Forging Bright Horizons from a Heavy Past


A political prisoner was kept in confinement for 23 hours a day. The one hour of daylight granted was as much a ‘warzone’ as the over-populated prison cells. Human dignity a distant ideal in an era where survival was the order of the day, all day, every day.

By; Thabile Manala

Walking into the Constitution Hill, one is greeted by the reverberation of struggle songs and the epoc that birthed them. The women’s voices laden with nostalgia of children left behind. The men’s baritone voices, void of strength and audacity that typifies a black man.

The Number Four Prison was considered the worst prison during apartheid because of the old and unliveable structures. This prison housed political prisoners and pass law offenders awaiting trial.  

Worse still death sometimes came, and when it did, it was a slow death, that betrayed every landmark of self-woth, reducing giants into hollow shells.

Prisoners admitted to the Old Fort were required to take off their clothes in order to receive the prison uniform which was kept in the Number Four prison. This meant that from the admission site to the cells, the prisoners would make that journey stark naked onlt to be offered unwashed prison uniform which offered superficial security to the humiliation of nakedness.

African culture custom maintains a hierarchy of due respect by way of age. There was a tangible shame when old men were forced to be naked in the presence of young men collectively in a practice called, Thauza.   

Martin ‘Panyaza’ Shabangu, prison warder, 1973-80 said: “Some of these people grew up with me and as a warder I did not like to make them open their anus. Sometimes it was an old man in his 50s, a respectable somebody. White warders wouldn’t have done it to their own people. But it was a duty that we were forced to do …”

Petal Thring, CEO of the Constitution Hill, explains that the severity of how Human Rights were violated filtered deep into the psychology of those who endured prison conditions. Living in darkness for 23 hours, with access to two buckets for sanitation and water shared among many individuals bargaining for survival at the cost of violence everyday reduced many black people to animals.

Molefe Pheto, political prisoner, 1975: “Supper was a mixture of old rotten boiled fish whose stink would reach us, permeating from the prison’s kitchens, long before the fish itself had arrived; and when it did so, it was hardly recognisable as fish, with hundreds of thin bones which made it difficult to eat, apart from the disgusting smell of it. On the day it was pig skins, the fat had long curdled … with the pieces of skins sticking out of the mess like shark fins.”

The imagery of men squatting in what was called a long-drop toilet with other men immediately opposite them forced to eat in a squatting position illustrated the level of filth in the Number Four prison.

Thring said that the Constituion Hill is a “sight of hope to a lot of people”. She urged that our history cannot be forgotten because it carries so much heaviness but also a deep formidable legacy and that “in order to understand where we are, we need to be sensitive to where we have been”.

So when we are asked to forget? I ask how exactly do people who lived in a prison such as Number 4 forget? How do children who were born and grew up in the Women’s prisons validate their self-worth? How do we redeem this dispossession when structural inequality reigns supreme? Whilst there may be no official apartheid, the democratic revolution appears far from complete.

Thring said that the Constitutional Court today is based on Human Rights and is the guardian of our constitution which enshrines the values of equality, freedom and human dignity.  

On the prevailing socio-economic conditions, youth unemployment in particular Thring said that he can understand the anger of a lot of young people, “however, one of the things we have neglected is that we are all a part of strengthening our democracy”.  

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