Maverick Citizen

SOUTH AFRICA’S GREAT ESCAPE PART 2

From the sublime to the ludicrous: How SA’s Great Escape rippled out to a moment of election farce

From the sublime to the ludicrous: How SA’s Great Escape rippled out to a moment of election farce
Left: Albie Sachs at the old Roeland Street Prison, Cape Town, where he was incarcerated. (Photo: Vanessa September). Middle: Albie Sachs at District Six Homecoming Centre. (Photo: Spirit Monyobo)

11 August 2023 marks the sixtieth anniversary of what is known as the Great Escape. To commemorate one of the most successful jailbreaks in South African history and the many struggle activists who fought for a democratic South Africa, Daily Maverick is publishing a series of articles and reflections by relatives, friends and comrades of those involved.

Locked up in a cell in Roeland Street Prison in November 1965, Advocate Albie Sachs experienced an ‘only in South Africa’ moment of surrealism during an exchange with his former interrogator, one Captain Rossouw.  

These articles, all written by people linked in some way to the struggle, are personal accounts of their or their family’s involvement, and the impact that involvement had on their lives. 

Read Part 1: here

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“The escape could not have been more sublime.  The consequences for me some years later could not have been more ridiculous.

“Nineteen sixty-three had become a terrible year.  The top leadership of our struggle had been captured at Rivonia. Hundreds of people were being detained without trial. Stories of torture abounded. The Nationalist Party government was crowing – they had broken the back of the ANC. 

“No matter that one country after another in Africa was gaining independence – apartheid was like a granite wall. White domination was here to stay in white South Africa (87% of the land), and black domination in black South Africa (in 10 so-called tribal homelands occupying 13% of the territory).  

And then the news came that four prisoners had escaped…  from Marshall Square Police Station, the very heart of security police custody in Johannesburg! The names came out – (they always gave the names of the whites first) – Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe, Mosie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat. We heard later that it was Mosie who had persuaded Johan Greeff, a young white guard, to let them escape. If Greeff unlocked the door, at 6pm there would be somebody under the station clock who would give him a reward.”   

The police were hoping for information and even offered reward money for news about their whereabouts. (Image: Supplied)

Muffled jubilation across the land

“It was as though a huge, muffled, subterranean cheer had broken out. The strutting monolith of power was getting the middle finger.  

“What somehow made it more exciting was that the four escapees weren’t well-known political figures. Mosie and Abdulhay were youth leaders who had worked as clerks. Arthur, the owner of the Rivonia farmhouse where the ANC leaders had been arrested, was known as a rather flamboyant store designer who had been a good cricketer. Harold was remembered as a student activist leader who had become a partner in a firm of attorneys that had handled a number of political cases.

The police and the state were desperate to catch the four escapees. (Image: Supplied)

The ANC had scored a victory with the Great Escape. (Image: Supplied)

“The whole might of the security state was mobilised to recapture them.  Informers were promised huge rewards. Struggle supporters were arrested, brow-beaten, torture squads at the ready. Borders were being watched. No news was good news. The longer they were not apprehended, the more excited we became. 

“I don’t recall who the first was to pop up across the border in a neighbouring state… but one by one they all made it. We were jubilant. Clearly there was still an underground that was functioning. The four little Davids had run rings around the giant Goliath. 

Sublime.” 

Albie Sachs at the old Roeland Street Prison, Cape Town (now an archive), where he was incarcerated. (Photo: Vanessa September)

In a Roeland Street cell

“Two years later, after the worst moment of my life, I was – as an indirect result of the escape of the four – to experience the most ludicrous moment of my life. 

“The torture squad headed by Theuns “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel had kept me awake until I had collapsed. I had water thrown on me and I had my eyes pressed open by Swanepoel’s thick fingers. After they were done with me, I was moved to a single cell in Cape Town’s Roeland Street Prison.  

Albie Sachs. (Photo by Gallo images / City Press)

“I find myself in solitary confinement in an old building, in a cell with a square hole, with iron bars running down the middle in one of the thick walls. One day I hear a loud, gruff voice calling my name through the barred window. ‘Advocate Sachs!’

“I see the face of Captain Rossouw, who had interrogated me during my first detention in solitary confinement two years earlier. I see he has a piece of paper in his hand. He apologises for speaking to me through the window, explaining that since the Goldreich-Wolpe escape, they had put double locks on the doors of all the cells of political prisoners. 

“This meant that two separate security officials would have the keys, and, he tells me in an embarrassed way ‘we can’t find the second official’.

“He continues: “Today it’s the general election. I brought you your ballot so you can vote.” I see his hand pushing the ballot slip between the bars into my cell. He waves it in my face and tells me in a very serious voice:  ‘We’re a democratic country.’   

“For the first time in several days I smile and say ‘thank you, but no thank you’. Only in South Africa… DM

Albie Sachs is a distinguished lawyer, judge, activist, scholar and author. He is a renowned former South African Constitutional Court Justice and anti-apartheid activist.

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