity to question whether Barberton Prison Complex was the model or the exception. The Prison Act of 1959 had been passed to protect the Prison Department, after a series of pamphlets and articles had exposed prison conditions that were less than suitable. With the exception of the Daily Mail, which had faced heavy fines in the mid 1960s for testing the law, the press was accustomed to not publishing articles that documented prison conditions or individual prisoners. They were confined only to that information which was first utilized as evidence in a court of law. Being one of the first major court cases in South Africa to involve excessive violence in a prominent prison, the “heat exhaustion” case gave the press access to information that formerly was off limits. As reporters began questioning the conditions and treatment within Barberton prison, so too did they question the conditions and treatment in other prisons of its kind. Barberton allowed the press to begin asking questions that formerly they had not. 

Not only did the “heat exhaustion trail” reveal how often and easily protocols pertaining to medical care could be broken, but it also brought into question the accuracy of incident reports and death counts reported to the state by prisons. According to Middleton’s article, “it was not until four months after the deaths at Barberton that the Prisons Department issued instructions about heat illness, with a recommendation that prisoners be acclimatized before being required to work in extreme conditions.”[28] In response to a question posed in Cape Town’s parliament in April 1893, the Prison Department was forced to release records regarding death counts of prisoners from July 1981 to June 1982. During that eleven-month period, one hundred and eighty-three prisoners died in South African jails; records attributed one hundred and fifty-seven of those deaths to natural causes, with only one being an account of a warder assault. Eleven assaults were attributed to assaults by other prisoners.[29] When the inquiry regarding Barberton Prison concluded after seven months of investigation, the report noted the prevalence of prison gangs, describing them as being “horrifying” and having “played a major role in much of the violence which had occurred at Barberton.”[30] Given that the majority of deaths reported at Barberton were attributed to such violence, there existed a disparity between the activity taking place in Barberton and the activity reported within other prisons around the country. As a result, the press began questioning the accuracy of information included in incidents reports and the environmental factors that could contribute to what was being defined as “natural death.”

Questions such as these acted to further erode what many already viewed as a failing apartheid system. Whereas the press was unable to openly criticize or publicize the conditions of prisons, the “heat exhaustion trial” allowed the press to share with the South African public information and testimony about the cruel and inhumane conditions of Barberton Prison Complex, as well as the violent behavior of those charged with guarding it. It is because of this exposure that Barberton Prison became a symbol of the brutality existing within the penal system and the first of many South African prisons to be investigated. 

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


[1] S. Singh, “The Historical Development of Prisons in South Africa: A Penological Perspective,” North-West University Boloka Institutional Repository, no. 50 (2005), http://dspace.nwu.ac.za/ bitstream/handle/10394/5312/ No_50%282005%29_Singh_S.pdf?sequence=1.

[2] “Barberton,” South African History Online, April 19, 2019, https://www.sahistory.org.za/place/barberton. 3 Robert Harris, photograph, “Barberton, South Africa: Part of the Gold Mining Town. Woodburytype, 1888, after a photograph by Robert Harris,” Photograph, Barberton, South Africa: Cityscape prints, 1888, From Artstor:

Wellcome Collection, https://library.artstor.org/ asset/24883325 (accessed April 6, 2020).

[3] Jean Middleton, “Women Prisoners Condemned to Live in South Africa’s Forgotten Gaol,” Anti-Apartheid, June 1973, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/al.sff.document.aamp2b1700006.

[4] “Barberton.” South African History Online.

[5] Middleton, “Women Prisoners Condemned….”

[6] Jean Middleton, “Murders in Gaol – The Case of Barberton,” Struggles, Jan. 1984: 22-39, https://www.jstor.org/stable/al.sff.document.0037.0509.000.000.jan1984?….

[7] Sylvia Neame, Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid, Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2018, 761. 

[8] Middleton, “Women Prisoners Condemned….”

[9] NPZ Mbatha, “Narratives of Women Detained in the Kroonstad Prison During the Apartheid Era: A SocioPolitical Exploration, 1960-1990,” Journal for Contemporary History 43, no. 1 (2018):91-110, https://dx.doi.org/10.18820/24150509/JCH43.v1.5.

[10] Mbatha, “Narratives of Women Detained in the Kroonstad,” Journal for Contemporary History

[11] Middleton, “Women Prisoners Condemned….”

[12] Neame, Imprisoned…, 804. 

[13] Middleton, “Women Prisoners Condemned….”

[14] Middleton, “Women Prisoners Condemned….”

[15] “State to Close Barberton Prison,” Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg, South Africa), March 7, 1984: 7, https://infoweb-newsbank-com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/apps/readex/doc?p= HN-

SARDM&docref=image/v2%3A135DEF57238F5FC5%40EANX-15B1CAE2F5833418 %40244576715B171542FEAEFF0%406-15B171542FEAEFF0%40.

[16] S.A. Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz: the Barberton Prison Complex During the Early 1980’s – Part One,” Potchefstroom Electric Law Journal 18, no.2 (2015): 278, doi:10.4314/pelj.v18i2.07.

15 Middleton, “Murders in Goal…,” 25. 

[17] Middleton, “Murders in Goal…,” 23. 

[18] Middleton, “Murders in Goal…,” 23.

[19] Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz…Part One.”

[20] Middleton, “Murders in Goal…,” 27.

[21] Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz…Part One.”

[22] Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz…Part Two.”

[23] Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz…Part Two.” 310.

[24] Middleton, “Murders in Goal…,” 28.

[25] Middleton, “Murders in Goal…,” 28-29.

[26] Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz…Part Two,” 311.

[27] Singh, “The Historical Development of Prisons….”

[29] Middleton, “Murders in Gaol…,” 28.  

[30] Pete, “Apartheid’s Alcatraz…Part Two,” 312.

  • “Barberton.” South African History Online. April 19, 2019. https://www.sahistory.org.za/place/ barberton.
  • Harris, Robert, photographer. “Barberton, South Africa: Part of the Gold Mining Town. Woodburytype, 1888, after a photograph by Robert Harris.” Photograph. Barberton, South Africa: Cityscape prints, 1888. From Artstor: Wellcome Collection. https://library.artstor.org/ asset/24883325 (accessed April 6, 2020).
  • Mbatha, NPZ. “Narratives of Women Detained in the Kroonstad Prison During the Apartheid Era: A Socio-Political Exploration, 1960-1990.” Journal for Contemporary History 43, no.1 (2018): 91-110. https://dx.doi.org/10.18820/24150509/JCH43.v1.5.
  • Middleton, Jean. “Murders in Gaol – The Case of Barberton.” Struggles, Jan. 1984: 22-39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/al.sff.document.0037.0509.000.000.jan1984?seq=1#metadata_info_t ab_contents.
  • Middleton, Jean. “Women Prisoners Condemned to Live in South Africa’s Forgotten Gaol.” Anti-Apartheid, June 1973. JSTOR. doi:10.2307/al.sff.document.aamp2b1700006.
  • Neame, Sylvia. Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid. Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2018. 
  • Pete, S.A. “Apartheid’s Alcatraz: the Barberton Prison Complex During the Early 1980’s – Part One.” Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal 18, no. 2 (2015): 275-305. doi:10.4314/ pelj.v18i2.07.
  • Pete, S.A. “Apartheid’s Alcatraz: the Barberton Prison Complex During the Early 1980’s – Part Two.” Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal 18, no. 2 (2015): 306-331. doi:10.4314/pelj.v18i2.08.
  • Singh, S. “The Historical Development of Prisons in South Africa: A Penological Perspective.” North-West University Boloka Institutional Repository, no. 50 (2005). http://dspace.nwu.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10394/5312/No_50%282005%29_Singh_S.pdf?sequence=1.
  • “State to Close Barberton Prison.” Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg, South Africa), March 7, 1984: 7. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/apps/readex/doc?p= HN-SARDM&docref=image/v2%3A135DEF57238F5FC5%40EANX-15B1CAE2F5833418%402445767-15B171542FEAEFF0%406-15B171542FEAEFF0%40