The measure of a nation: St Albans, the shame of South Africa’s prisons
Daily Maverick recently reported on a prison-wide orgy of mass-beatings, torture and assaults, involving 200 inmates of Port Elizabeth’s St Albans prison. This was a direct replication of events that took place in 2005. Nine years later, the first four of 231 torture-survivors are suing the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services for damages in the PE High Court. CAROLYN RAPHAELY has been following the case as tales of profound and senseless human suffering unfold.
After former St Albans prison cleaner Ahmed Patel was forced to scrape human skin off the prison walls and clean faeces and blood from the prison passages, he could neither eat, nor smoke the cigarette a warder offered him as recompense. But, he told Justice Dyalan Chetty in the Port Elizabeth High Court last week, witnessing fellow-inmate Bradley McCallum being raped by a warder with a tonfas was “the limit…That guy was screaming like a little pig giving birth.”
“A tonfas,” Patel explained ….“is that plastic baton thing that looks like a large dildo. The thickness is almost like a small tin of fish, just bigger than a golf ball. He (Warder Padyachee) made a dildo out of that and put it up a man’s arse. Then he turned around and just said ‘Ja, naaier, jy het jou, nou kan jy maar weer vir jou clever hou’…And he was shaking the baton because there was blood and stuff on it.”
Patel was a witness in a trial in which the first four of 231 survivors of a prison-wide orgy of mass-beatings carried out by St Albans warders in 2005 are suing the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services for torture-related damages.
Surprisingly, though Patel still bears scars from the beatings he endured, he is not one of the plaintiffs. “I just want to forget about the whole ordeal. The further I am away from these people the better off I am. They were there to rehabilitate me, they did not. They failed miserably,” Patel told the plaintiffs’ Advocate Bruce Dykes. “I don’t want a cent out of this. I just want justice to be done. That people [sic] must be taken away, must be wiped off from the face of the earth, not just taken out of DCS (former Department of Correctional Services).”
Clearly, newly-appointed Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha is walking into a minefield. Tasked with heading a combined ministry designed to improve the functioning of the criminal justice system, the St Albans trial could prove to be one of his biggest headaches.
Encapsulating some of the most pressing challenges of his problematic portfolio - including an entrenched culture of impunity and brutality behind bars - the trial could also have serious financial implications. Should first four plaintiffs’ - Bradley McCallum, Bafo Duru, Xolani Siko and Simphiwe Mbena – claim succeed, 227 others will immediately follow suit.
“Though the size of the claim is exceptional, torture claims are not unique,” said the claimants’ attorney, Port Elizabeth-based human rights lawyer Egon Oswald. “I handle cases like this on an on-going basis and have issued numerous demands against the Minister on behalf of alleged victims of torture.”
Events at St Albans culminating in the current claim were triggered by the murder of warder Babini Nqakula by an inmate, which resulted in a week-long purported search for knives and the prison becoming battlefield. Nqakula was a close relative of then-Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula and former Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakulala - a factor some believe may have contributed to the extent of the ensuing chaos.
Graphic testimony during the trial’s first week shone a light on life behind bars in SA today, man’s inhumanity to man and an out-of-control mob of violent warders gone “tekera,” as Patel put it. Former St Albans cleaner Johannes Lottering, the first witness to take the stand, told the court how after Nqakula’s murder he and another cleaner were taken to the Maximum security section of the prison by warders Van Heerden and Bain to clean the passage.
“We scrubbed the walls and sprayed them with a fire hose to remove the dirt, blood and faeces that were coming off the floor and the walls,” Lottering explained. After filling a bakkie with soiled and bloodied clothing retrieved from the corridors, they drove to the prison’s garbage tip. Here, they off-loaded the clothes, poured petrol over them and tried unsuccessfully to set them alight.
“The clothes were wet, they didn’t burn easily…Then we were told to dig three or four holes in the ground and put all those clothes and blankets into these holes and close the holes.” And, presumably here they remain.
Though both Lottering and Patel had heard that Nqakula had been stabbed, they were completely unprepared for the horrors that greeted them. As head cleaner in the prison’s A and B section, Patel was also told to clean the corridors and instructed to find knives. Though his unsuccessful quest resulted in severe assaults and beatings by warders Padyachee and Green, his freedom of movement throughout the prison provided the court with valuable eye and ear-witness testimony.
“I saw naked prisoners lying on the floor, head in butt, head in butt. A male lying down with his legs slightly apart for the guy behind’s face to go into his arse…” In another area of the prison, he told the court he witnessed “something like a hurricane flew through that passage…You can see the people have been severely beaten, because you get prison clothes, not only their uniform, the pants and the shirt, the underwear also, were lying all over in the passages, clothing full of shit, full of blood, full of any liquid that is possible to come out of a person’s body; it was there……”
Though Patel’s penchant for colourful language caused State SC Hilton Epstein to accuse him of being “rude” when he described what else he saw in the passages – “here and there a tooth, here and there a full tooth, that is with the root and all...” – plaintiff Xolani Siko broke down and wept at the authenticity of his description.
Patel also described what he heard when taken to clean the B and D section. “It was almost like walking into a nuthouse, walking into a place where there are a lot of crazy people,” he said. “The way they were going on, the way they were talking, this one is crying, that one is frantic with fear.”
When a still obviously traumatised Siko eventually took the stand, he told the court how on the morning after Nqakula’s murder, a group of warders entered his cell and began assaulting inmates who were herded out of the cell through a tunnel of warders into the corridor. On the pretext of looking for knives, the inmates were ordered to strip naked, beaten with batons, bitten by dogs, assaulted, trampled on, and shocked by warders using electric shock shields.
“We were instructed to squat and...urinate at that same time. We were forced to do it, whether you like it or not. So, by the time they instructed you to defecate and you don’t want to while you’re squatting, they put that electric shield on you. And when they shock you, you’re going to defecate. If you have a knife, the knife will be pulled out...sic.”
Corroborating Patel’s earlier testimony, Siko said he was forced to lie face-down and naked in a long chain on the cement floor with his face in the anus of the inmate in front of him and that he was “sleeping” in the urine, faeces and blood of other inmates. After being kicked in the neck by Warder Padyachee, he lost consciousness.
When he recovered, he was lying naked on the floor of a single cell in severe pain, unable to swallow or hold food because of his injured hands and he was bleeding profusely from dog-bites and abrasions all over his body. A fellow-inmate told him warders had dragged him to the cell by his legs with his head bumping along the floor after they tried to revive him by dousing him with a bucket of water and shocking him.
Siko’s subsequent solitary confinement and treatment meted out to him by prison officials sounded eerily reminiscent of the manner in which Steve Biko was treated by Port Elizabeth Security Police nearly three decades ago: “While I was still in that single cell I felt my body was swelling and I could not move properly…So I just lay there.
“The cell was empty. There was no bed, no mattress, no blanket and I was naked…Full of blood on my legs and blood on my shoulders, blood everywhere on my back. I was sleeping on the water that already had the blood and the wall also had the blood.. and my toilet had the blood …(sic)”.
Nonetheless, the assaults, electric shocks and beatings continued unabated as the warders insisted that Siko produce a knife. In between, he said, “the sounds of prisoners still being beaten an assaulted continued through the day and night.”
The entire prison was under siege. On one occasion, while lying naked in the corridor, Siko said he saw two female warders “beating people in their private parts with batons...Ladies were shouting, “You are going to die!” and “Jou ma se poes”. He recalled how he was dragged under a cold shower by his legs, repeatedly shocked and assaulted as well as beaten on his testicles until he fainted by a female warder, Lulu.
An emotional Siko broke down again when describing how he was dragged naked from his cell to the prison’s B section where Warder Padyachee cuffed him by his legs and hands to a grill door in a crucifix position and instructed Warder Manuel to set his dog on him. “And the dog kept on biting me, and the dog kept on biting me... Biting my legs and my thighs up to my hips.”
On the fourth day, Siko was thrown into a van “like a packet of cabbages” and taken to hospital where X-rays indicated that his hands, now deformed and permanently disabled, were broken and his fingers fractured. Today, Siko’s body remains wracked with pain, covered by dog-bite scars and baton-wheals, attested to by photographs submitted to the court.
“I can’t sleep more than three hours...I can’t cope emotionally,” he said. “Sometimes I just want to die... because when I think about this incident I just feel like not existing.”
Having heard 230 stories similar to Siko’s from survivors of the St Albans battle-field, Oswald, like Patel, is determined to see justice served: “This case is about much more than money or financial compensation. It’s about exposing a catastrophic failure of the system and its oversight mechanisms and ensuring that what happened at St Albans never happens again.”
If Madiba was right when he said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” we should all be profoundly ashamed. DM
Carolyn Raphaely is a senior journalist with the Wits Justice Project which investigates miscarriages of Justice related to the criminal justice system. The WJP is a project of the University of the Witwatersrand's journalism department.