Reginald and Maria Mahlangu at their home in Mamelodi.Their brother Victor Mahlangu was one of the many prisoners that were hanged at the Pretoria Central prison during the Apartheid regime. Picture: Paballo Thekiso
Reginald and Maria Mahlangu at their home in Mamelodi.Their brother Victor Mahlangu was one of the many prisoners that were hanged at the Pretoria Central prison during the Apartheid regime. Picture: Paballo Thekiso
71 year old Iris Baltsoucos used to pray for prisoners on death row at the Pretoria central prison. Picture: Paballo Thekiso
71 year old Iris Baltsoucos used to pray for prisoners on death row at the Pretoria central prison. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Iris Baltsoucos grew fond of her new friend. For months she had come to pray for Edian Ntuli. Today, she remembers him as the most beautiful, wonderful man she had ever met.

A police officer in KwaThema, he had been framed for a crime he said he didn’t commit. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

Baltsoucos will never forget her visits to Pretoria Central Prison – the high walls, the large doors, the clank of keys turning in their locks. There was even a rose garden in the prison chapel. She never understood why. All she was ever allowed to take with her was her Bible.

“My Bible was my protection, my weapon. It can go through walls, around corners. I never saw the gallows, or the ‘pot’ as the inmates called it, but just knowing that I was so close to those areas so many times was enough for me.”

A young mother of two, Baltsoucos drove the 35km to Pretoria Central every Tuesday for more than a year. She didn’t tell anyone where she was going, not even her husband. In 1974, Baltsoucos had just become a born-again Christian. It changed her life.

“I was earthly good. I made food parcels and distributed them to the poor,” she remembered this week.

During the course of her mission work she was contacted by the Ntuli family to see their son Edian and pray for him.

“It startled me. I told them that I would pray about it. In the end I decided to go.”

The visits would ultimately cost her her marriage, but she doesn’t regret even one minute of it. She truly believed that she could not just save him from the hangman’s noose, but help to set him free.

She petitioned and investigated and made some startling discoveries about the white policemen with whom Ntuli had worked.

“Some of them were committing atrocities. There was one officer they murdered. He was shot in Vilikazi. They made it look like a suicide, like he had drowned. Edian found out that a man had been hired by the white officers to do the job. They then framed him and made the authorities believe that he was the leader of a gang robbery that was funding the ANC.”

But the information Baltsoucos was able to gather made no difference in the end.

Then one day in 1977, while visiting her friend, she was approached by a burly white warder.

“He took me to another part of the prison. He told me that I was to have no more visits. He really laid down the law. That was the last time I saw Edian.”

Less than six months later, Ntuli was executed. Six other prisoners were hanged with him that day in May 1978.

“I later heard from other officers that there was an amazing atmosphere in that prison on that morning. He affected everyone. It was like thunder roaring, the prisoners were praying. His burial was the same day. People came from all over the country to the Mamelodi cemetery. He was well loved,” said Iris.

Ntuli was one of more than 2 949 people hanged in South Africa.

Solomon Ngobeni was the last, on November 14, 1989.

According to the Department of Correctional Services, 14 women were executed, including poisoner Daisy de Melcker.

Then-president FW de Klerk ordered a moratorium on executions in 1990 and capital punishment was abolished by Nelson Mandela’s government on June 7, 1995.

Now the Department of Correctional Services is restoring the Pretoria Central Prison gallows area as a museum to give victims’ families “closure”.

The department has asked the families of those hanged to contact it, to have a day of healing so that they, too, can walk up the 52 steps which their sons and daughters had to walk up to “experience the anxiety, the fear of imminent death”, as one newspaper put it.

Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula will unveil the gallows on December 8.

It’s a personal project for the minister. She ordered that “death row” be rebuilt immediately after she heard that the gallows had been dismantled.

The project will culminate in the “day of healing” when relatives of the hanged and staff who worked there will be able to meet and share their stories.

Ultimately, the names of all 4 003 inmates who were on death row will be engraved on plaques to be displayed around the rebuilt gallows, along with murals and pictorials of what happened there.

Mapisa-Nqakula hopes that South Africans calling for the death penalty to be reinstated will retrace the 52 steps to the noose in the hope that they can feel the trauma that condemned prisoners had to endure.

But Baltsoucos couldn’t agree less.

“If the minister has nothing to do, then she must concentrate on overcrowding in cells, awaiting-trial residents waiting for four to five years for court,” she wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times.

“I am devastated at reading of the refurbishing of the gallows. The fact that the minister thinks that seeing it will change young people’s outlook on life is preposterous and irresponsible.

“Maybe a few families will come, out of curiosity. But they won’t be healed and get closure while taking those 52 steps to the execution chambers where the sadistic officers took delight in seeing their victims take the plunge.”

Baltsoucos said the pain of being inside the prison while executions were still being carried out there was something she would never be rid of, although she had never seen the gallows.

“The minister doesn’t know what actually took place in that devil’s cauldron. The pain never goes away,” said Baltsoucos.

Victor Mahlangu’s family, though, believe it will ease their pain. Mahlangu, a political activist from Mamelodi, was tried and convicted in the 1960s. He was sentenced to die. He was 30 years old.

Maria and Reginald were 18 and 16 at the time. The youngest of seven children, they knew little about what Mahlangu was into politically.

“He was never home. He would come home for a while and then disappear for six months at a time. But there was an informer close by who would tell the police when he was home.”

When Victor was arrested in 1964 the family didn’t know why.

Maria went to the prison to visit her brother.

“I asked what was going on. Why was he there? But he didn’t tell me. He just said that there would be no more darkness and that he was going to the light. He was so happy.

“I told him that he was going to die and asked him why he was so happy. But he started singing: ‘I have crossed the River Jordan, you are my saviour, you are my only hope. I have crossed River Jordan, you are my saviour, you are my only hope.’”

Reginald said Mahlangu asked that they send all his other family and friends to the prison to let him say goodbye to them, because it would be the last time he would see them all.

“We didn’t even know that our brother was on death row. We were told to come to the Mamelodi cemetery the next day to buy a hole for Victor.”

He said when they arrived at the cemetery the next day they were ordered to remain 5m from the graves. There were five coffins. Each one had a number on it.

“We were not allowed to see our brother. They told us we could not. For all we know, there were bricks in those coffins. In fact, the boxes were not even coffins. They were just planks, nailed together.

“The prison warders asked us whether we had bought a hole. We said yes. But because some of the other families didn’t buy, they put two other coffins in the same hole as Victor. Then they closed the hole.

“We didn’t go back there, we were too scared.”

Later the siblings met a man who had been warder at the prison. He had worked inside the gallows room. The man described in detail how Victor and so many others had been put to death.

“He told us how they would place the prisoners on marked spots underneath the nooses. He told us how they wrapped the rope around the prisoners’ necks and how they were left hanging there until they were dead.

“This man was one of the people who had to clean up below the ropes – the blood and mess.

“It was those images which traumatised us. We never really understood what happened, until we heard those stories,” Reginald said.

Days after Victor’s execution, Maria lost her baby, because of the trauma of her brother’s death. She remembers it like it was yesterday, the pain of losing her brother and her baby at the same time.

“We would like to see where our brother was hanged, where he died. We just wish we could stand in front of the person who actually did it.”

Reginald added that, as a family, the Mahlangus needed closure.

“It is our tradition. His spirit is still there. We need to tell that spirit that he can go home now.” - Pretoria News

The Department of Correctional Services has asked families of those executed to contact Promise Khumalo at 076 413 4042 or e-mail her at [email protected]