In June 1978 two new prisoners joined us in the Pretoria Security Prison. They had not long before completed their studies. Tim Jenkin, blonde, with glasses and very thin; Stephen Lee, brown hair, innocent face and more strongly built than his friend. They had both joined the illegal ANC while in Britain and then returned home. They were both sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegal activities.
I was astonished when Tim told me shortly after joining us that he wanted to escape. I had already one attempted escape behind me and during my stay in the old Pretoria Prison had often thought of escape. In 1964 and 1965 I had been the chairman of our escape committee. At that time we got no further than thinking about it. We believed that our fellow prisoner Raymond Thoms had betrayed us.
Tim and Stephen asked me to find a hiding place for the money they had smuggled into the prison. Both had “bottled” the money, as it is said in prison slang. They had inserted it, in aluminium cigar tubes, up their backsides. Even more surprising was their telling me that their parents had smuggled the money to them while they were in the police holding cells in Cape Town. That was a brave thing to do. I found a safe place for the money. After 15 years in prison I had experience of how to make such things disappear until they were needed again.
Tim was very cautious when he approached me. I think he feared that I might think they were setting a trap for me. I had no such thoughts. He was one of our ANC comrades and came from a well-established family. I have the greatest respect for them for their unwavering support they gave Tim. His father, a well-known anaesthetist, showed himself to be an outspokenly brave man. After the murder of Steve Biko in detention, he was one of the leading representatives of a newly formed group, The Medical Association, who initiated a debate on the ethics of the medical profession and sharply criticised the medical doctors who allowed Steve Biko to die and covered up for the security police by issuing a false death certificate. As a result the apartheid government, through the Medical and Dental Council, had to investigate the death of Biko.
For Tim it must have been a great moment to see his father sharing his son’s viewpoint. His mother and his brother, also a doctor, supported him too. Usually a white person who stood up against apartheid became an outsider in his family. Few were in the same comfortable position that I was in since my parents had been political activists against apartheid. My parents stood with me during the Rivonia trial and in all the years of my imprisonment while they were alive.
Tim must have known about me. I have not asked him why he trusted me because I had no doubt that he would have seen me as an old campaigner and of the Umkhonto We Sizwe High Command. He knew that I had been sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial. Who could Tim approach if not me? Nevertheless, he was cautious. He was the leader of the duo. Stephen was nice, friendly young man whom I liked very much but he left the talking to his friend.
Tim’s plan was quite far advanced before I decided I should take part in the escape itself, as against just helping an escape to take place. I needed to be sure of the details of the plan because I did not want to repeat the experience of being recaptured. It was an exciting project. As we began to think about the whole group daring to escape together, the project took on the form of “The Great Escape”. Our whole group took part in the discussions around the escape with Tim and Stephen and later with Alex, when he joined them. We thought we would leave only two prisoners behind.
One was John Matthews, whose 15-year sentence would end in 1979. He did not have too long to serve and at the age of 65 years, even though he kept himself fit, we thought he would not be fit enough for the undertaking. The second was Tony Holiday, aged 38, who had been sentenced to six years imprisonment in 1976 for building an underground political cell in Cape Town, and who would also stay behind. He had already completed over half of his sentence and was a relatively “small fish” who would be released in a few years. As with John, an unsuccessful escape could get him another sentence of up five years for the attempt. Given the time he had left to sit in prison that seemed a disproportionate risk. In any case, Tony wanted to finish his university studies in philosophy. Without the willing cooperation and support of all of us, the planning of this enterprise would have been unthinkable. At that time we were down to only ten of us politicals. Besides Tim, Stephen, Tony and me there was Alex Moumbaris of Greek origin, the “academics” David Rabkin, Jeremy Cronin and Raymond Suttner, and David Kitson and John Matthews from the “Little Rivonia” trial of 1964. Everyone was fully aware of what everyone else was doing. Everyone helped in their own way to hide things, to conceal things and to divert the warders from knowing what was happening.
As I was the Rivonia man, the lifer, it seemed to me that the authorities watched me more closely than the other prisoners. My escape would be a great success for the ANC, a real slap in the face for apartheid because it would be a worldwide story. However, it would also have mobilised the apartheid security establishment to the last man. Every one of our internal political structures would be thoroughly investigated. A new wave of arrests and infiltration by apartheid agents would be unleashed. My escape could not really take place without damage to our structures and more people being sacrificed. I had to think about these costs to our movement. Therefore I initiated contact with our comrades “outside”.
I asked them to provide an escape vehicle. We needed a van or a small truck for eight people because we thought there might be only ten minutes between the escape and the alarm being raised and by then we had to be clean out of the city. Establishing contact with the outside was a slow process. I had to write a letter using a special code, which could take up to three weeks while it went through the whole prison security system before ending up in the post. It would be recorded and studied in the prison. Then it went to the security section at prison headquarters, and then to the National Security apparatus. Thereafter it had to come back step by step through the whole system. When the letter was posted, the security police intercepted it in the sorting office to ensure that it had in fact been through the whole security process. Only then was it allowed to go on its way to my contact person in London.
Baruch Hirson was my contact. Now I can tell the story because he died some time ago. Baruch was sentenced in December 1964 to nine years for his involvement in the African Resistance Movement. Even though we came from different political tendencies - he was a Trotskyist in a Liberal movement - we established a good friendship. Shortly before his release in 1973 we created an “all purpose code.” He made the truly generous offer to be my contact person. Despite all the differences he had had with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, and despite the conflicts in South Africa between the Communist Party and the Trotskyites, Baruch offered me his help if it should be needed. He was, of course, also offering his help and loyalty to our movement. Now I needed the code and the communications route - and it worked.
Baruch had not spoken a word about all this before his death in 1999. He did not even mention it in his autobiography, in which he described our time in prison together. When I asked him for help in 1979 he had already been in London for some years and was naturally still a well-known Trotskyite with anything but a close relationship to my comrades. Now he made contact for me with our bases in Mozambique and with no less a person than Joe Slovo, a leading Communist, known in the South African media as the apartheid regime’s “most wanted” man. Baruch must have had to swallow a great deal of pride to make this contact and I honour him for doing it. When both Slovo and Hirson were politically active in Johannesburg over many years there were strong disagreements between them. All that had to be set aside in the face of my approach. Slovo too must have swallowed his pride to work with Hirson. I later asked Joe about this and he said that he worked with Baruch without reservation when he knew that I had sent the message.
Then there needed to be time while our ANC and MK comrades considered the matter. That was surely the longest stage of my letter’s journey back to me. Many would not have trusted Baruch the “Trot”. That too caused delays until Joe replied. We had made it! Well, the first step of establishing contact had been made. A date for the escape was then set and how an escape vehicle would be used was established. During the planning of the escape we reached an unbridgeable rift between Alex Moumbaris and the group we called the “Academics,” David Rabkin, Jeremy Cronin and Raymond Suttner. Alex had joined with Tim and Stephen. The son of Greek parents and the only non-South African in our group he was, in terms of apartheid propaganda, the classical communist who operated as the agent of foreign forces. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1973. The regime sent his pregnant wife to France, her homeland. The Academics, who all had advanced degrees and were great theoreticians, were shortly after the Soweto uprising of 1976 sentenced for underground Communist Party activity.
Alex wanted to reduce the size of the escape group to just three: himself, Tim and Stephen. The Academics felt that I had to be part of the escape party because they insisted that my escape would be important for our liberation movement. The plan as it had evolved needed a hiding place in a cupboard that was large enough for three people only. If I were to go, Alex would have to remain behind, or we would have to rethink the whole plan. Alex aggressively refused to remain behind or even to consider alternative plans.
Alex had strong personal reasons for wanting to escape. We all had them! But egoism shouldn’t be allowed to triumph in prison. Personal wishes and duties must be brought into agreement, even if not complete harmony. Tim could not stay behind because he was the leader of the attempt. Stephen was also there from the beginning. He was a friendly rather nice young man whom I liked very much. I therefore had no place in the team. For the success of an escape, absolute unity is necessary and it could not be achieved.
Throughout the preparations I had assumed the task of chatting to the night warder, Sergeant Vermeulen, for as long as possible during his rounds of the cells. That kept him from his boring task of staying awake all night when there was nothing to hold his attention. Just about every evening we would talk about his favourite rugby team, Northern Transvaal, the Blue Bulls. As a Capetonian who thought that only the Western Province team were worth watching, that bored me to tears and I had long ago lost interest in players I knew nothing about. Still I used this conversational duty to gradually extract answers to our questions about the security arrangements in and around the prison.
As a construction engineer I knew something about technical matters and, after a time, the warders would call on me when something was broken or not functioning properly. There were often short circuits in the prison electrical system that had been badly installed. Light bulbs would burn out and the safety switches would trip. Since lighting is an important security matter we would use these opportunities to call Vermeulen to attend to the lights or trip switches. I would keep him busy as long as I could to give Tim and Alex time to test Tim’s keys in one door after another over many months. Vermeulen would come to my cell every night for his chat.
I am an active type. Everybody in the prison was aware that I was there. Tim, on the other hand, could move silently through the prison as if he were not there. He sat so quietly in his cell that he was hardly noticed. He was so exact in his movements and so self-disciplined that he seldom bumped up against prison regulations even when he was breaking them! His calm and quiet manner was such a valuable asset for illegal activity. I am sure that he showed the same calm and quiet when he was setting off his “leaflet bombs” in Cape Town before his arrest. They were thick packets of leaflets which, with the help of a small explosive charge and a timed detonator, would fly into the air in a crowded place. The explosion drew attention to the leaflets that would spread quite widely among passers-by. The wide spread of the leaflets made it impossible for the police to gather them all up. Tim told me he would sometimes join the crowd to watch the effect of the explosion and to observe how well it spread the leaflets. He made modifications to the design based on these observations. A real cool one was our Tim!
If I wished to escape with the others I had to think of certain matters. If Tim, for example, were not standing at attention at his grill but still lying in bed like the cloth dummy when he did escape, the warders would not have any suspicion of something wrong. But if it were me who was not ready at attention, there would be immediate concern and they would have immediately entered my cell. If I had been apparently lying asleep in bed when Vermeulen came by for his chat, even he would have been suspicious.
If I had been walking in the prison neighbourhood in the evening as Tim, Stephen and Alex did when they escaped, I am sure that some prison official or policeman who had seen me would have recognised me immediately. After more than 15 years in that prison even the most junior official knew the notorious Rivonia-man by face and figure. Because of these thoughts and the refusal of Alex to accept my role, I had to think about whether my participation would strengthen or weaken the escape attempt. In Alex’s mind, but also Tim’s and Stephen’s, the breakout had become a three-man escape and not a clearing-out of the prison. In their minds they had separated themselves from the Academics and the rest of us.
I also had to think about the effects of another failed attempt on the conditions of my imprisonment. They would become much harsher and I wasn’t getting any fitter or stronger as the years rolled by. There was the possibility that the rest of my life would be spent in prison, though I thought it would not be much longer than five to ten years until we were released. In fact, as it happened, it was five-and-a-half years for me and just over ten years for Nelson Mandela.
I learned very early in life that leadership required that one accept responsibility for one’s companions. During my imprisonment I was always aware that I belonged to the High Command of our Liberation Army. I felt that I had to try to conduct myself as a commander. Now I saw myself as having responsibility for all those who would remain behind.
During our preparations, building activity began outside the prison. A new guard post was being built at the entrance. Tim, Stephen and Alex in particular found this unsettling. They thought that all their careful preparations and planning would come to nothing. They wanted to push ahead more quickly. Alex was the most affected by this.
Other changes also affected Vermeulen’s duties. After more than ten years of night duty he was transferred to the daytime shift. I persuaded him to get this reversed when he complained bitterly to me and wanted to resign from the prison service. That would have set back the escape quite considerably because we needed him to be on night duty. He was a single father with a 16-year-old daughter who needed his supervision when she came home from school in the afternoons because, he told me, she liked to “enjoy herself with young men”, instead of studying for her final school examinations. Vermeulen’s eyesight was also affected by his long-standing diabetes. He could no longer fill in forms and do the administrative work demanded of him on the day shift. He needed to get back onto night duty. I explained to him how he could do it by threatening to resign and take early pension. The prisons were extremely short-staffed and they would put him back on night duty rather than lose him. It worked and he was very grateful to me for my advice
Because of the changes to the building Tim, Stephen and Alex wanted me to write a letter to bring the date of the escape forward. I said we had to think about how long it would take for the slow communications to achieve this. It would have taken up to three months and that was about how much time we had left until our pre-arranged date. Alex attacked me for this, calling me a liar who wanted to defeat their escape plan. This was very hurtful.
The conflict between Alex and the Academics also intensified to the point where it could not be overcome. Tim kept out of such political disputes. He was interested in the technical matters and preferred to avoid confrontation. He preferred to get on with the job rather than wait until every detail of the political line had been worked out. I feel much the same way because, when you’ve worked it all out and have started to implement your policy, everything changes and you have to start the discussions all over again. My dialectical comrades fail to understand dialectics!
All these things made it clear that the team which Tim, Stephen and Alex had created could successfully escape. Since Alex was opposed and my presence would cause disunity in the team, there was finally no possibility of me joining the escape. One could not ignore Alex’s view that I would be a burden. I think his position came from personality conflicts rather than anything objective. I felt that I was too well-known and that I was not fit enough for any long walk to safety in a foreign country. During this time I had sometimes been taken out of the prison to see medical doctors or to an optician and noticed the difficulties I had outside. The noise was disturbing. Perhaps I would find it difficult to cross the busy street outside the prison. I could not handle money any more. I cannot say if this was fear or a sudden realisation of my physical weaknesses. In any case, none of this mattered to the three escapers who were now determined to escape as soon as possible and not wait for assistance from outside.
I discussed this with Dave Kitson who was sentenced in 1964 some months after the Rivonia trial as a member of the new Umkhonto High Command. He had a 20-year sentence and was 59 years old at this time. He too saw the problem of age and physical weakness. We concluded that we would no longer try to insist on escaping and would have to say “no”. It is difficult in prison to discuss problems fully because there is no possibility of a plenary session where everyone could fully express their opinions and finally reach a decision. Dave remained as the last of us on the escape committee. We thought that his advice could help the younger men. We thought that because Alex’s aggressive behaviour caused so much discord in our community Dave could be the go-between and calm things down. However, the three soon demanded to know if he would join the escape or not and he had to say he would not. With that there was no longer an escape committee. Tim, Stephen and Alex acted alone from then on, though our support never wavered.
We still had a major disagreement, however. The three wanted to attack Vermeulen and tie him up while taking the keys of his private car. We could have done that with a “great escape” but not when the majority of our comrades had to remain behind in the prison. An attack on the life of one of the prison officers and the theft of a weapon would have had an enormous effect on the thinking of the prison authorities on matters of security. That would have brought great hardship to all who remained behind. My responsibility for all of us led me to insist that the escape plan had to be designed to avoid such actions. No violence against any warder! Our group insisted on this. Alex wounded me deeply during this period when he accused me of trying to stop their escape.
Tim reached an insoluble problem of a key for door number six, as he called it, the door to get past the night warder’s office. I was able to help. I had hidden a makeshift key made of three pieces of wire and held together with cotton thread. It worked in many locks because it was not made with great precision and could be jiggled around until it was in the right position to turn the lock. It had to be adjusted for every door and it worked on door number six.
What I had not solved was how to open my cell door from the inside where there was no keyhole. My rickety key was of no use in that situation. Tim found a wonderful way to overcome the difficulty: he used a broomstick to hold the key so that he could lean through the passage window and insert the key into the lock and turn it using the broomstick like a crank-handle to turn the key in the lock. It demanded an extraordinary level of physical coordination to poke the stick through the window, find the keyhole and insert the key, and then turn the key twice in the correct direction. Tim had not only wonderful coordination of hand and eye; he had a natural talent for precision that is probably related to that coordination. He told me that as a 15-year-old he used to race electric slot-racing cars. These little cars are not properly balanced and are difficult to keep on the track. He rebuilt the tiny electric motors, turning the rotors on a small precision lathe to balance them. This made the cars run faster and made them more controllable. That gave him the victory over his friends. Tim always pushed his abilities to the limits. He is a brilliant talent wherever precision is needed.
For the finishing touches to the special key Tim needed a soldering bolt. We had acquired one for installing our loudspeaker system for the music they played for us. Helen Suzman MP had bought us our record player and I had installed it and the loudspeaker system. The record player was kept in the night warder’s room and he played the records for us according to the programmes we drew up. I knew that the soldering iron and solder were kept locked up in the drawer of the Head of the Prison. They would allow me to use it when something went wrong with the system and I needed to repair it.
David Rabkin allowed Tim to break his loudspeaker so that he could get permission for me to repair it. I asked for Tim to be allowed to help me. I kept guard, Tim soldered the key, then the loudspeaker wires were joined up in seconds. The trust that David showed Tim cannot be valued too highly. A soldering iron in prison is a dangerous device. I could get to use it because I was seen as a prisoner who could be trusted, a prisoner who had earned respect. In relation to the warders I had adopted the device of “still waters run deep.” I worked at showing that I was self- disciplined and could be left alone.
Tim was often not believed when he said later that he had achieved the exact form of the keys by observation alone. It was really so. Observing the bundle of keys the warders carried was enough for me to make even my Heath Robinson device. You see the geometry, then you file the keys until they fit. You also need a technical background. It takes trial and error to make them exactly right. The real difficulty for Tim did not lie in the blade of the key but in the shaft that had to be the exact size of the keyhole so that it would turn precisely in the lock. Tim made most of the keys out of wood. That was what was special. Naturally he used hard tropical wood. There was something special about this too. We thought of a ruler used for drawing lines. You can bend it this way and that without it breaking. That was what the key needed. Wooden keys had another advantage over metal keys. They were very quiet and made no noise when the lock was turned.
As with the keys, so too we helped in the search for street clothes. There was a laundry basket of old clothing used as cleaning rags. The clothes were left behind by the stokkies, awaiting trial prisoners, who wore their own clothes until they were sentenced or were released. What a great moment it was when we found a pair of jeans that were an exact fit, or as they say in prison, size fit, for the tall slender Stephen. Unfortunately there was nothing to fit the short, stocky Denis.
Through my initiative we got the shoes for the escape. I had for years had a torn cartilage in my knee. I think I made it much worse when I jumped off the roof when I escaped from Vereeniging Prison. Eventually the prison authorities permitted an operation to remove the cartilage. It took years to heal properly and swelled up whenever I walked too far or ran around the exercise yard to keep fit. Eventually physiotherapy was authorised. That was a rare occurrence in prison. The therapist, a real human being, recommended on medical grounds that I have shoes with cushioned soles. That meant buying a pair of Adidas training shoes. What walking comfort!
What luxury! I slept with them under my pillow so that I could smell their fresh newness. Suddenly I was nine-years-old again, dreaming of sporting glory with my first rugby boots under my pillow. The Head of the Prison, Captain Schnepel, such a totally unpredictable man, then thought it unfair that I should have exercise shoes and not the rest of his men. All of us were allowed to buy such shoes. The bright colours were wonderfully cheerful. We turned some of them into smart street shoes using waterproof drawing ink that I had for drawing maps for my geography studies. Years later, in London, Tim told me that bright sports shoes were more the fashion than shiny black “go to church” shoes. One really does get left behind in prison.
Once we had sports shoes, Schnepel thought we should have white T-shirts for exercising so that we did not make our prison uniform shirts too sweaty and so wear them out with excessive washing. Dave Kitson used to buy the Huisgenoot (Home Companion), a family magazine with household tips and short stories. They included full page photos of film stars that could be ironed onto the T-shirts. He immediately thought of turning the escape shirts into fashion items. I can’t remember who got Jackie Bisset! That too was a contribution to the escape. We all felt responsible for not allowing a small oversight to ruin the possibility of success.
Each of us knew the hiding place for the escape clothes and artefacts behind the hot water geyser in a locked cupboard. That key was the work of but a moment for Tim. All of us kept a watchful eye to protect the things and what a shock we got when we found water running out of the cupboard. The geyser was leaking. We found a temporary hiding place for the clothes on a stairway behind a locked grill. Then the grill was welded closed and we could not easily recover the clothes. Alex, reaching awkwardly around the corner through the grill, felt the sack of clothes fall out of his hand. Now they were out of reach. We fashioned a sort of grappling hook out of very large paper clips and managed to haul the sack back into sight where we could grab it again. Naturally all stood around “cleaning” the floor and walls to avoid the grapplers being seen.
Today I can better understand the three men’s anxiety over the building work than I did at the time. Because of their refusal to wait for the agreed escape date, they drove the confrontation between themselves and the rest of us to breaking point. It became a burning political issue in which they saw themselves as the political activists; we as the delayers who wanted to stop the escape because we had lost our will to fight. They could think of nothing else. Tim and Alex did not report this conflict when they were debriefed about the escape and did not write about it publicly.
Tim was a loner. He seemed to prefer to be alone in his thoughts. He seldom showed any emotion and shied away from any attempt to express his innermost feelings. We seldom see each other and I would say that we are now friendly but not close. Shortly before the escape Alex proposed, in the form of an ultimatum, that I should break the electric light bulb in my cell to divert the night warder. “It is your duty,” he stated, when I said that he was asking too much too crudely. I told him that nobody had to help but might be asked to help. We had to find a way to justify calling Vermeulen at the moment it was necessary. We could wait for a coincidental lightning storm but that was too unpredictable. Alex demanded the short circuit. I would have to cause it in my cell by breaking my light bulb. But how could I do that without giving the authorities the proof they would love to have that I was part of the escape plot? Torture was always a possibility. Who knows whether he is strong enough to resist blabbing out everything he knows, especially after years of imprisonment? A rough ride in prison thereafter was a certainty. That was of no concern to our Alex!
My study privileges meant a great deal to me. They were a key element in my survival. Everybody took me to be a diligent student. I had been studying for 15 years already, often for ten hours a day. How do you fill the time without the electric light that goes with the study privilege? Every newcomer to our group in prison found that having so much time to study was a great advantage. They envied me a little. In reality, I would much rather have been free to do many other things! What upset me most was that Alex demanded of me, with such absolute certainty of his position, that I should make his escape possible. In his mind, I am sure, I was the lifer and therefore of no further value. He could not hear my arguments. I had grown a thick skin during my years in prison, but this was too much.
Some in our group were quite nervous about the escape. Their responses ranged from willing help through guarded participation to reluctant acceptance. For Alex, and for Tim, each was a soldier in the revolution and therefore duty-bound to escape. I found myself in the same position except that I did not see myself escaping. Alex wanted to escape at all costs. He could think of nothing else. He feared that his life would disintegrate with his wife and son turning away from him. He had named his son Boris after his Soviet trainer. I do not know if Boris was his real name or a cover name, but it would have made no difference to Alex. Alex believed with absolute certainty that Boris was trying to send him messages. He was so obsessed with this that he wanted to read and examine all our letters for hidden messages. Predictably, Boris made no contact at all.
There were times when Alex was so aggressive and acting without finesse that some of his actions threatened more harm than good. Like a bull in a china-shop he came close to smashing everything on a number of occasions. Of course he was totally unaware of all this. Sadly, Alex had great unhappiness with his son who left his parents’ home very early in his life. In the end none of this mattered. Eventually we hit upon the obvious solution to the problem: use the trip switches. Vermeulen would not be suspicious. I would call him to reset the switches, keep him talking, and our three would be away. The escape was discovered by Sergeant Badenhorst when he unlocked our cells the next morning. Every day the heavy steel doors were opened and we were still locked up behind the steel grill in each cell. Badenhorst had come in through the street door with the lock broken but had not noticed anything suspicious.
He opened the first door. Stephen Lee was still lying in bed. He opened the second door and Tim was also still in bed. I was third in line and I was at attention, innocently standing at attention behind my grill. Badenhorst, turning back, saw that the first two had not got up. Suddenly he realised there were dummies in their beds. I watched him the whole time. He turned chalk white and staggered back against the passage wall. I thought he had fainted or had a heart attack. After a moment he pulled himself upright and called for his superior. From fright his voice came out as a weak little whisper: “Oom (Uncle) Piet. Oom Piet.” Now he stumbled to the stairs and I could hear him going down. Prison officer Pieterse, in reality a friendly type who seldom lost his nerve, came up the stairs, saw the damage and then briskly opened all the cells to see if there were others missing. I thought I saw him give me a small smile. Alex, much further down the passage, had also escaped.
We were told to “carry on as usual” and even got breakfast before the inquiries began. When I was asked about the escape, I naturally knew nothing. I had played my guitar and I had listened to the nightly concert of recorded music. Then I had called Vermeulen because the lights had gone out. Nothing unusual had happened. I did not think it necessary to add that Alex had passed my cell and waved goodbye, the signal for me to give the three escapers time to hide in the cupboard after they had tripped the light switches before I called Vermeulen.
On the morning after the escape, when the security people descended en masse on our prison, the high officials showed great amazement that I was still there. “Goldberg, you are still here! If anyone had reason to escape, then surely it was you!” One said, “Goldberg, I know why you didn’t escape. Communists always hold out and fight to the end. You are one, aren’t you?” I held my peace and for once made no comment. Even the prison officers understood that I was the one who had to escape. Only my fellow prisoner Alex could not grasp it.
The security police put David Rabkin and Tony Holiday through the wringer. What they thought they would get from them remains a mystery. Many high-ranking security officers came to the prison. Each first made sure that I was indeed still there and seemed to become much calmer when they had seen me. Perhaps the long planned and authorised visit of David’s father from England had something to do with sparing us the worst responses from the authorities. Because of the unusual circumstances Rabkin senior, now a British businessman, was able to meet General Roux, the second highest officer in Prisons. He ended their conversation with the remark: “In business there are gains and losses and you cannot win every time. I hope that the prisoners remaining behind will not be punished for the escape.” Probably because the authorities were always on the lookout to protect themselves against international criticism, our treatment and the interrogations were more moderate than we expected.
The security police arrested Vermeulen and locked him away for some months until they charged him with assisting the escape. They forced a confession out of him through threats of physical violence. He said that he had been promised a payment of a laughably small amount of R200. He was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. He appealed against the conviction and was found not guilty. During the case against Vermeulen, Stephen, in London, told a British newspaper about the escape and how they had achieved it. Vermeulen’s lawyer asked Stephen for a sworn statement that Vermeulen had not been implicated and Stephen provided it. There were divided opinions about it because that was helping an official of the hated regime. However, he showed through his action, seen by the whole world, that we, despite anything Vermeulen might have done in his daily life, preserved our sense of humanity and acted accordingly. For Vermeulen, the “terrorist” Stephen Lee became, I am sure, a decent person. I agree with Stephen’s action. He was a person who hated injustice and fought against it. He fought against the injustice of apartheid as he would against any injustice.
A ruling was made after the escape that we should remain locked up on Sundays. Previously we had been allowed to use the courtyard to move about and exercise. Now it appeared that this privilege had to be withdrawn because there were not enough warders to guard us. I saw this as a hidden punishment and demanded to speak to Brigadier Gericke immediately. I had known him since 1963 when he was a Captain. I was so insistent in my argument that the weekend staff did not lock us up. However, Gericke would not allow his Sunday to be disturbed. He came only on Monday morning. He said to me, “You think you can call me whenever you want!” I answered, “It worked. You obviously ordered that we were not to be locked up on Sunday. Thank you. I do know, Brigadier, that you will come only when you wish to.” Smiles all round. Honour and ego were satisfied!
In his office he asked me to tell him of the things that were troubling us. I can still see how this very large man took out his very large and very expensive Mont Blanc fountain pen. He noted down our complaints about studies, letters, the way visits were controlled and, above all, the deteriorating conduct of the warders. He wrote down everything in great detail. I have to say that he dealt with all the issues within a few days and things did get a bit better. Tim and Alex managed to cross the border into Swaziland within 24 hours and then further into Mozambique. Stephen hid out in Johannesburg and was later smuggled across the border. More than a year later a number of people were arrested and because of their involvement with him they were tried and imprisoned.
Raymond Suttner later told me how severely a prisoner is affected by the terror of a renewed round of interrogation when his constitution has been weakened by long years of imprisonment. After completing his prison sentence with us in Pretoria Raymond was arrested again and held in preventive detention, in solitary confinement, for a period that had no predetermined length of time. Raymond, who seemed to me to be “Comrade Revolutionary Purity” personified, with no thought for the personal cost involved, came close to breakdown. In the end he had a little bird for companionship in his cell. It slept on his chest and saved him from insanity, he said. He told me that only when he was in that situation did he really come to understand what “life”, a sentence of imprisonment for life, must have meant for me and how difficult it must have been for me to see the others escape, without being able to go with them.
After the first report of the escape, with no details of who had fled, many people assumed or hoped that I had to be one of them. That had a deep impact on Esmé because Baruch had become a good friend to her, encouraging her to endure my absence. Josie, Alex’s wife, often phoned to find out if she had any news about “our men”, loading her anxieties onto Esmé whom she treated as a surrogate grandmother. Her phone calls stopped immediately after Alex was reported to be safe in Mozambique. For Esmé the news that I had not escaped was deeply disappointing. She could not know the complicated reasons why I had remained behind and assumed, with some justification, that once again I had put the needs of others before her’s. What hurt the most, she said, was the callousness of the younger comrades like Josie and those who escaped, who made no effort to comfort her
Baruch Hirson was deeply disappointed when the escapees arrived in London without me. He was upset that all his efforts, mainly to enable me to escape, had been ignored. Later, after my release from prison, I spoke to him in London about the escape and indicated some of the problems, but nowhere nearly as fully as I have done here. He seemed to understand a little better that there was no real possibility for me to escape, but I think he never really forgave me for “letting him down”. Of course I would have loved to arrive in London as the hero who had escaped. It was at the time difficult for me to accept that I had to remain behind. I rejoiced in their success and despite my own disappointment I was very proud of my comrades for the role we had all played in achieving this slap in the face we gave the apartheid regime. Tim’s precision, together with his courage, was the secret of the escape. Courage alone, without that precision, would not have been enough.
I could live with my decision and made the best of the rest of my time in prison. My continued presence was a benefit for our whole group. When I was released in 1985 a bit more than five years later, I heard from Rob Adam that their conditions became considerably worse.
The weather might not seem to be important in prison. But it is. After the great escape of Tim, Alex and Stephen in December 1979 our prison had been rebuilt to increase the security. Remote-controlled doors, which required a huge key and a massive tommy bar to force them open when the mechanism broke down, were an indication of the seriousness with which the authorities took our incarceration. The whole system of guarding us, whether we were four prisoners or ten now required a staff of 38 officials including a captain, a lieutenant, several warrant officers, sergeants and warders to watch over us. Then there was a system of microphones, bugs, embedded in walls and fittings to enable them to overhear our conversations.
This was not a piece of speculation born of our paranoia. We knew for a fact that they were bugging us. We would plan what we would say to the Captain on some or other matter such as health, food, visits, letters, the conduct of a warder, or about the movies we were allowed to see. He would answer our arguments before we had finished. He would even answer the points in the order in which we planned to raise them. There were times when I would keep back some arguments that I had not spoken aloud and therefore the Captain had not heard them through the bugging apparatus. He answered what he had heard. Then I put the reserve arguments to him. The Captain would be dumbfounded! He had not had time to prepare his answer. He would look at me with a wry smile, knowing he had been caught out. I would smile "sweetly" or as innocently as I could manage to avoid embarrassing him further. Sometimes the technique worked and we got what we wanted. Sometimes it failed. But it was one form of amusement!
On one occasion I forgot about the bugging devices. I explained to someone that I often spoke in Afrikaans when I wanted something from the authorities. If speaking "their" language aided the process of communication that suited me very well. In fact I spoke Afrikaans well and with enjoyment. The manipulative aspect seemed to me to be a legitimate tactic. It amused me to find Captain X insisting on speaking English to me to show that he was resisting the manipulation, and giving up his language rights at that moment. Sometimes, as a long-term prisoner, you just cannot lose. When we returned to our rebuilt prison after nearly three years in a cell in Beverley Hills where there were no windows to the outside, I was given a cell with a view. The scene was not very beautiful. Twenty metres away was a blank golden brown brick wall. The ground was concreted from wall to wall. No longer could we bury homemade keys in the garden soil, as Tim had done. But the wind did blow in. I could put my hand out through the bars and feel rain drops and rub the wetness over my face. I could smell the rain.
Pretoria is known for its electric storms. As the electrical charge built up a massive headache would grow inside my skull until I thought it would burst. My neck muscles would grow tense and I would feel as though I had to vomit. Then the storm would break. The sky grew dark and the lightning flashed. Count the seconds until the thunderclap and you know how far away the storm is. Five seconds equals one mile, more or less. Three seconds is about one kilometre. As the storm moved closer the lightning flashes and thunder claps would follow almost instantaneously. Sometimes the flash seemed to be inside my cell. The thunder cracked so loudly I would levitate off the bed, if I were lying down. With my heart racing I awaited the next flash. It was like a drug-induced high. But my headache would disappear in the flash. My neck muscles let go, the blood rushed to my brain and everything seemed bright again. Sometimes the rain followed as if the lightning had torn the bottom out of the clouds. The rain came down in sheets. There were no individual drops. The smell was sweet and clean - and the oppressive humidity would be gone for a time.
The surge of electric power tripped the electrical system. The weather had struck. The lights went out. Security guards in the lookout posts were pacing up and down. In the words of the Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers (Morsoldaten) in the Nazi concentration camp in Germany near the Dutch border, "Up and down the guards are pacing, No one, no one, can get through." But a habit grew up that I would shout for the night-duty warder to come and reset the trip switches for our section of the prison. “Me....nee..eeer! – Mister!” I would shout to the warder, long drawn-out to make fun of the call for our attendant to deal with our needs. Up he would come and reset the switches. Good for security! Security needs lights.
Tim, Alex and Steve worked out that the way out of the prison was to get passed the night warder's office. That meant getting him out of the way. They would trip the switch of the obviously unreliable electrical system and hide in a cupboard under the stairs. That was a simple key for the expert Tim to copy. I would call Me-e-e-nee-ee-ee-eer. He would come up to our section of the prison. My comrades would walk out past his empty office. The weather is important in prison.