It is not easy to write about prison. When I was freed after 22 years I had spent 45 per cent of my life inside the walls. Now I have been outside the prison again longer than I was behind the walls. Now the loss of my freedom is only one third of my life and I do not think every day about it. Yet when I begin to write about it I find it difficult to sleep. The memories return and I find it difficult to speak about those times. It was too painful and sometimes I have nightmares about it.
When I entered prison after being sentenced in the Rivonia trial I was still quite optimistic. I reflected on what had happened and, though normal life was over, I believed the apartheid system would soon come to an end. During the trial there was a moment when Bram took me aside to ask what I thought of our situation. I said I thought the system had outlived its usefulness. It had already gone beyond where it could survive. I said that Afrikaner nationalism used apartheid to enable an elite group of white Afrikaners to become big businessmen, owners of big capital. They achieved that goal. Now they were sitting at the top table with Harry Oppenheimer’s Anglo-American. Apartheid was going to break down, I said, because white workers were being paid too much to compensate them for controlling black workers on behalf of management. The cost was that, having achieved its goal, Afrikaner nationalism would become more and more intensely repressive, too much for business to carry, and eventually this would bring it down.
The repression would be the seed of its own destruction. Bram understood that I meant the system would not simply collapse because of its internal contradictions but through the actions of the mass of the people whose resistance and whose demands were the expression of those contradictions. When it collapsed, or became weak, we would be released - unless some stupidity led them to kill us. The reality of prison soon hit me. After my parents had visited me I was very much alone: no wife, no children, no friendly voices. Prison is a place with bare walls where for many years we slept on mats on the hard floor. There were windows in our cells but without glass.
In winter in Pretoria the temperature sometimes falls to zero degrees. We froze! We put on every item of clothing we could find: underpants, pyjama pants, work trousers, and when we had it a jersey with a little wool in it, a jacket, and I put whatever I could find on my head to keep it warm while I slept. Later we used empty shampoo bottles filled with hot water if we could get it and stuffed the plastic bottle into a sock and used it as a hot water bottle. Our conditions were awful, but always better than for black criminal prisoners who slept ten in a cell intended for one person.
During exercise times we could talk to each other but mostly we were alone in our single cells. Times for showering or emptying toilet pots were also times to speak a few words to others. The routine was that we were locked up for 16 to 18 hours a day and forbidden to talk to each other. We did, nevertheless, whisper under the door to our neighbours on each side of us. When we were working at repairing mail bags we sat in the courtyard and were supposed not to talk. When it was too cold to be outside we would be locked alone in our cells. Slowly we worked away at changing that situation and the authorities gave up trying to force us to be silent. Visiting between cells was never permitted.
We were often ill (See note below) because there was too little light and too little sunshine. In winter the sun did not shine into our courtyard. Then we stood on a stool, at least to get our faces into the warmth. When we sat outside for too long in the cold it was difficult to move afterwards. My experience of prison was that you lose weight in the first few months until your body stabilises, but you do not have much energy. A small scratch takes a long time to heal because you do not get enough vitamins; your eyes are affected by always being indoors with little change of focus. There is enormous psychological stress from being under constant surveillance: they control when your light goes on, when it goes off, when you sleep, when you wake. Will you get the letters sent to you? Will they send your letters out or say your letter has been posted, though it has been confiscated without your knowledge. Years afterwards, when I was released from prison, I got letters that my wife had sent me but which had been withheld. Some of her letters were so covered in chemicals that the ink had smudged.
I missed my wife very much and the separation was a cruel blow. Dealing with this emotional desert was very trying. I wrote to her in my earliest letters that she should feel free to live her life to the fullest extent she chose; not because I did not love her but because I did love her. I did not want her to feel that she had to be so loyal to me that she would end up as a dried-up old stick. After all, I might never be with her again. There were times when I felt a burning and troubling sexual desire and jealousy raised its head. It took me a long time to overcome my feelings of jealousy and come to terms with the meaning of what I knew was the right attitude to adopt. Thirteen years after being locked away I woke up one morning free of jealousy. It was a wonderful moment of relief and release. I think it may have been more difficult for her because she was caught between the need to be politically loyal and the wish to be personally faithful while being a woman in her prime, enjoying her womanhood. What conflicts that must have caused her. She was young and attractive and I was imprisoned for life: four times of life imprisonment.
After four years Esmé was allowed to visit me for the first time. We had five half-hour visits together, with a pane of glass between us so that we could not touch, and a warder with each of us, removing all privacy. Then, after another four years, she was allowed to visit again. And then she was refused permission to visit me ever again. We saw each other again after 14 long years, when I was released. I was never told why they were so malicious but assumed it was part of their wish to break our morale, stemming from the same vicious response of the security police who believed that I had betrayed what they thought of as “their white South Africa.” So much fruitless pain they caused: hurting me and my wife would not break our spirit, nor would it stop the inexorable defeat of their unjust system.
At first we were allowed one letter every six months and they were supposed to be one side of a folio sheet of paper or approximately 500 words. But because there was such a vindictive attitude letters were often literally cut to length so that the key words – like “I love you” - would disappear. Letters were not allowed to contain references to prison conditions or fellow prisoners, We were not allowed to tell our correspondents that their letters had been censored. If they wrote on both sides of a sheet of paper and words were cut out you lost the other side as well. Politics or “news” was forbidden. What was there to write about? The number of letters increased over the years until in the last years of my imprisonment I was allowed 50 letters a year. When I was released letters from my wife which had been withheld were given to me. I was told they had never arrived. In fact some of them had been so covered with chemicals as they looked for concealed writing that the ink had run and they did not want us to know they were being so careful. That was inordinately distressing.
Something similar happened with visits. One in six months to start with, when you needed the most reassurance about your family, and over the years the authorities bowed to pressure so that at the end of my time in prison we were allowed up to 25 visits a year. The rigidity of control over what we could talk about was never relaxed. There was no contact allowed: we faced each other through a pane of glass with a warder standing next to the prisoner and another next to the visitor so that it was almost impossible to create any intimacy.
It took eight years before my children were allowed to visit me. Then they were allowed to come every second year. At first they came together but later they chose to come in alternate years on their own. They were older and had the confidence to come separately. Hilly always chattered away and made the visits interesting. David had difficulty in finding things to say until he came with his girlfriend Beverley and through having a three-way conversation it was better.
Visits were not easy to deal with. It is quite unnatural to try to talk about everything in half an hour and at the same time to try to rekindle the human contact. It is not possible in such a short time. Your routine as a prisoner is totally disturbed. You can cope with everything when you build a wall about yourself. At visits you are compelled to allow the wall to be penetrated and to be human you have to break through this emotional barrier.
It had been good to have Dad visit me but his visits were sometimes very trying as he tried to tell me things in a kind of round-about way when what I really needed was for him to chat to me. Ivan Schermbrucker, when he was released, asked his friend Hillary Kuny to visit me together with my Dad. She was more or less my age, clever, very attractive and a great conversationalist. She spoke about her studies, her family and friends and her visits became a very pleasant break from the prison routine. She also allowed me to break down the emotional barriers I had constructed, letting me feel human again. Visits were a chance to look through the glass and see myself reflected in the responses of the sympathetic “other”. And to work out if I was not a bit crazy or fairly normal.
My mother was allowed to visit me after about ten years. During the visit she told me she was at the end of her resources. I thought she meant at the end of her financial resources. But she lived with my wife and children, so she wasn’t going to starve. When she left she wanted to kiss me but contact visits were not allowed. One of the officers, as a special favour, opened a small strip of window about ten centimetres wide and she climbed up with great difficulty onto the high stool so that we could kiss through the tiny gap. It was such an undignified way of kissing one’s mother farewell, but she insisted and it would have hurt her if I had said no to the indignity. It was, needless to stress, the last time I saw her. What she had meant was that she could not go on living much longer. She died a year later. Esmé told me that she had cancer and had asked her doctor to make her comfortable and to let her die. She wanted no heroic measures that would prolong her suffering. David and Hilly and their friends who often stayed in the house with them were sitting around “Granny’s” bed because they were so fond of her. She came out of her semi-coma and seeing David spoke to him as if he were me, his father. He was so upset he rushed out of the room to recover his poise.
In prison you hear of the death of a parent, or in the case of others of children, or partners, and there is nothing you can do to comfort those on the outside who remain with the memories and the emptiness. You are robbed of your role as a family member. The sense of inadequacy this evokes is so strong that it seems unbearable. It is the inhuman enemy who has imprisoned us that we should blame but we had put ourselves in harm’s way, leading to imprisonment and separation, even though our motives were good. There’s the unresolved contradiction Hilly expressed when I was released. She said I “was and would always be her hero, but you don’t have to love your heroes. If he wanted to be so engaged in politics he shouldn’t have got married and had children.”
Inside, we found ways to support each other. Jeremy Cronin was devastated when his young wife died while being operated on for a brain tumour. He was withdrawn and silent and became quite pale. After some days I said to him that one response to the death of someone close is to feel angry with oneself for not feeling enough, for being emotionally frozen, unable to feel, unable even to weep. Sometime later he read to us some of the most beautiful love poems which were his way of expressing his feelings, his sense of terrible loss and regret. He was kind enough to tell me that he had felt suicidal because of his inability to feel and my few words had comforted him and encouraged him. I had similar support from comrades when my mother died and that enabled me to understand what Jeremy might be experiencing. It was much the same when my father died. I did not ask to attend his funeral. They would have said no and I did not want to give them the pleasure of denying my request.
Prison was an endless round of pettiness. We had a small open chipped enamel bowl to hold drinking water. There was always a layer of dust on the water. I saved up toothpaste tubes which I flattened to make a sheet of aluminium large enough to cover the bowl. My homemade lid was confiscated on the grounds that if the authorities thought I should have water free of dust then they would issue a lid with the bowl. I made a cloth cover and that too was confiscated. However a sheet of writing paper was permitted. Day after day at open-up time in the morning we would be let out to clean our toilet pots - and why is it that one never accepts the smell of human excrement as a reasonable part of life? It was better to be in a cell on your own, even though it was very lonely than it was to share a cell with a number of people with their smells. At least one’s own excrement is tolerable.
The man in charge of our section of cells was a “head warder” or sergeant – and an unmitigated sadist. He set out to find as many ways as possible of making our life unpleasant. He took away the morning open-up time for emptying our toilet pots, and for washing and shaving. That now had to be done as part of our precious exercise time, cutting deeply into the half-hour morning and afternoon periods laid down in the regulations. We got that stopped. We showered outside in cold water, even in winter when it was really cold with no sunshine entering the yard because of the high walls. The sergeant said the shower room would get dirty if we were allowed to use it. Eventually Guy de Keller’s mother, who was no anti-apartheid activist but wanted her student son properly looked after, demanded that he be allowed to wash with hot water. So boiling hot water was brought to us in 50-litre drums. We scooped it into hand-wash basins. Standing in the wind we would wash with the hot water and then sluice ourselves with clean water to get rid of the soap. It was very pleasant to end the ablutions by sitting in a shallow bowl of warm water to warm one’s nether regions. Eventually a senior officer, seeing the absurdity of ablutions in the open air, insisted that we use the shower room.
Mornings started at about six o’clock with a loud bell. During the next hour you dressed, made up your mats and blankets and stacked them tidily. When your cell-door was flung open you were required to stand to attention behind the still-locked inner steel grill so that the officials could see that you had not escaped during the night and a head count was conducted of all the prisoners. Only when the totals for all the sections of the prison were added up and the total agreed with the number of prisoners that should be there were the inner steel grills opened. Emptying toilet pots followed, faces were washed and breakfast served. That is too fine a word. Breakfast was brought for many years in the chipped enamel bowl. It was always mielie-meal porridge with a bit of milk - and when it was not too watery it was good and warming. A portion of bread, rather good wholemeal bread baked in the prison kitchens, was provided and there was a mug of “coffee”. This was a mixture of 6% coffee for the smell, 75% burnt maize and the rest chicory, dark and bitter. This was coffee because there was the minimum six per cent of coffee our food laws required for the name to be used. Sometimes warders would insist that the bread be put in the porridge so that it would be spoiled by being wet. Lunch was usually a stew of mielie rice, potatoes, a little meat and some vegetables cooked until they were colourless and tasteless. One day a week we got fish. Our evening meal was brought to us at about three in the afternoon and it was always soup and bread.
Properly cooked the soup - made from dehydrated ingredients ground so fine you could not tell what they were - was edible and warming, and a small portion of bread was provided. I still eat soup as often as I can, but real soup made from fresh ingredients. Sometimes a small portion of butter would appear and if the bread was still hot from the ovens that made a real treat. The same coffee substitute was provided with 30 grams of sugar a day. Sometimes too there was 30 grams of jam. The sweetness was very pleasant. The nutrition was just sufficient, without any excess energy available.
Food improved a bit when the International Committee of the Red Cross started to visit us once a year from the late 1960s. They urged the authorities to add peanut butter to the prisoners’ diet. It contains many vitamins and trace elements and is high in calories. Three good meals a day were something I experienced only when I was in hospital. The nurses were pretty and they had nice perfume. They treated you like a patient and not as a prisoner. On the other hand that made you realise just how grim prison life was. The prison guards hated us because we were white. They came mostly from poorer working class homes and had these jobs because the apartheid state reserved jobs for whites regardless of their school education and kept black people at a distance. The warders were poorly educated and spoke mostly about their cars or rugby or women. Most of our group of political prisoners had some form of higher education or had the experience of politics and much wider interests. Our guards thought of us as coming from privileged white families and set about using their little bit of power to make our lives as miserable as they could.
It was at this time that we realised that we would be much stronger if we insisted that the officials adhered to their own rules laid down in the official “Rules and Regulations” that were issued to us. We followed the advice of the noted German sociologist Max Weber who, in writing about rule-bound hierarchic bureaucratic systems of administration, pointed out that higher officers needed to know that their juniors obeyed the rules. We therefore took an important decision that we would treat each warder, sergeant, warrant officer, lieutenant and all the way up to general, as someone who had to be won over to support our demand that they should at least play by their own book of rules. Some were more humane than others and they had to be enlisted to our side of the conflict.
To achieve this we needed a committee which was, of course, strictly forbidden by the authorities who resisted all forms of organisation by prisoners. Nevertheless, you cannot stop political prisoners from creating an elected committee (named “Recce” after the Recreation Committee allowed by the regulations) to decide on joint action to uphold our rights and privileges. We were accustomed to underground activity in a cellular structure. It was plenary sessions that we could not have. We would decide who was most suited to take up any particular issue, marshalling all the arguments we could find in support of our position. Slowly we compelled the officials to play by their own rules. Higher officers disliked the paperwork involved when their juniors did stupid things. It obviously helped that we had lawyers from outside who would appear for any of us who faced charges for internal prison offences. The officials came to realise that it would be easier for them to avoid the problems and instructed the ordinary warders to treat us with some respect.
We did our own training of young warders. For instance, a new warder would arrive and officiously open and close the steel doors and grills with loud clangs, which rattle through your brain as if you were inside a steel drum being beaten with a large hammer. After some days the young officer would demand to know why nobody greeted him in the morning. The response was unanimous: behave like a human being with a courteous “good morning” and you will be greeted in return. The warder would answer that he was instructed not to converse with us. When the absurdity of his position dawned on him most of them behaved as they should. Some still relished trying to impose arbitrary punishment but we resisted that too.
In time our concealed Recce received formal sanction. Helen Suzman MP, on one of her prison visits, persuaded the Commanding Officer to allow us to have board games such as chess, draughts (checkers) and dominoes. We were instructed to elect a recreation committee to ensure fair access of all prisoners to these games. Alan Brooks, who behind his rather dry exterior could be very amusing, conducted the election and, lo and behold, even though it was conducted by show of hands in front of the warders, the election produced a committee, now officially named Recce, with the same membership as the previously clandestine Recce. We allowed members of the committee to have no more than two terms of office, with a duration of six months each, though they could be re-elected after a break. We kept Recce quite small, with each member representing three or four others, depending on the fluctuating size of the community.
We asked the authorities to allow us to have a record player and to slowly build up a record collection to play music at night for a few hours as we knew was the custom in Central Prison. I had submitted a letter setting out what equipment would be needed just before Helen Suzman fortuitously visited us. She sat on my prison stool using my small table to make notes when I started reading from a copy of the letter. I had my back to the open door and she rather bravely, I thought, wordlessly held out her hand for the letter and popped it into her handbag while shielded from view by my body. After a while everything we needed was delivered to the prison, together with 30 LP records of the great classical symphonies and concertos. What a delight that was. Helen Suzman, alone among MPs, made it her business to try to improve the conditions of political prisoners in whichever prisons they were held. I would get my regular visitor, Hillary Kuny, now Hillary Hamburger, to give Helen Suzman a pot plant at the end of the year to say thanks for her caring concern.
. Later we were allowed to buy one record each every two months. At first we old-timers enjoyed concerts of classical music and as the collection was small even my untrained ear could hear when Beethoven, for example, had used a sonata as a study for a concerto. Then as new prisoners joined us they bought music to their individual tastes so we had more jazz and folk, pop and rock – and, inevitably, because that’s who we were – we had hefty arguments about the structure of the evening concerts. We were reasonably tolerant of each other’s taste but the truth of the saying that “taste knows no comrade” is as valid for music as it is for food.
Our daily work was to sew mailbags. That went on for four or five years and felt like a useless way of passing the time. I became quite good at sewing with a large needle, pushed through with a leather and metal palm – and I got used to having the pitch coating the line sticking to my hands. We sat near each other in the exercise yard and even when not allowed to talk, of course we did. While sewing we organised weekly lectures, making as much use of the intellectual resources among our comrades as we could, with lectures on history, engineering, law, physics and many other topics. An early example which I remember particularly was a marvellous lecture by Norman Levy on how history is written. Norman based this on a case study of an imaginary prison conflict where we unfortunately underestimated their ability to understand what he was saying: they thought we were mocking them – and thus ended that session of lectures. As an alternative we lectured quietly while sewing mailbags, sitting in small clusters. Not as good as a full plenary, because not all the ideas were discussed by all of us together.
In later years I recall a particularly brilliant paper by Raymond Suttner on African customary law, and another by Renfrew Christie on South African economic history. Formal studies by distance learning through the University of South Africa (Unisa) were allowed for political prisoners without regard to skin colour. These studies were extremely important because they brought an outside stimulus to our lives when we were forbidden access to all news and printed media. I studied for almost the whole of my 22 years. First I took a degree in Public Administration because I really believed that we had to be ready to take power. Then I studied history and geography, then spent seven years studying library science, the only remaining degree for which I could study through Unisa. I found the end-of-year examinations written in the prison to be a great test of one’s sanity as we measured ourselves against an external standard.
Informal studies were also very important to us. We constantly discussed the future of our country. We studied to understand apartheid better so we could defeat it more quickly and make the transition to a democratic non-racial society. I made a study of the major corporations in South Africa. I was allowed to buy three-inch by five-inch index cards and eventually had more than 3 000 cards filled with information about companies gleaned from magazines we were allowed to read. My interest was the dominance of Anglo American, its relations with the other big mining houses, with Barlows, an industrial conglomerate, and other private sector companies. The relations with the Afrikaner finance companies such as Federale Volksbeleggings, Federale Mynbou, Sanlam and others were important too because Anglo American had, for example, given them control in 1964 of General Mining.
. (Anglo took more than 50 per cent of the profits, however.) Why did they do this? Because it was a good political move to placate the apartheid government by satisfying the aspiring Afrikaner bourgeoisie. It was also good business to support apartheid. I was particularly interested in laying the basis for a study of monopoly capital and what effects it had on the economy and on poverty in society, and of the role of apartheid low wages in the growth of these companies. Anglo American was involved not only in gold and diamond mining but in tin, zinc, oil, gas, secondary industry, property and international construction and they profited from the low wages of apartheid.
Even though I could not get to Companies House to analyse ownership and control on a particular date some researchers were able to make use of my preliminary studies. Duncan Innes was in London working on his doctoral thesis on Anglo American and the book that came out of it: The Rise of the Anglo American Corporation. He was able to use my diagrams of the complex holdings and cross-holdings within the Anglo American group. I was delighted when, on meeting him, he wrote an inscription in my copy of his book thanking me for my contribution.
I was, similarly, also very pleased when my daughter Hilly visited me and told me that Ruth First had used my work in a report to the United Nations on the role of Anglo American in the development of apartheid and its influence throughout the world. I had researched Anglo's holdings in South Africa and all the countries of Southern Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, through Canada into the United States, Mexico, Brazil and into Chile. It was a worldwide corporation, often with holdings that matched those of the government in some countries and therefore politically very powerful. It was into tin, oil and gas, chemicals, mining, manufacturing, property holdings, international construction and they benefitted directly from the enforced low wages of apartheid.
Hugh Lewin edited a clandestine end-of-year magazine with pieces contributed by those who enjoyed writing. I was the “type-setter and printer” using my neat engineer’s handwriting in columns, with introductory paragraphs and headlines in appropriate font sizes. Only one copy was produced and secretly passed around to each of us before being destroyed. We were lucky it was not discovered by the warders but at Christmas things were a bit more relaxed. Besides our lectures, studies and evening recorded music we used sport as a means of passing the endless hours of imprisonment, even when the only ball we had was made of rags rolled up into an old sock. After a time we were given a tennis ball and played “boob squash” against a wall with our bare hands. I suppose you can say that taking part should have been more important than winning but we did play hard to win. In winter when our hands were cold and our skin very dry the pressure of the ball striking our hands would burst surface blood vessels. As a group we played bucket ball, which was our variation of basket ball. Hugh and I enjoyed a game of tennis singles played with wooden beach bats and would rush out on Sunday mornings to have a set before the others were ready. He was younger and fitter but sometimes I could beat him by wiliness rather than pace.
After the first Christmas, where we managed nothing to match what the regulations termed “entertainment”, David Evans got a group of four or five together to prepare a dramatised reading of an excerpt from the poem Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot. Soon all the participants knew their lines by heart and it turned into a dramatic performance by the “Courtyard Players” in the courtyard on Christmas Day. Those of us who could make props and costumes from odds and ends contributed those skills to what was a really enjoyable time at the theatre. Then we had a concert. Costa Gazidis played a wonderful rhythmic double bass constructed from a piece of rope, a broomstick and a wooden tea-chest. There were no additional instruments other than a box that served as a drum. Eli and Hugh had very good voices and led the singing.
The Christmas play and concert became an annual affair until we overstepped the mark by making a mock pistol out of cardboard as a prop for a play about gangsters, Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. The pistol was so realistic that it could have been used to threaten a prison guard: that was the last curtain for the Courtyard Players – no more drama.
I contributed other things such as starting the greeting card industry for birthdays and other occasions which for many years were not permitted from outside. Everybody got birthday cards from everybody else. Each made up his own verses, made his own sketch, made it nice or witty as he wished. Wedding anniversaries were remembered. It was all about building unity.
Christmas inside prison was always a lonely time because it is at that time of year that families try hard to be together. From the beginning I tried to carve a space in which we could be even more together to compensate for the loneliness. At Christmas we were allowed to buy biscuits, dried fruit and sweets. So each man contributed a few items to a common pool from which we each received gift-wrapped Christmas presents, under the Christmas tree. We knew we had contributed; we knew we might even get back what we had put in. That did not matter because each of us got a Christmas present from under the Christmas tree.
It was the giving and receiving that was important. Of course, we had to have a Christmas tree. That at first was a piece of brown cardboard cutout in a classic fir tree shape. A year or two later I found a piece of green string that I fixed to the wall in the fir tree shape. Gradually I found materials to make silver and gold stars from the cigarette packets thrown away by the warders. Eventually the tree had a red star right at the top - that irritated some officers who tore it off and stamped on it. My feeling: “Gotcha.”
Over a long period taking several years our conditions improved. Jock Strachan’s articles in 1965 on prison conditions certainly raised awareness. (Note See chapter 10 below) The Commissioner of Prisons unexpectedly came to see us. He greeted each in turn with a handshake while he doffed his hat with the other hand. He must have wanted to impress us with such politeness and asked about our conditions. None of my older comrades with short sentences said a word to him about the way we were treated and so I, bearing in mind Miss Cook’s assessment of me, spoke up with a direct complaint about the overbearing attitude of the sergeant in charge of our section. Of course the authorities could not allow prisoners to determine who would guard them, but things did improve and when we moved to the new prison specially built for white political prisoners our vicious Sergeant du Preez disappeared from our lives.
It is possible that these improvements had something to do with President BJ Vorster’s hope of breaking the sanctions that isolated South Africa. The new outward-looking foreign policy saw the way back into the world through Africa and this required some opening up of the society - and the visits of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and of Helen Suzman were part of that process. Vorster was probably the first of the hard-liner Afrikaner nationalists actually to state that white South Africans had to respect the human dignity of black people. Even if he said this with tongue in cheek it started a process that had consequences which neither his nor successive governments could control.
After five years or so we were moved into a prison built especially for us white political prisoners. The physical conditions were much improved. There were flush toilets and a plank bed with a hard horsehair mattress. There was even hot water and a wash basin in each cell, with a small cupboard with a built-in writing surface. I later saw a newspaper article in which the Prisons Department allowed photographs of our cells to be printed in the media. In addition there was a carpentry workshop which I personally enjoyed. Some of my comrades found this kind of work uninteresting and wanted to spend all their time studying as I had done at first, because there was no alternative in the early years. But now I enjoyed working with my hands. An instructor was provided and I really enjoyed, for instance, learning how to sharpen the blade of a plane so that, when you worked on a piece of wood, it sang as the wood was shaved off and the scent of the wood found its way into your nostrils. We made toolboxes to be filled with the tools needed by white prisoners in the main prison who had become qualified artisans – carpenters, plumbers and so on - during their sentences. There were, nevertheless, some potential ethical problems, such as the rumour that we were to make boxes for ammunition used by the military and we knew that we would have to refuse to make them. The issue did not arise.
The ICRC delegations were very sympathetic towards us. They pointed out that in Africa and poor countries elsewhere in the world physical conditions were far worse than ours, but “you do not have to have steak and chips”. You will survive as long as you have nutritious food. They said simultaneously that they had never experienced anywhere else in the world such harsh attitudes among prison officials to the prisoners as they found in South Africa. They related this to Calvinist beliefs dominant in government circles, where crime was not just a social matter, it was a sin and therefore hateful - and criminals were to be dealt with as sinners. We white politicals were the biggest sinners of all because we challenged their white supremacist beliefs from within the system. We were traitors in their eyes. The ICRC visits certainly had a beneficial effect on our treatment and conditions.
Helen Suzman also did much for us and I cannot fault her sense of justice, though I could not accept her slow reformist political views. But in her concern for individuals she showed considerable courage and determination - and her exposure of the gratuitous brutality of apartheid outside, and inside the prisons, played an important role. She tried for a time to help Esmé get permission to visit me. She always wrote to Esmé as “Dear Esmé” until one day she wrote to “Dear Mrs Goldberg” to say that she could do no more to help and would not correspond with her in future. Esmé, through a mutual friend, discovered that the security police had told Mrs Suzman that she/Esmé was making bombs for the IRA and was a dangerous person. What is astonishing is that Mrs Suzman believed them.
I am not religious but I did ask to see the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Katz. Given that my Mum insisted that if I took off from school for a Jewish religious holiday I should attend the synagogue, seeing the Rabbi was itself a moral issue for me. But I thought it might become necessary to have someone to bear witness if something untoward should happen to me or to others. I did not want him to take out messages because that would have endangered him and it was something he would not have done. He said: “The rules are that I am your spiritual adviser and that's all." But there were some chaplains who, if you were ill, and your family did not know, would find a way of letting them know, because that's human. And if they were ill, theses chaplains would let you know. How would you separate anxiety about your family from your spiritual condition?
He once apologised to me for not seeing me for over three months because he had taken a tour party to Israel and he also had his own congregation to deal with. I asked him how things were in the Galilee because at the time my daughter was on a kibbutz there. At first he would not answer me. I demanded he tell me if she were at risk or not. He assured me all was calm at that time. I was quite harsh and said bluntly that either he told me or he did not, but he could not be my spiritual adviser and ignore my need to know about my family. We had a different relationship after that.
He used to bring parcels at Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and naturally we shared them amongst everybody. The most I ever had of a parcel was in the early months, when there was Turok, Tarshish, Goldberg and Strachan, and we were meticulous. I got three-quarters of my parcels at that time. Later the whole balance changed. I was one Jew among seven political prisoners in later years.
Perhaps I am being unfair to the Rabbi because, though he had this nimminy pimminy fear of authority, he could also be quite clever. For example, he was not allowed to give us sweets, but he was able to give us matzos. One year he found a chocolate made to look like matzos. Another time the specialty was fruit juice imported from America. It looked like Passover wine. I was called to the office. "What does it say on this bottle, it's in Hebrew?" I was asked. I replied, "Fruit juice for Passover, non-alcoholic." "How do you know?" the officer demanded. "Because it says so in English on this side." What inner conflicts we make for ourselves - because at the same time there were Jewish soldiers on the border oppressing the Namibians and Angolans and they were getting the same gifts.
The Rabbi did help to get my Dad into the Jewish old-age home in Sandringham, Johannesburg. And that's a bit ironic, given our attitudes to the organised Jewish community and the Board of Deputies attitude to us: they believed that with our activism against the apartheid government we endangered the whole Jewish community. Dad looked so well after he moved into the home. But after some weeks he seemed to be weaker and I felt he would not last very long. Each time he came to visit his skin seemed thinner and his facial bones seemed to be pressing through his skin so that he looked like his own death mask. After six months he died: he had developed pneumonia and had difficulty breathing. At his last visit to me he had started coughing and could not stop. He had been hospitalised. Hillary came to visit me one Sunday morning. Then at two o'clock on the same day I was told I had a visitor. There had to be a problem. Hillary came to tell me that Dad had died that morning between her phoning him and actually getting to the hospital after seeing me. He was old and tired, but with a mind so alert, so politically acute, it was incredible that he had died.
When Hillary knew him he was an old man with little energy and dependent on others but trying hard not to be dependent. Hillary’s caring for him was generous and warm-hearted. I know too that younger people who wanted to know about the history of our liberation struggle and about world history such as the Cold War, saw him as a living history book at a time when it was difficult to get hold of political literature because the government controlled what could be imported.
The day before I was released I was taken at my request to see his grave because I would be leaving the country directly from prison. I was taken under guard to the Jewish cemetery in Johannesburg. Dad had wanted to be cremated, but he was in the hands of the Orthodox Jewish community who ran the home and Orthodox Jews do not cremate the dead. We found the grave and the guards withdrew to a respectful distance so that I could be alone. I thought, "You old devil, you're still taking up space, making trouble as you did all your life." I thought about it some more and found I was deeply moved and could allow myself to feel the loss I had suppressed while I was inside. There were so many things I had wanted to ask him about and now I could never ask him anything at all. I thought back to his burial. Hillary Kuny was very close to Barney Simon of Market Theatre fame, and he wished to read something for me at Dad’s graveside.
I asked that he read Berthold Brecht’s poem To Posterity (or, To those who come after). In free translation it ends: “We who wanted to make a world/ where man would no longer be an oppressor to man/ a world where man would be kind to man/ did not ourselves have time for kindness. But you who come after,/ When you think about us/ think of us with forbearance.” I thought it was appropriate to all the years of Dad’s life and it certainly reflects my own life and attitudes. It was then, more than five years after he had died, that I really did grieve and in grieving achieved the closure I had denied myself up till then. At least I thought I had achieved it.
Some years later, speeding through the English country-side from one solidarity meeting to the next, I could smell the leather seats of the car and enjoy the sense of speed and found myself talking to my Dad, asking him if he would like to drive because he liked cars but could seldom had a decent one that ran well. Such depths of memories one has! Hillary Hamburger kept a newspaper cutting recording my Dad’s passing away and sent it to me quite recently. Now, 30 years after he died, when I read the obituary written by Peta Thornycroft in the defunct Sunday Express newspaper, I find myself weeping for my lonely Dad and suspect I am really weeping for myself.
During my 22-odd years in prison in Pretoria I had said hallo and goodbye to more than 40 comrades. They had shorter sentences, had come in and, having served every day of their sentences, had been released. (politicals got not even one day off, unlike ordinary criminals who got remission of one third or one half of their sentences.) Every time someone was released I rejoiced with them, but at the same time it was painful because I wondered if I would really ever get out of there. Sometimes I wondered if I would die in prison. I know this sounds contradictory because I’ve said I was confident I would not die in prison because apartheid was becoming ever weaker, therefore my imprisonment would have to come to an end. But logic and emotions don’t necessarily coincide. Political systems have to be changed by peoples’ action while emotions happen, despite what you think you should feel. In prison you cannot ask for counselling because you cannot put your mind in the hands of your enemy. You have to be your own therapist. My definition of sanity is that you are able to bring your emotions into line with what you know, by clear thinking, is objectively right.
That is what you do for yourself in the early hours of the morning when you cannot sleep because your thoughts are whirling around inside your head like a dog chasing its own tail. You have to wake yourself up to resolve the inner conflicts because if you don’t they will destroy you. At other times you have to talk to someone else during the daytime to try to achieve some equanimity. That I tried unsuccessfully to avoid because it meant burdening someone else who was also under stress with my problems. Sometimes I was depressed. Outside you get depressed, so why not inside? And as time goes by it seems that the pit gets deeper and climbing out of it becomes harder.
When the mood is very dark you feel that as you get your fingers over the edge of the pit of depression that some external event stamps on your fingers and you fall back again. Baruch and I used to spend lots of time chatting. While he was alive I used to talk to Bram too. But each of us knew when to leave somebody alone or to offer comfort. These phases came and went over the many years - and sometimes I felt very much alone because of the age difference between me and my younger comrades after those first years when those older than me or about my age had been released. Nelson Mandela was behind bars before us and was released after us spending 27 years behind bars.
You do not have to like every person you meet. That would be burdensome. Yet to this day there is a special bond between me and my prison comrades. Friendship, shared experience are what binds us. It is phenomenal. And to make even one friend like that in a life-time makes life worth living. It is not about love between a man and a woman, but a mutual deep understanding and the great sharing of membership in a movement. We trusted our lives to each other. We had the same political beliefs and a common enemy and that was a great unifying force. None of us was ashamed of being in prison. Indeed we were proud of it. This pride nourished us. It gave us strength. We were living symbols of resistance for those outside (and for those with short sentences) who themselves were “imprisoned” by having to live under apartheid.
But it was also true that you did not select who you would be in prison with. You get to know your suffering comrades better than you know your own wife. There is no relief from each other: 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, every sneeze, cough and fart you experience together. Every one of my bad jokes was answered with, Oh no! Not again. One has to learn to deal with it. Everyone has habits that you have to tolerate. If possible you try not to reveal your feelings because that is one way to survive.
Fred Carneson, with whom I had worked in Cape Town on many aspects of our political activity, was broken under torture. We believed before we experienced torture that we could not be broken. When we were, our whole world collapsed. Fred, in a sense, was terribly ashamed. It was painful to see. Its effect was to make him doubt his own resolve. Sometimes he was overly dogmatic. It was difficult to deal with because all of us were also under strain. We knew he was fragile and we had to be gentle with him but despite his stature as a leader he was not elected to Recce until the last period of his imprisonment. He was elected because we felt he had to go out knowing we trusted him and valued him as a comrade. We had to restore his self-confidence. I suspect we should have tried much earlier. In retrospect, life is so full of regrets.
Fred, like all of us, had to deal with the stresses our families had to withstand. We were in the courtyard in midwinter, freezing cold, standing on our stools to get our heads into the sun and sewing mail bags at the same time. Fred was called out. After a time he came back, weeping, cursing and shouting in terrible distress. We were not supposed to talk to each other but I jumped down to go to him. He told me that Father Magennis the Catholic chaplain had been given permission to tell him that his 8-year-old daughter Ruthie had had a breakdown. She was under the care of Dr Aubrey Zabow, who had been a member of the Congress of Democrats, which meant that we knew she was in sympathetic hands.
Fred was outraged by the pressure put on the family. Sarah, his wife, a noted activist, was being constantly harassed and arrested. Ruthie could not handle the pressure. There is terrible anguish when you are in prison and unable to help. I walked and talked with him and let him rage and urged him not to let the boers have the satisfaction of seeing how deeply hurt he was. I simply felt that being there for him was more important than rules about not talking. I was surprised that no punishment followed my disobedience. It was good that Father Magennis had such a broad interpretation of spiritual need.
In these ways we supported each other. But sometimes it came to blows between us and that was over comrades feeling that you didn’t trust them. It was clear that they had not learnt from their own interrogations that you cannot let slip information about what you don’t know. At such moments of conflict someone would intervene and say: “Denis, you were very rude to him and you had better apologise.” I answered: “Okay, I was crude in the way I spoke but it was right that I spoke out on the issue. Today I would agree: that was only a half-hearted apology. That was always the problem: to what extent you can impose your needs and problems on others. Then I had to bite my tongue in order not to contradict myself immediately.
The problem of secrecy leads to moral problems. How should we deal with traitors? Raymond Thoms’ betrayal (see Chapter 10) of our community over Jock Strachan’s articles on prison conditions resulted in our isolating him from our community for years. It was harsh treatment but I do not know what else we could have done. I know that Bram Fischer and Ivan Schermbrucker used surreptitiously to breach the agreement that he was to be isolated. I objected because they were ignoring a majority decision. We could not have enabled the great escape (see Chapter 11) with a spy not under our control in our midst. Standing together enabled us to get news when it was forbidden for 16 years. We found a way to ask black prisoners who were brought in to clean the administration offices to get us newspapers. They took the newspapers out of the waste baskets in the offices and put them into our rubbish bin. We paid with tobacco, the normal currency in prison, which we put into our bin for them to find.
All in all we were under these circumstances a very disciplined and civilised group of comrades and in the end our comradeship, to use that overworked word, worked well for us. I came out of prison a much stronger person than when I went in. I was more educated than when I worked as an engineer. I read a great deal and studied and yet had nothing to do to satisfy my emotional needs. No entertainment! I grew intellectually because there was endless time for thinking. I learnt to cut through great detail to get to the essentials of a topic. I could now explain the complex nature of my country in simple ways.
People often ask me how I remained as I am through all the long years in prison. I can only say that I did not remain unchanged. I became far more introspective, far more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. That does not mean I can always control them but I became far more aware of the tensions within myself. I have to say that many comrades who spent a few days or weeks or even months in prison believe that they know all about prison. They do not, because the length of time has its effects and as it gets longer the fight against becoming institutionalised becomes more important and harder. It is the resistance to becoming a prisoner in your mind that is the key to survival as a useful member of society. I know that even a short time in prison is heavy going and causes a major disruption in your life. My purpose is not to denigrate comrades who got “parking ticket” sentences of up to five years but to ask readers to think about what imprisonment means when continued for years and years without definite end.
The sense of powerlessness in the struggle for freedom raging outside the walls of the prison is awful. You feel like your hands are tied. You discuss and debate but you cannot act because you are cut off from everyday reality.