SOUTH Africans will be able to visit the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison from next year to see where close to 4 000 people were hanged during the dark days of apartheid.
President Jacob Zuma yesterday officially opened the gallows as a museum, reminding government officials and relatives of the estimated 130 political prisoners hanged between 1961and 1989 that SA’s freedom was “not free as it came at a huge price and great pain”.
The Gallows Memorialisation Project is the brainchild of Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
Yesterday she said that while the museum was to honour those political prisoners who were hanged, it was a reminder to future generations not to take their freedom for granted.
The event was attended by several political leaders, including Deputy Correctional Services Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi, PAC president Letlapa Mphahlele, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile, Tshwane mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa, Cope president Mosiuoa Lekota and National Commissioner of Correctional Services Tom Moyane.
Zuma had earlier visited the gallows, where he gasped as he was taken through the corridors and various cells of political prisoners on his way up the 52 steps to the gallows.
In one instance he asked prison warder Andre Steyn what sermon or prayer was said by the priests who officiated at the hangings that took place at the facility.
“It was just a normal prayer and the service was kept short,” replied Steyn.
The gallows at the prison, now known as C-Max Correctional Centre, was dismantled in 1996, an act which Mapisa-Nqakula described as an attempt to rob the people of SA of an opportunity to understand the painful history of executions.
As part of the museum, the chapel at the gallows was renamed the Steve Biko chapel, in memory of all those who died in detention.
There is also a garden of remembrance, where people will be able to put a small stone after visiting the gallows and reflect on what they have witnessed.
A roll of honour with the names of all the political prisoners who were executed will be placed at the gallows entrance.
The museum will be separate from the prison, with its own entrance and exit.
Mapisa-Nqakula said questions were already being asked by opposition political parties as to how much had been spent to convert the gallows into a museum.
“I want to say that no monetary value can be attached to the lives of all those who were hanged,” she said amid cheers.
The bulk of those hanged belonged to Poqo and MK, military wings of the PAC and ANC respectively, with the PAC saying that out of the 132 hanged, 94 had been its members.
Mphahlele said the gallows were a shrine to the PAC and that it was scandalous that 17 years into a new democracy, some of its members were still languishing in jail.
Mantashe said it was disingenuous to honour those who were hanged for political reasons while their families continued to live in poverty.
He was echoed by Zuma, who said the government had to reach out to all those families and attend to their plight.
Family members were presented with a framed portrait of their hanged relatives taken on their last day alive, which brought joy to some as they had never seen their loved ones either because they were babies at the time or the families had never had their photos.
Trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and the Amandla choir provided musical entertainment after the formalities.