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'Inside Apartheid's Prison': Surviving detention and depression

Published Jun 20, 2017


Anti-apartheid activist Raymond Suttner spent 11 years in prison, state of emergency detention and house arrest. He recounts these events in his book Inside Apartheid’s Prison, just published with a new introduction. This is an edited extract.

As I entered the third year, I sensed my time in detention might be ending. My lawyers were engaged in various efforts to secure my release, but when would that be?

People were detained for various reasons. Sometimes, it was for charges to be brought against you. Sometimes it was to elicit information about others, and torture was used if you did not talk. But I had hardly been interrogated at all.

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Perhaps the police had wanted to press charges concerning advocating people’s power, but were unable to do so. Consequently, they may have been holding me, and some others, just to keep the UDF leadership indefinitely out of the way. When we were arrested, we had taken the previous emergency as our measure and assumed we would not be in jail longer than eight or nine months.

Once they kept on reimposing the emergency, however, we had no idea when it would end.

There was no saying when we would be out. It just went on and on. It was impossible to adopt the frame of mind of a prisoner serving a fixed sentence. It was equally impossible to anticipate returning to normal life. In my own case, the detention acquired punitive connotations. After a while, the police released all the other white detainees and I was left on my own. It may not have been their intention to hold me in solitary confinement, but that was the result of being continuously detained. I was on my own for 18 of the total of 27 months I had spent in detention, first at John Vorster, then at Diepkloof and Pretoria.

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My conditions were not comparable to those of convicted prisoners. Although conditions in the detention areas of Johannesburg and Pretoria prisons were better than at John Vorster Square, I had no access to facilities that one normally enjoyed as part of a settled community of prisoners. Everything was makeshift - and meant to cater for people spending a very brief period awaiting trial or serving a short sentence.

I became very depressed. Perhaps I had been depressed in my previous period in prison without realising it. This time, there was no doubt. I would go to sleep at 11pm and wake up at 1am. Waves of gloom would descend over me. As the months of detention continued, I felt more and more exhausted and found it difficult to concentrate. I relied much more on physical exercise than intellectual work to get me by.

If it was suggested to me that I was depressed, I became quite angry because I equated depression with self-pity and self-indulgence. I did not appreciate that my situation could induce depression quite independently of my will. My capacity to deal with it was gravely impaired, until I came to recognise and understand it properly.

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I exercised every morning till the aches in my shoulder muscles were relieved and I had reached a frame of mind adequate to get me through the day. Every day in prison, one must recreate the conditions for one’s continuing survival.

In my days as a sentenced prisoner in Pretoria, the conditions for survival were social, had to do with my relationships with the other comrades and my intellectual endeavours, such as reading and research.

In this second period, it was strange to find that I was depending on physical exertion to get by - as I had previously been so much involved with intellectual pursuits. At one time, I ran so much that I damaged my knee and had to have surgery.

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I never considered giving up, although there were times when I definitely would have liked to have been released into some form of confined existence, restricted to some quiet spot where I would never again risk redetention and could quietly retire.

The period of detention threw up very important moral and psychological questions for me. I had seen how some people were not able to deal with detention. Some of these people, even those in leadership positions, on finding themselves alone in a detention cell, discovered that their level of commitment faltered.

They had often been very brave when taking part in mass political activities. They were very knowledgeable about the ideas and theories of our movement. But they did not seem to have internalised this as a commitment that could carry them through unexpected hardships and loneliness in jail. These hardships were unexpected for all of us. We did not expect to be in jail for as long as we were, separated from loved ones for so long, with no idea when we would be released.

In my own case, I was adequately equipped because I had made an earlier commitment that I drew on, that gave me strength.

I found my previous experiences were no longer of immediate, practical assistance in dealing with new levels of privation as the months of solitary continued.

I found, equally, that I could not plead for my release or make concessions in order to get out. I had already made choices that made it impossible to do certain things in order to obtain my release. There were opportunities. Every now and then, one was confronted with the possibility of release - if one applied to court and phrased your wording in such a way that implied a degree of distance from the liberation movement, or that you recanted on some beliefs.

Small nuanced phrases may have been sufficient. And one could have found ways of “living with these phrases”, as some detainees had done.

I was very much affected by detention but I always managed to scrutinise documents carefully, to avoid any such hints or phrasing.

In 1987, I brought a fresh application for my release, and directly confronted choices and opportunities to dissociate myself from the liberation movement in order to secure it. However, I could not choose such a course of action, and lost the case. In fact, the judge referred to my being “resolute” as a reason for holding me.

This was very hard, but it was also a practical experience. I did not just lie there in my cell and suffer. I was interacting with prison officials and I tried to make those relationships beneficial. I did my best to form good relationships with the prison officials, so they would either make life better for me or not do anything to make it more difficult. I tried to reclaim some control over my environment and my own life.

I used to give the warder who ran my section a list of things to do - what was called the “agenda”. He would tick all these things off as he did them and then report back to me.

For example, he checked the post or took me to fetch medicine from the prison hospital. In a sense, it was I who determined what happened to me, obviously within a very circumscribed framework. But I still reappropriated a degree of control over my own environment.

Strange as it may seem, and due to these efforts, I found myself in a supportive environment in the prison.

Very few warders tried to give me a hard time. For the most part, they did their best to make life easier, given that I was on my own, they had to hold me there and I was not going anywhere soon.

Inside Apartheid’s Prison is published by Jacana Media

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