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Special Hearings

Type Prison Hearings

Starting Date 21 July 1997


Day 1


DR BORAINE: I will ask Mr Henry Magkothi to come forward please. Mr Magkothi thank you very much for coming, we welcome you most warmly. Would you please stand for the taking of the oath.

MR HENRY MAGKOTHI: (sworn states)

DR BORAINE: Mr Magkothi as I explained earlier when each of the witnesses come before us it is their story that they are telling, we are not trying to tell them what to say. You know what happened to you but in order to assist the proceedings and because we have a lot of people who want to speak Mrs Joyce Seroke will facilitate your story, thank you. Mrs Seroke?

MRS SEROKE: Good morning Henry, youíve come to tell us a very sad story about your life in two prisons but more importantly in Robben Island. In your statement you say that in 1962 you skipped the country for the purpose of doing military training for the ANC, what prompted you to skip the country and want to engage in that profession, to call it that?

MR MAGKOTHI: Long before 1962 I had been an activist of the African National Congress and when the organisation was banned in 1961, I worked underground for the organisation. As the struggle developed and the organisation decided to form the MK, I was recruited into the structures of Umkhonto weSizwe. I worked largely in the administrative sections of Umkhonto weSizweís logistics sections here at home and then in 1962 I was given instructions that I should proceed abroad to go and strengthen the mission of the ANC abroad. That is how I left the country.

MRS SEROKE: Unfortunately you didnít reach your destination and you were intercepted in Zambia and arrested.

MR MAGKOTHI: Yes as I say, I was involved in the logistics side of Umkhonto weSizwe and when I was given instructions to go abroad I was also given instructions to accompany, to take out of the country, I think it must have been in the region of about thirty young people. I was given this instruction together with the late Joe Ghabe who by then was an experienced guerrilla, he already had military training abroad in China and we were given the responsibility of taking these young people across.

As I say the roots, Joe Ghabe had more experience as he had been abroad I think once or twice already, gone outside and come back into the country but for me it was the first time I was taking these young men over who were going for military training abroad. At the time it was a pretty risky business because the security, the tentacles of the South African security reached very, very far as we discovered. We travelled through Botswana, we travelled through the bush but I think that even while we were travelling through the bush in Botswana, the authorities at home here already knew, I mean the special branch already knew, through their numerous contacts I believe also in Botswana, that there was this group of young people going abroad.

All along the way we were dogged by security agents or people whom we suspected were security agents until we crossed over into Zambia. It was at the time when the Unik Movement was on the verge of taking over power in Zambia and there was a very heightened security on the part of the authorities there so when we crossed the Zambezi into Livingstone, I think by then the authorities on the other side knew about our arriving in the country and very soon we were rounded up in Livingstone and arrested. We spent some time in jail there and then eventually we were sent back to South Africa.

MRS SEROKE: You spent some time after you were charged with leaving the country illegally, you were sentenced for two years and then you spent some time in Leeuwkop Prison and thereafter you were sent to Robben Island. Neville Alexander in his dossier which he wrote to give an insight of what was happening in Robben Island when he was also incarcerated, describes some of the situations in Robben Island. He says quote, more astounding if possible is the almost total lack of knowledge of the main regulations and sections of the Act pertaining to the treatment and conduct of offenders and he goes on to say that most of the warders were either very cruel, harsh, vindictive or adverse and coldly indifferent to the sufferings of prisoners. How would you confirm that or reject it?

MR MAGKOTHI: I think that is a fair summary of what was taking place at the time in the prisons and you will have heard also the testimony given by Mr Masondo that it is in line with what he said there. Insofar as my experience about the amount of ignorance there was about what ... the prisoners generally should be incarcerated under in the prisons.

I must say that when I first got to Leeuwkop and this was in 1962 I think, the treatment was so harsh there that we soon realised that unless we do something because we were a group, as I say some thirty three of us were arrested so there was an advantage of numbers and we soon realised that unless we do something about this we would not be able to survive here in jail.

Then we thought, well we had an idea that there were regulations which governed how prisoners should be kept in jail and we asked for the rules as we wanted to study the rules to see what we were supposed to do and what we were not supposed to do and what the authorities could do. This was of course met with disbelief, it was clear to us that some of the officers when we approached them, maybe this was a novel question nobody had really asked for before or probably they didnít know but it certainly took some time for us to be able to get the rules from the authorities.

After they had given us the rules, they said look here there is no, we discovered that among the privileges that we could have in jail was the privilege to study and things like that and we thought that we were going to start making representations to be allowed to study and so on and also to have decent clothing, like shoes. We had no shoes despite the fact that we were driven out every morning to work, shackled hand and foot and chased by warders on horseback to places where we should work.

When we said we would like to exercise this kind of privilege such as studying, they then turned around to us and said, look we donít have the facilities in Leeuwkop for you to study, you canít enjoy privileges here you will get your priveleges when you are in Robben Island. I think Mr Masondo has given you an idea of what was meant by the type of privileges which were in store for us in Robben Island.

I was in Robben Island from 1962, I was one of the very early inmates of that prison even though when I was there I did find Mr Masondo and I did find Johnson and there were other people who had been there before us but I certainly was one of the earliest to be, you know our group was one of the very earliest to go to Robben Island.

MRS SEROKE: In your statement you say that when you were in Robben Island you discovered you had tuberculosis and you had to work in spite of your physical incapacity, was there any medical help in that prison?

MR MAGKOTHI: Actually I had contracted tuberculosis before I went to Robben Island, I went to Robben Island already being a TB sufferer. I did have problems even while I was still in Leeuwkop and the attitude of the prison authorities to people who were ill was something rather strange. If you complained about a cut on your body or something on your physical self, they tended to more attention to that than when you complained about a thing like TB. I think they interpreted that as maybe you want to loaf, you donít want to work, you are lazy or something of that sort. I remember in my case when I was having problems in Leeuwkop my colleagues said look, never mind what happens when they come for complaints, they used to do that every week on a Sunday, you should go out and tell the officer in charge about your condition so that maybe something could be done about it. I did that but before the main officer comes to take the complaints, there is his junior who takes the complaints first and when I told this man what my problem was that I was a TB sufferer and Iíve got problems and Iíve started bleeding and so on, he said to me look here if you know whatís good for you, you had better not say anything of the sort to the officer about this. He will just put more pressure on you because quite clearly he would interpret it as me not wanting to work or something like that.

Shortly after that we were transferred to Robben Island and on Robben Island it was very difficult to gain access to the hospital. The doctor didnít come often enough and even then there were so many obstacles they placed in your way before you could get to hospital but eventually I did manage to get to the doctor and I was examined and they sent me to Cape Town for treatment. I was not sent to hospital because I was a dangerous prisoner, I received treatment while I was in Pollsmoor Prison and I used to go to, I think the hospital in Cape Townís name was West Lake. I used to go there and come back to the prison in Pollsmoor.

MRS SEROKE: Also in your statement you say that you had to fight very hard to change the conditions at the prison, how did you try to effect these changes?

MR MAGKOTHI: The only weapons which we had while we were at Robben Island were strikes in the form of hunger strikes and we had numerous of these strikes in Robben Island in particular. That is how we thought we would be able to change things. The strikes would go on for a very long time. It was just a test of endurance between ourselves and the authorities. After each strike we would be very much weaker but we always consoled ourselves that after every such strike we made a little progress.

We made some progress in changing our diet, better clothing and getting an opportunity to study, even on Robben Island. That was how we managed to ..., in many cases this kind of success was short-lived because very soon the authorities would find a way of making us revert back to the position and weíd have to start fighting the battle in that way again. As I say the main weapon which we used was the hunger strikes.

MRS SEROKE: In the statement one of your recommendations to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee is that you would like that there should be counselling for ex-prisoners and financial help as well as councelling for perpetrators. That is very interesting coming from you, having suffered at the hands of perpetrators. How do you come to make such a statement?

MR MAGKOTHI: As for councelling for the victims, I think that is easy to appreciate because of the type of life which they were forced to live in jail. Mr Masondo has referred to the type of warder who was in charge of us while we were in jail, you heard some of the stories he told about the distorted kind humour which they had and how easy it was for them to resort to brutalities. These are human beings, people like you and me so how did it come about that people should behave in the way these people behaved? How did that happen?

Mr Masondo has already said there was a lot of indoctrination, these people sincerely believed that they were doing the right thing by treating political prisoners in the manner in which they did and that they were simply being loyal to a system. I think to a very large extent these people must have been brainwashed, they must have been indoctrinated as well and it is on that basis that I think that if we are going to make a difference in this country, a difference in the manner in we approach things like human rights, it is essential that something should be done about changing the way that people like that look at other human beings and how they approach life in general.

MRS SEROKE: Thank you very much Mr Magkothi.

DR BORAINE: Thank you very much, just before go, are there any other questions? Mr Lewin?

MR LEWIN: Mr Magkothi thanks very much, I would just like to ask one question. You had a fair amount of time and you must have thought a great deal about it, about prison reform. One of the responsibilities of the Commission is to make recommendations in our final report for matters arising out of our hearings. Do you specifically have any thoughts about recommendations for prison reform, based on you own experience which we can include in our final report?

MR MAGKOTHI: I think one of the recommendations certainly would be the point which I just made now, paying attention to the kind of people that you employ as warders and also the training which they should receive to enable them to discharge their duties in a manner which is fitting for human beings.

MR LEWIN: Thank you very much.

MR MANTHATA: How long before your trial started had you been in detention?

MR MAGKOTHI: I was arrested at the end of 1961 I think and Iím not too sure now but it must have been some months that I was detained in Marabastad police station.

MR MANTHATA: And this was in isolation?

MR MAGKOTHI: Yes it was in Marabastad that they tried their best to isolate us but what they did after weíd been arrested and after weíd been brought back home was to take us to different places of detention, different police stations and so on. I was detained in solitary for a very long time in Marabastad in Pretoria.

MR MANTHATA: Thatís another element that one would have loved to hear you say such as what were the effects of solitary confinement.

MR MAGKOTHI: I was certainly not exposed to a very lengthy period of solitary confinement but I did suffer solitary confinement. It was made worse by the fact that the police officials at Marabastad took advantage of our presence there to commit all manners of abuses against us really, acts of torture while we were there. When you were incarcerated there you were subjected to all manners of torture and even your food, I mean for all the time that I was in Marabastad I think I lived on porridge, mostly not well cooked and sometimes it was porridge which was rotten. By the time they were ready to charge us I was only too pleased to leave solitary confinement to be formally charged so that I could go to prison where I thought the conditions would be better.

MR MANTHATA: Thank you.

DR BORAINE: Mr Magkothi thank you very much for coming to make a statement, for doing this publicly which is not easy and it must have brought back lots of memories but if your work now today can help others, Iím sure youíll be very grateful, thank you very much indeed.

MR MAGKOTHI: Thank you.

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