To cover 22 years of imprisonment in chronological order is too difficult - and I think it would be boring to read about that life within a life in such detail. I have selected some themes which I hope will give some flavour of what prison was like.
The case for better conditions
The Strachan trial
It took a very long time for prison conditions to improve. A major impetus was a series of articles by Jock Strachan published in the Rand Daily MaiI after he was released from prison in 1965 at the end of his three year-sentence. He exposed the reality of the treatment of prisoners. Jock, however, had not asked the Commissioner of Prisons for permission to disclose information about prisons. That was an offence and his defence had to be that he could prove everything he had written was true.
He said, for example, that it was an everyday occurrence that prisoners were stripped naked in front of other prisoners in contravention of prison rules. On every occasion that he went to or was taken past the place where new prisoners came in, he would see this happen. But being a prisoner Jock could not be at Reception every day. That each of us confirmed his observation was irrelevant in law. Jock was relying on hearsay and could not “prove” that his whole statement was true.
There was another complication. Jock had sworn to the truth of his statement to the journalist Benjamin Pogrund, but his lawyer, Rowley Arenstein, insisted that he withdraw certain statements because they could not be proved. Jock therefore made a new sworn statement to correct the faulty one but could not persuade Pogrund, the Deputy Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, to destroy his original statement. Benjie, who had been at school with me, wanted it kept as an historical document. Unfortunately, but predictably, the security police raided the newspaper’s offices and found both sworn statements. Since they contradicted each other, this constituted statutory perjury, a criminal offence and the grounds for a second charge against Jock.
The court proceedings were interesting, involving three of us in the early stages of our sentences. Dave Evans, Allan Brooks and I were asked by Jock’s lawyers to give evidence on his behalf. It was exciting to go to Durban in November 1965 under guard in a military transport aircraft. We did not see much of the sea, only a tiny glimpse out of a porthole as the plane circled to land. George Bizos, as I have noted, said that South Africa was not a fully fascist state and that is true. I was writing University of South Africa examinations at the time and my court appearances took account of when I had to sit an exam. I was allowed to take my study materials with me to Durban in order to prepare for the exams.
We were treated very respectfully by the prison authorities and by criminal prisoners in Durban Central Prison. The former ensured that we had very good meals and the latter supplied us with as much illicit tobacco as we needed. I ate my lunch in the Commanding Officer’s office between morning and afternoon sessions in the witness box. “Do have another piece of fried fish,” served with a slice of lemon, he insisted. “Do have a glass of iced milk.” I am quite sure he did not want me to tell the court about conditions in his prison. In the end I gave evidence and so did Dave. I know that everything I said in evidence about the prisons I had been in with Jock was not only true, I know too that I understated the reality. This was especially so about the way that prisoners, and especially black prisoners, were treated. The barbarity and indifference to the humanity of prisoners was beyond anything that you could believe. Jock’s lawyers were pleased with my evidence. They felt I had scored well for Jock. They were also very pleased with Dave’s evidence.
In the course of my evidence I recalled how brave Jock and his wife had been in the 1960 protest over the Sharpeville massacre. They had stood in the way of armed police who were threatening to shoot black protesters marching from the Berea to the Durban city centre. I must admit it was my intention that, when I gave evidence in a courtroom in which there were many comrades, they would see that four life sentences had not intimidated me. The prosecutor, inevitably, spotted this and asserted that I would say anything to discredit the government. I answered to the effect that the truth was enough.
The prison authorities presented around 200 prison officers to give evidence. Jock, for example, had said that despite the prison regulations requiring that a doctor examine every new prisoner they did not do so, but simply walked past them as they stood lined up, often naked, in the open air. The doctor would run a stethoscope over the chest of one or two prisoners and that was it. The three district surgeons concerned said that was indeed what happened. But prison officials said that every prisoner was properly examined by the same doctors. The Commanding Officer said he personally observed the procedure every day, looking out of his office window while sitting at his desk. An inspection at the prison showed that he could not see the hospital yard from his desk and only by a tricky manoeuvre could he do so if he went to a particular window. In his judgment the magistrate said the doctors must have been mistaken.
One prisoner with us gave evidence against Jock. Raymond Thoms had been sentenced together with Marius Schoon to 12 years imprisonment for plotting to blow up the Hillbrow Police Station in Johannesburg. They had been lured into a trap by a provocateur who disappeared before the case against them was heard. He said that Jock had conspired in prison with Ben Turok to write misleading articles to expose the government to ridicule. I believe he was promised early release if he gave such evidence.
Before the judgment was delivered, Raymond wrote a note which he slipped into the cell I was sharing with Dave Evans and Allan Brooks after we had returned from Durban. His note said he had betrayed Jock. He said he had “reached the nadir of degradation and despair” and wanted us to inform Jock’s lawyers that he had lied to the court. Allan insisted that the note was important and made a copy of it. I hid the original away. Thoms overnight switched sides yet again and told the authorities what he had done. I have never been through a search such as the one each of us and our possessions were subjected to as a result. The copy of the note was found, but not the original. Our comrades wanted all the details of what was happening and why. Ivan Schermbrucker said that all of us had experienced torture and knew how hard it was not to reveal what we knew to the interrogators. Therefore those who were demanding information should show some trust and not blame comrades for the actions of the authorities. I was kept in solitary confinement and I thought back to Miss Cook: Why was I the one to be singled out?
A message was sent to the lawyers and they came to see Dave, Allan and me. I had prepared for their visit by removing the note from its very secret place to somewhere more accessible but nevertheless went to see the lawyers without the note. I said that it would be taken from me and destroyed. They said the authorities would not dare to do that once they, the lawyers, knew of its existence. They were more trusting than I was. I was taken back to my cell to fetch the note hoping I would be able to retrieve it unobserved. No such luck. I did hand it to the lawyers and they were delighted, thinking it would really help Jock. But the magistrate said he had not relied on Thoms’ evidence at all and dismissed the evidence - and the note. He also dismissed my evidence because he said I was a “gay desperado” who would say anything to discredit the government.
Dave’s evidence was completely trustworthy he said, but he would not accept it because Dave too was a political prisoner opposed to the government. On the other hand he said that every official told the truth and when they contradicted themselves and each other it was because so much was happening that their memory lapses could be overlooked. I know that they lied their heads off.
Jock was sentenced to another four years in prison and was brought back to join us. He was a truly brave man. Despite his being sentenced on technical grounds his actions did usher in the beginning of a new era throughout all prisons. My Dad was very disturbed by the Strachan articles and was given special permission to visit me to find out the truth about our conditions. My comrades were truly impressed with my Dad’s spirit. “Old Sam is still fighting,” they said.
Thomas was not given any time off for his betrayal. He was so frustrated that he bundled matches together, lit them and stuck the flaming ends into his eyes – hoping, I suppose, that being partly blinded would bring some compassion from the prison authorities. It did not. He served every day of his sentence. In time Raymond regained some sight. Not many months after his release from prison he successfully took his own life.
Memories of Bram Fisher
Bram Fischer was a lawyer highly regarded in mining and business circles, and is also still regarded as one of the greatest liberation lawyers. He was born into an elite Afrikaner family in 1908. I met him in the early 1960s when I was in Johannesburg on an advanced highways design course. His elder daughter Ruth invited me home for Sunday lunch, where I met Bram in a setting of informal pre-lunch chit-chat. It was clear that people simply dropped in, not needing an invitation to visit. Conversation flowed all round the political topics of the time. National and international affairs were intermingled; personalities and gossip seemed to mix frothily over the surface of Sunday at leisure. My own engineering work seemed of interest, but I think out of politeness to a visitor. Bram was clearly the centre of it all, with his wife Mollie being a little off-centre as she wandered in and out making sure that the entertainment and lunch flowed as smoothly as the conversation. There could be no mistaking the deference with which Bram’s remarks were received and his unassuming manner was striking. He seemed to twinkle!
The next time we met was at the first legal consultation after we of the Rivonia trial had been charged in October 1963. Bram was leader of our defence team. He was very quiet and still during that first meeting which, I discovered, was his usual manner. He must have been very worried about us all. But there was more to it than that. He was himself directly involved in our underground activities and, though he didn’t let on at all, he must have been deeply concerned that some of the witnesses arrested at Rivonia might have been in a position to have seen him and so identify him.
Throughout the trial Bram’s manner was striking for his seriousness and determination. He had the ability to concentrate fiercely even in the bleak office set aside in the prison for consultations. That room was surely wired for sound, bugged. His very fair skin seemed thin; one could see the blood close beneath the skin. Sometimes his face would be suffused with a pink blush, when he was annoyed. But when he was angered, or forced to be silent, Bram’s face would be drained of blood, his lips squeezed in a tight bloodless line. His blue eyes would flash until he hid them behind partly closed lids, or he would tip his head down to hide his feelings. Throughout the time I knew him - then, and later for nine long years in prison - he always hid his emotions, until you understood the stillness as the expression of the depth of his feelings.
He used language beautifully and precisely in both English and Afrikaans. During our trial he hardly ever swore. On one occasion we were chatting together while the other lawyers and my co-accused were busy. He asked me how I felt about our situation. I told him how I saw the politics of the situation. I was convinced that apartheid, for all its seeming strength, was living on borrowed time. He heard me out, and responded with: “We’ll get the bastards yet, won’t we?” The rarity of the curse made it a powerful expression of determination. In retrospect, I realised that he had been asking me how I felt about our position in the trial because such a strong case had been made against us. But that seemed to me in some way irrelevant. Our future was more bound up in the politics of South Africa than in some isolated concept of law and justice or injustice.
Bram throughout the trial generated energy and ideas as he fought to save our lives. He was meticulous in his preparations and once told me that a basic guideline in cross-examination was not to ask a hostile witness a question to which you did not know the answer, because the answer could be turned against you.
The defence strategy was to show that even though there had been much discussion about Operation Mayibuye (the name means Operation Come Back, as in Mayibuye i’Afrika, Come back Africa) no date had been set for starting guerrilla warfare. In that sense, even the investigations we had made into making weapons, landmines, grenades, detonators, were all part of a thorough, responsible study made by serious people. In fact, as described earlier, there was a dispute about whether Operation Mayibuye had been adopted or not but despite that Joe Slovo had already left the country to make arrangements for international support, for weapons supply and military training facilities.
Bram the activist showed enormous courage by appearing in court in the Rivonia trial. He avoided appearing in court during the first few days of the trial when the farm labourers were called to give evidence. But Patrick Mthembu and Hlaphane, both members of the SACP and of Umkhonto we Sizwe, knew Bram in both capacities and could have betrayed him, but did not. It was striking that state witnesses would acknowledge their membership of the ANC and of MK, but conceal their membership of the Communist Party. I am not sure why. We thought it might be that they wanted to avoid provoking the security police who hated communists as the cause of all their problems. Therefore when comrades were broken under torture they retained some sense of self-preservation and covered that association by telling the details of their other activities
Bram used to arrive at Rivonia looking very dapper in his suit and well-shaped hat, with his briefcase under his arm. I am not sure what Bram thought about the adoption of Operation Mayibuye. He did not say to me during our many discussions in prison that he thought it adventurous or foolhardy. The revolutionary overthrow of brutal regimes was central to many of the discussions in prison, but on Operation Mayibuye I cannot recall him saying yea or nay. But then he always had the ability to let one believe whatever one wished to believe, without agreeing or disagreeing. He often listened and said nothing, making non-committal remarks, while he thought through what you were saying to him, or simply not letting on that he had already made up his mind, and was keeping quiet about it. In part it was his way of resolving differences of opinion between comrades, and in part it seemed to be a conscious style of not actively disagreeing with one, because disagreement might be offensive. Sometimes that led to difficulties in prison. His prestige was such that two comrades with directly opposite views would state that Bram had agreed with each of them. Knowing him, it was possible to work out that he had not expressed agreement with either. He had simply not disagreed with either of them. Disconcerting!
I experienced such a complication with Bram. Jack Tarshish was a very brave comrade who had a progressive neurological condition called narcolepsis-cataplexis. He would drop off to sleep at the oddest of times. While eating a meal he sometimes ended up with his face in his plate of food. Jack thought he could engineer a release on medical grounds and found ways of bringing on an attack. He would sometimes drag himself to a halt while walking around the exercise yard. His body would go slack and he would start quivering. Even his eyes would grow dull. The warders thought it a joke. But it was very difficult to tell if he was faking or not. After a few seconds, even a self-induced episode would become the real thing.
Taken to see Dr Davies, a physician, Jack told me that he had spoken about a medical release. Dr Davies told Jack that the prison authorities had instructed him that there would be no medical releases for political prisoners. Jack told Dr Davies he had to fight that ruling because otherwise Bram with a life sentence would never be released. When I remarked that Jack had been silly, I probably said stupid, to say that in front of the sergeant, Jack sneered about the stupidity of the official who would not know what was being said. When I insisted that it was an error because the authorities would be reinforced in their belief that he was faking his medical condition as a way of getting released, Jack said that Bram did not think so. Of course I asked Bram about his response. He said that whatever damage had been done was already done, so there was no point in making an issue of it! But I insisted that Bram ought to make his position clear. He looked at me and said quite gently and sweetly that he was too old to change the habit of a lifetime.
Bram loved music, but like most of the older generation he could not stand music playing loudly when he was working: thinking, reading, or writing. Classical music he loved. Formal jazz, for example Dave Brubeck, he thought was good. He liked the complexity of the music and its rhythms. It was also planned and coherent like a symphony; written down, meaning that it had been carefully composed. Jam sessions and therefore, by definition, spontaneous music-making he thought was self-indulgent and lacking in meaning because it was not composed. Of course it was; it was instantaneous composition of variations on a theme leading to totally new musical expression. Beethoven’s variations on a theme or Bartok’s variations for that matter were legitimate because they were pre-planned. But “serious” jazz, which would take a simple pop melody line as the basis for variations of increasing complexity, and a variety of moods, and expression he thought was fine. I know he found rock music cacophonous.
I agreed with him about that, but I found that some rock music had a complexity that made repeated hearing a pleasure because there was always something new in it, unlike most pop music which did not stand up to repeated hearing. The Beatles and the Stones were fabulous for their interesting lyrics and the way in which the melody matched the meaning of the songs. The Stones in particular had a large range of sounds and moods which far transcended the “noise” of some other groups who seemed to adopt the same energy levels and sounds but somehow did not match them for sustained development.
Bram loved African rhythms and drum music, but found jazz drumming decadent, probably because it was American and therefore suspect. But also, I think it was because the limited tonal range of African percussion music seemed to be designed to provide rhythms for dance - and especially ritual dance - and therefore had an internal consistency. In similar fashion Bram thought the scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald was meaningless childish noise because it was singing that did not use words to give meaning. But the making of voice music by operatic singers who sing sounds, which though they start from the lyrics, was often voice music divorced from any words, was superb, he said. It was easy to agree about the latter, and just as easy to argue heatedly about the former.
Bram never stopped thinking politics. We saw a report somewhere of a Soviet Kirov-Class cruiser and its escort vessels sailing through the Malacca Straits under the noses of the assembled Heads of Commonwealth Governments meeting in Singapore. The news item reported a frisson of disquiet. The Soviet Admiral Gorshakov’s blue water fleet was too much for them. Within a matter of days Bram had the outline of a strategy, which would change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean, and therefore the possibilities of liberation for countries on the eastern seaboard of the whole African continent. First one fellow prisoner and then Fred Carneson memorised the final version so that when they were released Bram’s strategy was passed on through the SACP to colleagues in the Soviet Union. Bram’s vision was truly international and comprehensive.
As with attitudes and opinions, Bram seldom allowed himself to show physical or emotional pain. He suppressed physical pain so that he could play sports. Early on, shortly after he was sentenced, we were playing “bucket ball,” a primitive kind of basketball. It was played with a tennis ball that had to be thrown into a bucket balanced on a stool balanced on a small table. This supposedly non-contact sport was intensely physical. David Evans once flipped out his arm to send me crashing into a brick wall. The impact seemed to put my own elbow through my ribs! Hugh dribbled the ball round Bram in fine style, only to be harried by him. Hugh tucked the ball under his arm like a rugby player and gave Bram a rough hand-off. Undeterred, Bram reverted to his provincial rugby playing days of 40 years earlier. He grabbed Hugh’s outstretched hand, swung his feet up under Hugh’s armpit and with a superb manoeuvre judo-threw him to the ground. Bram rolled out over his shoulder to stand up. Hugh got up much more slowly as he struggled to get back his breath.
Comrade Bram had a twinkling sense of fun too. Christmas parties were his specialty. The first time we made our own meal from saved-up tins of spaghetti and meatballs, green peas, canned peaches with ideal milk, and the like, his contribution to the fun was to read with great enjoyment the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland! He had us in fits of laughter.
In 1974 Bram was frequently ill. He needed a cataract operation. His hip became more uncomfortably sore with what he thought was arthritis, his digestion was bad and he was beginning to look gaunt and frail. Marius Schoon pressed on me the need for us to urge Bram to insist that the prison doctor refer him to the necessary specialists to find the causes of his various ailments. Together we spoke to Bram, with Marius explaining our concern. Bram, as usual, denied the need for such bold measures. His health was not bad, he said. I am sure what disconcerted him the most was that we had seen through his attempts to conceal his bouts of ill health. Finally Bram agreed to do it. I kept a diary of Bram Fischer’s medical treatment because it seemed to me that he was not being properly treated and I wanted a factual contemporary record on which to base a complaint to the authorities. If there were no response I hoped that I would be able to get to people outside the prison to use it as ammunition against the callous attitude of the prisons department.
Bram Fischer – diary of medical treatment 1974-1975
A facsimile with tiny script was smuggled out and has been copied from it. In various places the text has been completed to make it more understandable.
What follows about A[bram] F[ischer]’s medical treatment has to be used with great care. (1) Ostensibly there could not be access to his medical file, 2) because there might be simple (!?) medical reasons for what happened – but I doubt it.
12(?) May ’74 AF to hospital after ulcer haemorrhaged some days in hospital then in Central Prison hospital for a few days. No op, but transfusion etc.
July ’74 Request and with Doctor’s recommendation AF has prostatectomy. Surgeon did a section in theatre. Report in file says that it was negative for cancer but showed all signs of being cancerous & therefore sent gland to path lab for thorough histology & path lab report to be sent to prison. This report apparently not on file. Was path lab work done? Was it reported? Was report sent to the prison? Did prison Dr press path lab for report? … for histology to be done? Did surgeon or specialist see the histology & surgeon’s reports? I added before sending out the notes: In January of 1975 it was established that prostate was the site of primary cancer, i.e. it was missed in July possibly through histology not being done, or done and not reported. i.e. 6 months of delay in treating for cancer of prostate …
Early Sept 74 saw Dr Brandt – pain in hip acute. AF not examined. Pills to relieve arthritic pain. … relief – but did aggravate ulcer. Then given physiotherapy. After +/- 2 weeks physio says treatment not helping. Refers him to Dr and suggests need for X ray and orthopod. (This to D[enis] T[eodore] G[oldberg]) don’t know what was in his report. But AF not called to see Dr and nothing done. During this period AF asked for a crutch. None available, it was said. We found AF a broom of right length to use as crutch. Then, only then, were proper crutches obtained. AF not sent for X-rays. During Oct Dr Groenewald was in attendance. Sends AF for X-rays. No follow up for 2-3 weeks (I’d say). 5 or 6 days before fall orthopod sees AF at prison at a very rushed consultation. Orders X-rays to be taken (ie not given plates until AF tells him they’re available. Had made a tape recording of diagnosis before seeing X-ray plates. Don’t know if he’d read through file or not.
Tues 5 Nov 74 AF sees Dr Groenewald to hear specialist’s opinion. Warned of danger of falling – neck of femur very fragile. Talk of replacing head of femur.
Wed 6 Nov AF falls while struggling into shower on crutches.
7 Nov AF asked orderly to get Dr because feared fracture. Orderly says imposs .to get Dr and in his opinion not fractured.
9 Nov Dr Brandt says no fracture. Great pain Tues 12 & Wed 13
Fri 15 Nov AF sees Dr Brandt → X-Rays & done immediately. Radiographer says fracture and sends AF back in wheel chair.
Sat 16 Nov Specialist says fracture and will try to get hosp. bed.
Tues 19 Nov AF to HF Verwoerd Hosp … ….
Wed 4 Dec AF brought back. We find him alone in wheelchair in dining-room at 1 pm. AF confused and unable to speak. By mid-afternoon high temp. Unable to help himself. DTG proposes to CO that he spends the night with AF in cell. This agreed after heavy argument.
(At first said I could put him to bed only) … all night. Not able to turn him. DG had to pick him up to put him on toilet. Great pain. Not seen by a Dr.
Thur 5 Dec Temp lower in morning. Unable to do simplest things. Still not able to speak. DTG again in cell that night. Wakes up to find AF struggling to lavatory. AF falls and DTG catches him (literally) in mid-air. Not seen by DR though DTG asked CO to get DR.
Fri 6 Dec +/- 10AM, AF to hospital Heard that cancer of hip found when femur was pinned. Cobalt therapy started.
Acute and constant pain in hip started early in September. (Had arthritic pain there for years, but never so acute or constant). But no X-rays taken until well into October, and then not followed up for some weeks after physiotherapist had urged referral to surgeon. Why was this not done at once why were X rays not taken immediately? Point here is the unnecessary delays which may have been fatal. Esp., as lack of care & increasing debility led to fall & fracture of cancerous femur (& presumably spread of secondaries) Further, it is known that cancer of prostate typically produces bone cancer(s) as secondaries. The extreme weakening of neck of femur in a relatively young man – on 5 Nov could (?should) have alerted GPs (Brandt/Groenewald) specialists, radiographers to possibility of bone cancer & link with prostate cancer, especially IF they had been aware of July report from surgeon & path/histology report if it was done/exists. Were the prison Drs (Brandt/Groenewald) aware of the July report(s)? Was specialist told? Did specialist see X-rays of fracture? Why was possibility of bone cancer missed – even before fracture? It is known that hormone treatment of prostate cancer can induce re
Health care in prison
Bram Fischer’s fate was the result of systematic negligence in the prison medical service. Other prisoners and I experienced the same treatment for a variety of reasons. Dave Evans and I both had diarrhoea that just went on and on and we could not get treatment. Sergeant du Preez, in charge of the section we convicted politicals were in, would not give us enough toilet paper. He enjoyed trying to humiliate us by doling out a few sheets to each prisoner each day. The fact that his storeroom was stacked with cartons of toilet paper and other toiletry articles was of no significance to him. He loved his power over us.
I asked to see the doctor and asked him to prescribe toilet paper for diarrhoea. The doctor angrily demanded to know how I dared to waste his time asking for toilet paper. I said that as I had diarrhoea and as I could not get enough toilet paper, which was a question of hygiene and as doctors deal with hygiene, he should prescribe toilet paper. The whole point of this was to drop the sergeant in it. The doctor responded that I would get toilet paper from the sergeant. Carrying through the principle that superiors do not like to be made responsible for the foolishness of their inferiors in rank, I explained that the sergeant refused to give it to me, which was why I was speaking to the doctor. The doctor, playing the disciplinarian role, threatened, “I’m going to take you to the commanding officer.” I said: “Please take me to the Commanding Officer, then I will get toilet paper.”
At that point sergeant du Preez, recognising that he might be in danger, said that he would make sure that I got toilet paper. Then I asked the doctor for treatment for the diarrhoea. He said that I had diarrhoea because I ate too much.
At that time we were hungry. Every day and after every meal, we were hungry. I angrily demanded to know if the doctor knew what the prison rations were. He said he did not know. I replied: “Then don’t say I eat too much. I’m ill.” He ordered me to be put under observation. I was put into an isolation cell. There was nothing in it except for my floor mats and blankets. Officially I was put under observation as a start to medical treatment. I was a prisoner; therefore I must be a liar who complained to the doctor about toilet paper. Under observation I would eat nothing other than the rations. (There was nothing else to eat anyway.) Nobody else was allowed to see me except the warder. And I was told that every time I passed a motion I was to call a medical orderly. There was no bell; there was no way of calling the medical orderly except by yelling at the top of my voice. In the guise of medical correctness the doctor had put me into solitary confinement.
The medical orderly was looking after hundreds of prisoners. He was supposed to take my temperature three or four times a day. He was supposed to examine every stool I passed. He was not interested and seldom came to see me. We used to say about the medical orderly who came to dispense medications: “Run, run, as quick as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the medicine man,” playing on the nursery rhyme about the gingerbread man. Doctors would prescribe pills three times a day. The medical orderly would give you them twice a day. It did not matter to the orderly. He was giving you tablets. He couldn’t be bothered to come three times a day because that did not fit the schedule. We were locked up so early that there was not enough time to give the third dose during just the day shift. The orderlies never told the doctors that there was a problem. They did what they liked. If you were busy with the prison commanding officer, or at a visit, for example, when the medical orderly came, you did without your treatment. Their attitude was: “Who cares?” The official reports would say the prisoners had been seen and treated by the doctors, and that was sufficient. I cannot begin to imagine what happened to black criminal prisoners but it must have been terrible. White criminal prisoners at Pretoria Central prison were treated with even more indifference than we were.
Some of the orderlies were hopped up to the eyes. They were taking drugs. You could see it in their eyes with the pupils dilated to different diameters. Such people were responsible for the medical records for each patient. There was no doctor responsible for that. What that could lead to was shown in the case of Bram Fischer.
During this time my Dad was writing to the Commissioner of Prisons, demanding that I should get proper medical treatment. He told me that he had quoted large sections from a medical encyclopaedia about the symptoms I had told him about, and demanded treatment for me.
Inside the prison Dave and I were both demanding that the Commanding Officer get us a specialist since the prison doctor was refusing to treat us. He told us that he could not give the doctor orders. On at least one occasion I told him that he would have to be responsible for Dave’s and my health. After some weeks a specialist came to see us. I am convinced that it was Dad’s work from outside that brought the results.
Doctor Bremer seemed pleased that I recognised his name and confirmed that he was the son of a former Nationalist Party Minister of Health. The father had introduced a vitamin fortified whole wheat bread at subsidised prices known as “Bremer bread”. Dr Bremer was such a nice man. He was courteous and correct. He behaved as a professional should. In prison, when someone did what was normal it was so striking that you say, “What a nice man.” He took a medical history from me, and he examined me thoroughly with instruments he had brought with him. He told me that I was indeed very ill. I nearly wept, not because I was ill but because at last here was a medical practitioner who believed what I was telling him. He was very quietly competent. He told me that it would take time but “we will have you back on your feet”. This was a real mess because it took about three months or more from the time Dave and I became ill to our full recovery.
You could get headache tablets when you needed them. Headaches were rife. Medication for heartburn was never thought of as being necessary and I resorted to buying magnesia toothpaste which did something towards dealing with acidity. Sometimes I felt that when I broke wind the toothpaste caused me to blow bubbles. Eyesight deteriorated very rapidly and most of us who wore glasses needed to change them more often than I have ever done outside. There is a lot of stress if you are to retain your integrity and dignity. Many male prisoners suffer from urinary and genital problems. Prostates seem to respond badly to idleness. Bladder infections, or other urinary problems, are common and some have kidneys that play up. After a few months these things afflict even young men in their 20s and 30s. Jeremy Cronin, for example, had pains in his kidneys. They were taken seriously and all the tests were done. He was told that they could find nothing medically wrong. David Rabkin had pains which seemed to be the pains I had heard about from people who had kidney stones. I have heard that passing a kidney stone is very painful indeed. He had been in prison about three months when he staggered into my cell and he said he felt so ill. The pain would afflict him from time to time. He would go pale under his sallow skin and look drawn and sweaty. He got some pain relieving tablets and the pain disappeared until there were further recurrences. I suppose that stress has something to do with this kind of pain.
Medical treatment in prison was not only bad and superficial. What irritated me was the way in which private medicine and public medicine overlapped. Private practitioners working as government officers, district surgeons and prison doctors, would refer us to specialists or surgeons, and they would then be asked to assist at operations and get a fee for it. All the evils of private medicine crept in. The distortions of private practice were quite starkly revealed in dental care. The prison dentist when we were first imprisoned was really terrible and the equipment in the dentists' room in Central Prison was out of date and dilapidated. It was arranged that we were taken under armed guard to an outside dental practice. They weren’t bad dentists in my opinion. At least they set out to save teeth, not to pull them.
The dental surgery at Central Prison was modernised and re-equipped and a new prison dentist was appointed. He would find every reason for pulling teeth: either the gum was receding or food has got under the tooth, or there were too many holes or the tooth had been repaired too many times, and so on. I heard him on several occasions behaving with the rudeness that only a prison warder could show to a prisoner. There he was, a professional dentist, behaving in an utterly unprofessional manner. Eventually that dentist was extracted from that situation. The Department of Health had determined that he was extracting a higher number of teeth than was expected. He earned more by pulling teeth than by filling them. The method of payment determined his practice: he pulled out teeth. I had almost no top and bottom back teeth left. Others had similar experiences. Generally you trust professionals. You couldn’t in prison.
,p>Doctor Brandt was with us for over eight years. It was unusual to have such continuity. When we brought the court action against the Minister of Prisons, the Commissioner and the C.O. for newspapers and news, we had said in papers placed before the court that to be cut off from the world was psychologically damaging. Dr Brandt said in his written statement that in all his years of visiting the prison he had seen no signs of psychological deviation in us. Other than refusing to say anything at all, he could not have said less than he did. Our response was quite simple: we had not alleged psychological deviation. We had said that cutting us off from the world of our families and friends could only do psychological damage in the long term. Furthermore, the doctor did not state his qualifications nor did he state what observations he had made. And therefore the statement should be dismissed. I think that was his intention.
Some time later when I went to see him about some problem or other he was obviously quite apprehensive as to what I would say about his affidavit. I said nothing, because he had been under pressure and he had done no damage. It seemed to us that he had gone out of his way not to harm us. He could have cooked up something if he was totally hostile to us and so I made no reference to his statement to the court and, after all, it seemed quite nice to have somebody say that after all those years in prison we were not bonkers! Sometimes I said to him that I did not want to see a specialist. I simply wanted him to treat me because I did not want to wait weeks for treatment for a bad cold, for example. He said he believed that our little group should have the best treatment because of who we were. That seemed to explain why he often called in a specialist.
Perhaps his insistence was a reflection of what was happening in private medicine in South Africa. My understanding was that specialists paid referral fees, the polite term for kickbacks, for patients sent to them. At that time diagnostic procedures and surgery generally took place in the Eugene Marais Hospital, owned by a group of doctors and the surgeon would have shares in the hospital. Doctor Brandt assisted in the operation and was paid a fee for assisting. That was normal, wasn’t it? After all, somebody has to assist. He said he was studying to be a surgeon and that made it all legitimate. In the end you no longer knew whether you needed a specialist or an operation, or any treatment at all.
I often wondered to what extent the doctors allowed themselves to be controlled by the state security apparatus. On one occasion they brought in a specialist when I had asked for an eye test so that I could get new glasses. For a prescription for glasses they sent in a specialist: Very nice!
“You need glasses? What do you mean, you need glasses?” he asked. “Well, I’m getting headaches and my glasses need replacing.” “How old are you?” I told him. “Well, I can prescribe according to your age.” “Are you a doctor?” “Yes.” “Are you a specialist?” “Yes.”
“Then why don’t you behave like one.” “What do you mean?” he asked, though it sounded more like, “How dare you speak to me in this way!” But he had been pacing up and down quite nervously from the beginning of the consultation. He was a big florid-faced man and sweating. Since it was not a particularly hot day it struck me that he was uncomfortable about being there. He had probably been warned by one or other security apparatus not to talk to me and not to be friendly towards a political prisoner. “Why don’t you do an eye test?” I asked him. “There is no equipment here.” He was clearly very offended to have his professional standing put in question by a prisoner. To rub it in I said: “I will not take glasses from you without an examination and an eye test.” How could a doctor of some standing submit to the tiny bit of pressure put upon him? “Why don’t you ask the prison authorities to take me to your rooms at a date and time they decide?” I asked him to try to rescue the poor man from his own unprofessional conduct while at the same time telling the authorities that they could preserve their security. “Oh, is that possible?” he asked. “Why don’t you ask the medical orderly?”
They did take me to his rooms and he prescribed lenses - that were wrong. He re-examined me in his rooms and prescribed the right lenses. He then phoned the optician, who agreed, at his own expense, not the doctor’s expense, to make new lenses. I had a similar experience some years later at the H. F. Verwoerd Hospital , the state hospital which was the teaching hospital for the Pretoria University Medical School. They had apparently stopped using private doctors and hospitals.
I needed a prostate examination and the authorities turned the event into a military operation. I was taken in a convoy of three vehicles by a strange indirect route to the hospital. The police vehicles and the prison transporter with its windows covered with steel wire mesh were each connected to their radio communications centres. The prison officers were all armed except for the one to whom I was handcuffed and who rode in the back of the van with me. I was also in leg irons. On arrival at the hospital I was put into a wheelchair, covered with a blanket and wheeled in. There were no hospital medical people around. I was there undercover! The hospital had been surrounded by armed men in civilian clothes. They had a warder wearing jeans and T-shirt at each intersection of the hospital corridors. And they each had a walkie-talkie. I have to criticise them for not being inconspicuous. They stood out because it is unusual to see ordinary guys wearing jeans and T-shirt, with tackies – sneakers - on their feet but with a walkie-talkie in hand.
I was wheeled on a gurney to the theatre, always surrounded by armed guards. My leg irons were left on with one end clipped to my leg, and the other end to whatever bed I was on. In the theatre I was transferred from the trolley to the examination table and the leg irons were now clipped to both my ankles! They must have thought I was Superman who would leap up and away while under anaesthetic. Crazy! The Professor of Urology at Pretoria University Medical School was to examine me. I have forgotten his name and I think he deserves to be forgotten. He was young and had a reputation for being a brilliant doctor, but he did not have the guts to throw the squad of security people out of his operating theatre.
“You are going to take x-rays, aren’t you?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Then don’t you think you the leg irons should be taken off?” You are always asked to remove any metal object, false teeth, anything that can concentrate x-rays and do you harm. “Oh,” he said, “Why?” I explained what I meant.
“Well, I can’t tell you that we can take the leg irons off.” “Professor, I think you should stick to medicine and leave security to the prison officials. You have to be a doctor, not a security officer.” By then the catheter was in the back of my hand and I passed out under the anaesthetic. The gang of warders had come into the theatre presumably to watch the Urology Professor sticking something up my pee-pee. They loved it, those warders.
Even more striking was the conduct in the early 1980s of an orthopaedic specialist in the same hospital who examined me because when I walked a few times round our quite tiny exercise yard my right knee or my left ankle would swell up and be very painful. In an examination room, surrounded by uniformed armed warders, the Professor, without looking at me, asked the medical orderly: “Does the prisoner...?” this or that, or the other. So the major looked at me, and I look at him and said:
“Doctor, I can speak for myself. I am the patient, not the Major.” He ignored me and again asked the Major… “Professor, I am the patient, speak to me.”
“Oh,” he says - and he looked very afraid. He looked as though he was shitting himself. The security people must have spoken to him in their usual manner. At least he had a small bit of conflict between his professional stance and the pressures of “security” because the Major’s silence must have triggered something in the poor man’s brain. He asked, “Can I speak to the prisoner directly?” What sort of a doctor was this? After Steve Biko, a charismatic student leader of the Black Consciousness Movement who had asserted that to be free one had to have a proud self-awareness that one could be free, had been killed and two doctors signed false death certificates, the statutory Medical and Dental Council ordered that medical personnel were to deal with police medical problems and leave security to security personnel. However, they did not call upon the doctors to reject the intervention by security police in medical matters. They continued to instil anxiety and fear of their power in the doctors.
The professor now examined me professionally despite the armed men in the examination room and all around the hospital. I had the beginnings of arthritis in my knees and ankles. He prescribed treatment and said he wanted me to return after six weeks for a follow-up examination: and I knew that once he said that in my hearing, I would not be going back at that time. Some security man would think that I might arrange, through my imaginary communicator, for a whole MK unit to be there to rescue me!
After about eight weeks, without warning, I was taken to see the same professor. This time he was sitting behind a table with nothing in front of him. I could see there were no files, no records, nothing other than a few sheets of blank paper. Looking up at me through his glasses he asked quite brusquely, “Well, what is it?” I responded, “You told me to come back for a follow-up consultation. You are treating me.”
“Oh yes,” he said, “what was it about?” “You don’t have my folder?” “No.”
“How can you treat me without your case notes?” “I can,” he asserted.
“But you prescribed medication and you wanted me back so that you could assess the progress of the treatment. You don’t know who I am, or what the condition was, you don’t have the x-rays. What sort of doctor are you, professor?” I was being as rude and contemptuous as I could be. He cowered. “Mr. Van der Merwe …”
“My name’s not Van der Merwe! My name’s Goldberg.” “Oh, but your file is in that name.” “How dare you, a medical professional, treat me under a false name!” “Now tell me your complaint and we will treat you.”
“No, you’re not going to treat me, not until you have the files. And my name is Goldberg and you will treat me under that name.” He could not get the file “because it is kept in a safe in the Medical Superintendent’s office, and the Medical Superintendent is away”. The secrecy - they would say security - surrounding us was astonishing. They had given me the name of one of the warders rand in any case Van der Merwe among white Afrikaners is like Jones in Wales or Cohen in New York! By this time I was really fuming. “If I’m brought in here in a state of collapse and can’t talk to you, how do you know that I am allergic to penicillin. How do you know? Or that it could be fatal?
You don’t know where my file is! You don’t know under what name it is! How dare you behave like this?” He looked quite shrunken.
The warders guarding me were present, of course. The Major was also present. I was too angry to care if they were annoyed, but they did not interfere. I think that because I had been in prison so long I had become a kind of institution and they knew I would complain in every way possible if they tried to block me from doing what I knew to be just.
I calmed myself and said quite simply: “I don’t think you behave like a professional and I think it’s disgusting. I’m not going to allow you to treat me.” In situations like this one, I was never sure whether to go for the jugular of formal complaint or at the last moment to back off. Having angrily, justifiably angrily, accused the man of cowardice and unprofessional behaviour, there was the hope that he might acquire the guts to resist the pressures of the security establishment.
Major Buys apologised to the professor. A professor is after all a professor to a prison major. He was very sorry about the incident. It would not happen again. He said they would bring the prisoner back when the Medical Superintendent would be there. Later, in the prison, Major Buys came as near to apologising to me as he could. He assured me that I would be known at the hospital under my own name. And indeed when I was taken back to the hospital my name was written large on my file, with the warning about my penicillin allergy. The professor treated me well and with courtesy.
It still amazes me that professional people at the highest level of society, people highly respected in the society, can be so overawed and intimidated, to the point where they stop behaving like professionals. That a Professor of Orthopaedics at one of the great Afrikaner nationalist universities behaved in this way was saddening, especially when his status in that society would have protected him from the security establishment. I could find out his name, but it doesn’t matter to me. He was just another terrified little shit, who would say he was a democrat who did not believe in terrorising people.
Bram Fischer was the most tragic victim of this disregard for human life in the prison “Health Care” system. There was no medical coordination by a medical doctor. Doctor Mueller of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was adamant that any reasonably competent doctor looking at the reports of blood tests in Bram’s file should have identified that there was something wrong, and that Bram probably had cancer. But nobody bothered to read the blood tests. Nobody bothered to check. It could have been treated months before it was. Dr Mueller told the Minister of Prisons, Jimmy Kruger, infamous for his remark in Parliament that Steve Biko’s death “left him cold,” that his doctors should have spotted Bram’s illness long before it was diagnosed. He was insistent to the point where the minister forbade the ICRC from bringing him to South Africa again. I admire that kind of courage.
Jack Tarshish’s illness showed another aspect of the prison medical services. Besides his long-term chronic nerve condition he developed a narrowing of a heart valve that was diagnosed by the ICRC doctor. A local specialist was called in and insisted that Jack have open heart surgery immediately to rectify this problem. Clearly they would not want to face public and international criticism if they did not provide the available treatment and he died. The operation was done and Jack was brought back to our prison after a few days in the prison hospital. He had to tend the wound himself. When I asked to look at the wound in his chest it was clear that something was wrong because where each wire holding his breastbone together came through the skin there was an infection. After many protests Jack did get proper care for that and the wound healed well. But slowly he seemed to be blowing up like a balloon as fluid accumulated in his lower legs, then his thighs and then his abdomen. The skin on his tummy seemed to be stretched tight and shiny. I knew that oedema is a sign of heart failure and that as the fluids accumulate the strain on the heart increases in a vicious circle. Jack would not try to see a doctor because he said they were trying to kill him. Eventually I took matters into my own hands because it seemed to me that, so near the end of Jack’s 12-year sentence, they would not have done the open heart surgery if they wanted him to die. There was so much pressure on the regime that the opposite was probably true: they needed him to survive so that they could point to the complete care they gave to political prisoners. I went to see the Commanding Officer and arranged that Jack’s specialist would be called and I would see him first, ostensibly about my own health. I compiled a list of Jack’s symptoms and passed them on to the specialist, Dr Davies. In the course of the consultation about Jack I remarked that the balance of medications for his narcolepsis-cataplexis was not right. Jack was falling asleep at strange times. He sometimes fell asleep face down into a plate of food at lunch time. Dr Davies flared up. He told me that the doctors at Weskoppies mental hospital, who had observed and treated Jack, had caused the heart valve condition by giving him excessive doses of medications that had that side effect. What to do? Would Dr Davies really be an expert witness to that? I doubted it and it seemed more important to save Jack’s life. Jack was called to the doctor and whipped off very quickly to hospital where seven litres of fluid were drained from his abdomen and legs. His health improved rapidly thereafter.
Jack was always one to work every angle he could. He insisted that his health required culturally specific food so that he would be released in good shape. Suddenly it was important to Jack to eat kosher food. It was agreed that he could, at his own expense, order kosher salami and chicken fat and matzos and fresh tomatoes and fresh fruit. I was asked to ensure that he ate properly. I made his breakfast every day and the mess smelled wonderfully of garlic salami and fried eggs and fried tomato, or matzos fried up in scrambled egg with salami. Yummy.
I think everyone, my comrades included, expected me to tuck in too and I must say it was very tempting. However, I did not indulge, despite Jack’s insistence. I was taking a longer view that when specific favours were granted for medical reasons one should preserve the future possibility for others. Secondly, it seemed unfair for me to not share the goodies with our fellow prisoners. Then there was the fact that, though our prison food was not great, it had improved markedly over the years and with our privilege of buying a few Rands worth of goodies each month, there was no desperate need to eat Jack’s salami. Had I been really hungry my attitude may have been different and then I would have seen to it that we all shared in a little of the titbits that good fortune had brought us. I confess my mouth waters even now as I write about this minor dilemma. It did have an effect on Jack for he really did respond to the food he was eating. A year or two after he was released. and having gone into exile in London, he died from what was publicly stated to be a massive heart attack. Esmé told me that he actually committed suicide because of the clicking of his artificial heart valve that disturbed him even when he was still in prison, and the paranoia that seemed to accompany his nervous condition over many years, which finally brought him to the end of his tether.
Happily, the nature of health care inside did show signs of longer-term improvement, signalled by the appointment of a fully-trained nurse, Major Buys, and coinciding with the campaigning by activist doctors in public life, which in turn coincided with the worldwide outcry over the death of Steve Bantu Biko and the continued caring surveillance by the ICRC. Major Buys was one of the very few people to come out of the Biko affair with any dignity. He realised that urgent medical care was needed and tried in vain to persuade the duty doctors to come out late at night to treat a prisoner. He was a competent and caring, fully qualified nurse. He changed the prison medical service in our prison complex from a farce to one that was quite good.