South Africa, Life, etc

Raymond Suttner: Inside Apartheid’s Prison – an excerpt

By Raymond Suttner 14 May 2017

Raymond Suttner served 11 years in prison and house arrest between 1975-1983 and 1986-1990. This extract from his book Inside Apartheid’s Prison covers his first of two periods behind bars, as a sentenced prisoner convicted for serving the aims of the ANC and SACP. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

Although this chapter of Inside Apartheid’s Prison covers more than seven years of my life, it is comparatively short. This is due, I think, to the sameness of prison life. All days in prison seem alike and it is difficult to accurately recall when things have happened. Outside, there are various rites of passage and landmarks that fix the phases of one’s life – the achievement of certain goals, changing relationships through marriage, parenthood, divorce and so on. This is not the case inside prison.

Even when one does have knowledge of a significant event – such as the birth of a child to a relative or close friend – it is impossible to relate to the event directly. The child, in the absence of a personal relationship and direct experience, remains just a name – like the name of a person in a novel or history book. While I was in jail, two of my brothers and one sister married and became parents. Over time, I received photographs of my new relatives, but it was impossible for me to relate to these changes as I would have done under normal circumstances.

The entire framework of prison existence is aimed at turning the prisoner into a passive object – an object whose every movement, whether inside or outside his or her cell, is either determined by others or severely limited. The prisoner’s number was said by officials to be the most important part of his or her identity and there was a pre-numbering period when prisoners were deemed to have no identity at all. To be allocated a prison number was to be saved from this nothingness.

The language of prisons expressed the view of prisoners being regarded as things – as objects whose management was in the hands of warders. Thus it was common to refer to prisoners in Afrikaans – the language of the prisons and police force – as eenhede, or units. You would often hear announcements directing a particular warder to come and collect his “units”. The words used for “collect” and “to bring” are afhaal and aflaai, and both are associated with the delivery or loading of things. Many of the ordinary criminal prisoners conformed to these expectations. They waited for their cells to be opened for exercise – and said nothing if this was later than regulations demanded. They waited to be asked before speaking, went back to their cells when told to do so, showered at the times allowed, accepted food when it was given and ate it hot or cold, all without complaint.

In “Maximum” [Maximum Security Prison where I was held immediately after conviction, and experienced further interrogation by security police, before joining the others], they returned to their cells at night, first putting their shoes and spoons outside the door, as was required for security reasons.

In February 1976, I was transferred from the Maximum Security section of Pretoria Central to Pretoria Local, where I joined a number of other political prisoners. Together, we challenged this dehumanised concept of prisoners and the prison world and generally prevented it from being applied to us.

For example, we did not hold out our numbered prison cards at “inspections.” In most prisons, a daily feature of life was to have the head of the prison inspect the prisoners. This was to see that everything was in order, that all the prisoners were present, that the prison had been cleaned and to hear complaints. Most prisoners stood to attention and held out their cards at these inspections, with their clothes neatly ironed and shoes shining. But the hearing of “complaints” or “requests” was generally a formality.

Denis Goldberg tells the story of how, when he was in Pretoria Central, he responded to a request for complaints. The officer was moving so quickly that he skidded some yards down the passage before he could come back to hear Denis.

As political prisoners, we were very conscious of our dignity and any attempt to undermine it. We expected, and demanded, respect. If they called us we would go, but we would not run or move with undue haste. It was common for warders to shout “Kom, kom, kom!” at prisoners; which in English literally means “Come, come, come!” But in Afrikaans it sounds much harsher and more degrading. If a warder shouted this at us – and new warders would sometimes try – we would normally object to being summoned as if we were dogs. The prison regulations made reference to treating prisoners in a civil manner – as we would never fail to remind officials who deviated from this rule.

Prisoners were expected to stand to attention when speaking to an officer. Our version of being at attention was by no means a military one. We would not fawn or beg, though we adopted various stratagems to win concessions that might improve our conditions.

I came into an environment in which, after long years of struggle, some of the conventional ways of treating prisoners had been reversed and the prisoners ran many aspects of their lives. This was a reasonably attractive environment, which included a lawn and garden. It also included a kitchen, complete with stove and a table, where we ate our meals on plates, using knives and forks. All of this was quite different from my experience in “Maximum” or in Durban Central Prison.

Our cells were much better than those occupied by Nelson Mandela and other black prisoners in places such as Robben Island. Ours were slightly bigger, were fitted with basins, and had hot water and flush toilets – which was not the case on the island. However, we heard odds and ends, via the International Red Cross, about the conditions of women prisoners in Barberton and Kroonstad, and these seemed always to be very hard, worse than for most of the men in their various prisons.

In some ways, we were a community that owed a massive debt to the early pioneers who had cleared the way for progress. Some of these remained with us – people like Denis Goldberg, who conducted most of our negotiations in the prison.

Denis, who had been jailed for life during the Rivonia trial – at the same time as Nelson Mandela – was very inventive and knew how to do numerous things to make our lives easier. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. That was an important skill, because it was hard to replace the things that one takes for granted outside. (Or, it would take some time before the replacement arrived and you would have to do without something necessary to your well-being.)

We played tennis with tennissette (wooden) bats, which were not strong enough for robust games. Denis would reinforce the bats in the prison workshop so they could be used on a three-quarter-sized tennis court. If books fell apart, he would simply rebind them. At Christmas, the prisons department allowed us to buy 500g of sweets, 500g of fruit and 500g of biscuits. Denis, and another fellow prisoner, John Matthews, would supplement this ration by making additional sweets. In the plain, unvarying prison environment, with its unvarying diet, something that tasted a little unusual made a difference.

John Matthews was in for 15 years for his work in the Communist Party and uMkhonto we Sizwe. He came from a working-class background and had spent decades in the struggle, unobtrusively making things happen. One such thing was building, with his own hands, a temporary wooden stage for the 1955 Congress of the People, at which the Freedom Charter was adopted. Unlike many of us, John enjoyed doing woodwork.

Marius Schoon (who was serving 12 years as a political prisoner after being trapped by an agent provocateur) used to say that John created a lot of [what Karl Marx called] “surplus value”.

David Kitson, who had been operating deep underground, was sentenced to 20 years in the ‘second Rivonia trial’ for acts of sabotage. Dave used to divide and dish up our food, something that he had apparently done in the army, during WWII. He was always in good humour and that is important when things are tense.

Jeremy Cronin and David Rabkin also arrived while I was in Pretoria Local. Jeremy and David were serving seven and 10 years, respectively, for issuing illegal pamphlets, just as I had done.

David Rabkin was later to die in an MK training accident in Angola. Anyone who met him will know that his death was a very great loss to our struggle. He would have made a substantial contribution to South Africa in the present period of rebuilding.

Before I joined the others, the earlier political prisoners in Pretoria Local had fought and won many battles, making life a lot easier for those of us who came after them, in the 1970s. Hugh Lewin’s book, Bandiet, gives some idea of how difficult things were in the beginning.

By that time, most of the worst excesses were no more and some of the most extreme personalities among the warders were merely part of folklore, and no longer our tormentors.

The term “boere” and “boers” (literally, “farmers”) was used to describe prison warders and police, and the authorities as a whole. These were Afrikaans words, but used to describe even English-speaking people. The words were applied to warders, police and Nationalist Party politicians.

Dave Kitson liked to say the early prisoners had tamed “the boers”. An example of how they had subdued the elements became evident a few days after my arrival. One Wednesday afternoon, I came down to the yard after being unlocked and saw a strange scene. There was, at that time, a boysenberry bush in the yard and, behind the bush, prisoners were sunbathing or lying on their backs. Others were idling around elsewhere. The warders were minding their own business in other parts of the yard.

This was a Wednesday afternoon, and both senior officers were off-duty. Everyone else acted as if they had the afternoon off, too. The warders were “tamed” in the sense that they did not consider it their duty to ensure that we were kept working. They did not mind what we were doing, so long as they did not land in any trouble themselves. If an officer was to have turned up unawares, the alarm would have been sounded pretty speedily, but short of that, nothing seemed to disturb the idyllic scene.

This may also illustrate something about the prevalent mentality of prison warders, as I experienced them, as opposed to the Security Police. The police tended to be fairly dedicated and did all they could to ensure we had a hard time and were put away for long periods. They were quite energetic about their work. They were fairly politicised and, in some cases, reasonably knowledgeable about politics. Warders were quite the opposite. They seemed content to lounge about, day after day, catching as much sleep as possible, doing as little work as they could. If there was an instruction to make life hard for us – for example, by carrying out regular searches – they would do this for a while, but never had much staying power.

Some warders were vicious, most were simply lazy. There was something about the job of being a warder that dulled the mind. Warders might arrive at the prison young and fit, but, over the years, they grew paunches and learned how to sit. It seemed to be a sign of maturity, to be able to just sit, with eyes closed, yet sense when a superior officer might be about to arrive, and not be caught out. For the most part, they lived in a twilight zone somewhere between being asleep and awake.

A type of peaceful coexistence reigned most of the time, with neither the boers nor the prisoners seeking confrontation. For our own reasons, and in order to reduce their involvement in our lives, we kept the prison clean and did most of the things expected of us. It was rare that prison officials would go around scraping their fingers on the top of doors to look for dust, as one found in other prisons. We did not polish the floors because we convinced the warders that the tiles were made of a material that did not need polish.

Through this “balance” we managed to achieve a sense of tranquillity most of the time. I remember how, during breaks from the prison workshop, we would sit with our backs to the wall in the prison yard and there was a sense of tranquillity that I prized.

It suited both sides to reduce conflict and avoid situations where we had no option but to fight. We could not be at their throats every day. We did not have the energy for that. Conflicts drained us more than in normal life. The dullness of prison life made it harder to deal with sudden changes and it suited us to let some things pass, even when they were unjust.

Before I joined the others in Pretoria Local, I had conjured in my imagination some sort of idealised version of what the other political prisoners would be like. Being in solitary and having worked with very few people before my capture, I had ample time to amplify this fantasy. Consequently, I imagined that the liberation movement comprised figures such as one finds in revolutionary novels, people who had managed to eradicate all the normal human weaknesses.

It was a rude awakening to find that many of the men that I was to spend years with possessed various habits and traits that were not only contrary to what I had imagined but were downright irritating and difficult to live with.

We were together because of our common allegiance to the liberation movement. Outside of that commonality, a great deal divided us. And personality differences often made for serious incompatibility.

We were from different generations. Our life experiences and the character of our involvement in the struggle were very different. In theory, these differences might have enriched our community, but they often led to tensions. Every individual has his or her way of coping with extreme conditions. Sometimes one person’s coping mechanisms disrupted another’s. Some of us required solitude at times, when others wanted company in order to deal with a difficult situation. Some wanted to play while others were more inclined to read and study.

Prison life comprises a number of petty interactions that make up social life. Just as people may fall out over major issues outside prison, great anger could arise over minor issues within prison. For example, how someone dried a floor, or whether or not a mop was adequately rinsed, or dishes properly cleaned, could cause ill-feeling. Most of us had gone through some sort of training, but nothing prepared us for being thrown together in the way that we were – for so long, and with people we would not have chosen to be with in the normal course of events.

A recurring theme, in my early letters, is my sense of some loss of confidence. My feeling is that it had something to do with small-group dynamics; and with the fact that our primary identity was that of “prisoner”, an identity shaped by the environment of the prison. In our interpersonal relations, even the fact of being a political prisoner seemed less significant than other factors that were more to do with the constraints of living within the prison environment. (Though the fact that we were political prisoners was very significant to the boers.)

Being a political prisoner, being in jail because of your beliefs – and having made sacrifices that few others, and especially whites, had made – may have been exceptional in white South Africa, but it was not exceptional in our yard. It was something we simply assumed and took for granted. We did not find it unusual or even bother to mention it. This may have led us to value one another less than we should have done.

On a day-to-day basis, the identities that were significant – concerning one’s interpersonal relations, as opposed to one’s relations with the boere – were all prison-related; and they depended upon what one did, or failed to do, within the prison environment.

We had come to prison with a variety of identities – as husbands, brothers, uncles and so on. We had been professionals, or workers in a particular field. Our various skills and qualities had been recognised by the people with whom we socialised in the world outside. In prison, some of these qualities seemed totally irrelevant. The esteem you once enjoyed – as someone successful outside of prison – might be totally absent inside. Your former identity might have little or no relevance to life there. There was no way you could act out the old identities and they remained more or less “dormant”.

Tensions between us were magnified by our mutual confinement. They were also heightened by the extreme censorship practised inside prison, which limited contact with people outside. Bare and limited as our rights and privileges may have been, even these were not secure. There was nothing to which you were entitled that you could count on with certainty. The letters you might receive – even a single monthly letter of 500 words – would not always arrive; and if a letter did arrive, it might be cut to ribbons.

If you complained about not receiving letters, the authorities might suggest that people were simply not writing to you – that is, that your family and friends had abandoned you. Unsubtle as this may have been, it was meant to feed into real anxieties that some people harboured.

Insecurities about censorship added massively to the normal tension of being locked up in jail. Much of the day we looked forward to 4pm, when the post was supposed to arrive. We would wait anxiously, hoping to be in luck. We would try to recognise handwriting or a type of envelope before the name was called. And a good letter would be treasured.

And if it was your lucky day, and you did receive a letter, would it be intact? I remember cries of anger as prisoners discovered that letters had been cut to pieces.

The same insecurity was induced by the censorship of books and other literature. I was particularly vulnerable, because books were a key to my survival. There was much time for uninterrupted reading, and I wanted to use it to the full – so I would come out knowing more than when I first went into prison.

The first problem was one of sheer prison inefficiency. There was actually a well-stocked prison library. But in all the years I was inside, I must have received fewer than a dozen of the books I requested, though they were actually in stock. I remember how David Rabkin specified, in his library requests, that he wanted “no historical romances” but continually received only historical romances.

After much effort, we got hold of the library catalogue and some of the entries revealed why the officials couldn’t find our requests. The Tempest, for example, was listed as “science-fiction” and Romeo and Juliet appeared under “author anonymous”.

Some books, acquired by prisoners as part of the “privilege” of being in A group, had been collected together, but I remember one day returning to my cell to find that half of these had been confiscated. I recall a sense of horror and powerlessness. We fought to get these books back. Some were returned to us, but most were not.

Study was a very important part of many prisoners’ lives. The attraction was not so much to sit for examinations, but to have access to the University of South Africa library – albeit, subject to prison censorship. But the future of one’s studies was always subject to great uncertainty. Where one had permission to study, the prison authorities would usually take their time in ensuring registration and obtaining prescribed books. This also meant – at least, until you were registered for study – that the lights in your cell would be switched off at 8pm. [Under other circumstances, as in detention or when I was in “Maximum”, lights were on 24 hours a day].

But study was not only administered haphazardly; it was also sometimes under threat. At one point, studies were phased out, and we were given a limited period to complete whatever we were doing. But, a few years later, we saw their full reinstatement, together with an extension of possibilities, which allowed us to do postgraduate work, from 1982.

Tensions were also associated with the few visits to which we were entitled. Those present consisted of the prisoner and the visitor, plus a warder on each side. And the warders did not try to make their presence discreet. They stood right next to the prisoner and the visitor – and were very much an unwelcome part of the experience. Visits could be interrupted, or concluded, after only a few minutes, if the discussion was deemed to infringe upon prison regulations.

It was not that we were innocently complying with the regulations. We did try to smuggle in news via visits or letters. We expected the warders to try to stop us. But the prison regime extended even into stopping what was quite legitimate and innocuous. They stopped much more than political news being communicated, and there was always the anxiety that a potential interruption – signalled by the body language of the warders present – would take place, whether it was justifiable or not in terms of the regulations.

A visit was generally our only contact with outsiders, and this often made us tense. The anxiety we felt about impending visits was heightened by the hopes, held by our comrades, that we would get political news from our visitors. One went into a visit feeling that one had to deliver the goods afterwards.

Seemingly minor things would “throw” us, making it difficult to focus or to enjoy the visit in a relaxed manner. And, before one realised it, the time was up. Prisoners and visitors would sometimes make notes, to make it easier to remember points we wanted to raise during our limited time together. Sometimes the authorities would unsettle us, and unsettle our visitors, by preventing us from taking notes in to sessions, or preventing visitors from taking their handbags into the visiting room.

Gradually, we improved our access to news. During the 1970s, we unsuccessfully challenged prison censorship in the courts. After winning their case, however, the prisons department slowly relaxed censorship in prisons, first allowing censored radio broadcasts, and then, in the early 1980s, allowing daily newspapers. This made a huge difference to our morale. DM

Inside Apartheid’s Prison, published by Jacana Media, will be out at the end of May and in bookshops in the first week of June.


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