Inside SA’s factory of death

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ss gallows INLSA END OF THE LINE: The bodies would hang over the blood catchment pit area until a heartbeat could no longer be detected. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Kevin Ritchie

As you brake going down the steep hillside into Pretoria, the first thing you notice is the colossus of Pretoria Central Prison on your left.

During the apartheid years, many believed this was death row.

It wasn’t. It was actually the remand section, where awaiting trial prisoners were held.

Death row sits deep in the middle of the complex, home to thousands of prisoners and warders, housed in three prisons and an array of guest houses, bungalows and single quarters respectively, with swimming pools and tennis courts too.

Tucked away, in the lee of the hill, is death row.

ss barendstrdom REPRIEVED: Wit Wolf Barend Strydom. Picture: Cara Viereckl INLSA

It’s always been called that. Today it’s officially called C-Max and, during apartheid it was known as Pretoria Maximum. But to the warders who worked there, almost exclusively Afrikaans, it was TDV Tronk (Ter dood veroordeelde), the condemned to death jail, or death row to its inmates.

Ignoring for a moment the bomb- proof walls and the five watchtowers that surround it, the front of the building is unassuming 1960s Department of Public Works architecture, little different from a rural railway station or Home Affairs building in a Free State town.

The doors are solid wood, with brass hinges and a brass post box set in the middle of the left hand one. Beyond them lie three sets of solid bars and gates that run floor to ceiling, about five times the thickness and girth of the burglar bars on a suburban home.

Standing in the foyer of the jail you can look between them all the way up, through a neatly tended garden to the stained glass windows in the foreground and beyond them to a featureless four-storey building topped by zinc water tanks.

This is death row. Apartheid SA’s death factory, built to specifications in 1966 and commissioned in 1967. It’s pregnant with paradoxes.

SA abolished capital punishment on June 6, 1995, in a unanimous decision by the new Constitutional Court. Apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, had stopped hanging as far back as 1989 as part of his raft of reforms. Two years before, though, SA was hanging people at the rate of almost one every two days – the third highest in the world.

ss mcbride REPRIEVED: Magoos Bar bomber Robert McBride. Ex-QDMS

By the time De Klerk imposed his moratorium, death row was almost 50 percent overcrowded.

Of the 283 condemneds waiting to hang at the time, 11 were white.

But in death row, set up to bolster the apartheid regime, there was no apartheid; black and white prisoners spent their last days on Earth together and died together.

Burial was another matter; the whites were sent to paupers’ graves in Zandfontein in Pretoria, the coloureds to Eersterust, the Indians to Laudium and the blacks to Mamelodi. Only legendary uMkhonto we Sizwe guerrilla Solomon Mahlangu was treated differently. His body was interred in Atteridgeville as the apartheid government didn’t want his grave to become a shrine.

In a place built to kill prisoners, the warders were obsessed with keeping the condemneds healthy – so that they could be executed. Prisoners were put on strict diets and watched continually to ensure they didn’t commit suicide.

Now, more than 20 years after capital punishment’s high-water mark, there is a rising clamourfor its return.

ss solomon mahlangu EXECUTED: Legendary uMkhonto we Sizwe freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu. Group

On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma will inaugurate the first phase of SA’s Gallows Memorial, the gallows faithfully restored, the holding cells refurbished and the mortuary fridges below reinstalled. It will be the only public museum in the middle of one of SA’s highest security jails, holding prisoners like Chris Hani’s killers Clive Derby-Lewis and Janusz Walus, apartheid’s notorious “Prime Evil” Eugene de Kock, multiple escape artist Ananias Mathe and the awaiting trial Boeremag terror accused.

The project is the brainchild of Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and wholeheartedly adopted by Correctional Services national commissioner Tom Moyane.

It will be a while before the public gets access though. As veteran journalist Anneliese Burgess explains, the first phase is the reconstruction of death row and the gallows, the second phase is creating a separate entrance to the facility, including a tunnel under the new and expanded 300-cell C-Max prison which is still very much part of the original death row building.

C-Max is scheduled to be redeveloped into Super-Max, an ultra-secure holding prison where inmates are kept under lockdown for 23 hours out of 24, eating their meals in the cells and exercising on their own for an hour a day – in a cage – which is where they will shower too.

Burgess has been part of the minister’s project since its inception, interviewing former death row inmates, the families of the condemned and the warders alike. A veteran of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and then 10 years on the SABC’s hard-hitting Special Assignment investigative series, she took a sabbatical from journalism five years ago, on the cusp of burnout. But thiswas a project she couldn’t turn away from.

“This place was built specifically to kill. We’ve turned it into an anti- death sentence statement.”

ss deathpit No going back: The trapdoor at Pretoria Central Prisons gallows. The trapdoor has seven pairs of painted foot soles, close together, all pointing away from the door. Picture: Nomazwe Bukula INLSA

The museum begins in the old death row. There is a corridor under a catwalk leading past the feedback room and the “pot”.

Baadjies en adres” (jackets and address) would be the shout. The condemneds would be locked into their cells. The warders would head for a specific cell and take the inmate to the “feedback room”.

There the sheriff of the High Court would tell him that his appeal had failed and that he would be hanged in the next seven days.

His “baadjie” and all his other possessions would be transferred with him to the “pot”, the “adres” would be the addresses of two of his next-of-kin or his heirs, to whom his worldly possessions would be sent afterwards. He would be measured and weighed right there so that the hangman could prepare the correct length of rope.

For the next seven days, or less, the condemned man would live in the “pot” – so-called because that’s where the prisoners believed the warders liked to let them stew before executing them.

It’s a tiny cell with inspection windows set into the wall and ceiling. There’s a bed with a standard army-type mattress covered in a blue and white “pisvel”, a desk that you can get to by sitting on the foot of the bed, a sink and a bare toilet bowl.

The condemneds would be allowed one 30-minute visit from their families every day, but never full contact. They could sit on stools bolted to the floor, peering at each other through armoured glass laced with iron bars and communicating via galvanised iron speaking tubes. The only people they could see face to face would be the prison chaplains or their lawyers.

When the due day arrived, the condemned would be woken at 6am. Few ever slept that night. There would be an opportunity to pray in the chapel and then, accompanied by a warder, their hands would be cuffed behind their backs.

Then they would be lined up in the corridor with everyone else due to be hanged that morning. From there they would climb the 52 steps on the four-storey staircase to the killing floor.

The museum has picked four political prisoners, showcasing one on each landing; MK’s Vuyisile Mini, hanged in 1964; the African Resistance Movement’s John Harris, hanged in 1965; Poqo’s Zibongile Dodo, hanged in 1968; and Solomon Mahlangu himself, the most well known of them all.

The political prisoners were disciplined, the warders remember. They were determined to die with dignity, some of them so much so they almost dragged their escorts.

The criminals were different. One had to be tear-gassed out of the pot and manhandled up the stairs. Others begged, pleaded and messed themselves before the noose was even around their necks.

At the top of the stairs, the true horror awaits. Although never used, there are communal holding cells for three prisoners, six, nine. There’s a chaplain’s room, never used either, and a cuffing room. Today, at the top of the stairs, there are pictures of the 130 political prisoners executed during the Struggle.

On the opposite wall is a quote by heart transplant pioneer, Professor Christiaan Barnard, on hanging, dated 1978: “It may indeed be quick,” he says. “We do not know, as no one has ever survived to vouch for it.”

Next-door is the gallows.

Nothing can prepare you for it.

There is a gantry in the middle of the room, suspended from the ceiling. It has a block and tackle on it, capable of winching back the 1.5 ton trapdoors below.

There are seven nooses. The trapdoor has seven pairs of painted foot soles, close together, all pointing away from the door.

There is a desk in one corner and an old Bakelite phone in the other.

It was for 11th-hour reprieves. It never rang.

Some condemneds did get reprieved, like Barend Strydom and Robert McBride, and the Upington 6, but never right there, cuffed, hooded and waiting for the drop.

On the far wall is a framed copy of a 1988 Saturday Star interview with Warrant Officer Chris Barnard, a policeman who moonlighted as one of the country’s three hangmen.

His personal tally was 1 500 executions by the time he retired.

Seven prisoners could be hanged at a time. Their identities would be checked outside, hoods placed on their heads, then they were marched in onto the trapdoor.

Oom Barries, as the older warders remember him, would walk up to each of the condemned, flip the flap of the hood over their eyes and place the noose around their neck.

When he got to the end he would push the lever that would crash open the trap door.

It would take him 18 seconds from the first noose to the lever.

It’s a three-storey drop straight into a purpose-built human abattoir, termed the “blood catchment pit area” on the architectural plans.

The bodies would hang over the pit for up to 15 minutes until the district surgeon could no longer detect a heartbeat.

The bodies would be undressed and sluiced off where they hung and then taken down one by one. Autopsies would be performed and then they would be placed naked in cheap chipboard prison-built coffins with small yellow tags on them.

The clothes would be sent to the prison laundry to be washed for re-issue to the next condemneds.

Two hours later, the coffins would be lowered into the chapel by special lift and all the families of the condemned would take part in a 30-minute mass funeral service.

Afterwards the bodies would be taken back and stacked in the fridges before the hearses arrived to bury them in pauper’s graves.

The officials, though, would be finishing their paperwork, below the gallows.

Today they’re mounted on the walls of the autopsy rooms. Cause of death: Fractured dislocation of the first and second cervical vertebrae.

No detail was too trivial.

On the penultimate landing on the 52 steps to the gallows is Mahlangu’s “death ticket”, as filled in by the hangman.

For the record, in perpetuity, you will read that his neck measured 16” (40.6cm). He was 5’9” (1.75m) tall, weighed 146lbs (66kg). He needed to fall 6’10”, so he got a 14ft (4.2m) long rope.

“You know,” says Burgess, “there were some real horrors who were executed here.

“I’ve always been against capital punishment philosophically, while understanding the need on a purely personal level for revenge and retribution. But after working on this project I am now more convinced than ever that this is a heinous thing to do to anyone. There are alternative punishments.

“That’s the story we’ve set out to tell.”


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