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Special Hearings

Type Prison Hearings

Starting Date 21 July 1997

Location Johannesburg

Day 2


CHAIRPERSON: I would like to welcome you to the second day of our Prisons' hearings and we would also like to welcome the witnesses who have come to testify today and I would also like to welcome Mr Dumisa Ntsebeza who is the head of our Investigative Unit, who has just come from Cape Town to be with us, this morning.

And for those of you who were not here yesterday, I would also like to introduce our panellists. On my extreme left is Mr Mdu Dlamini, who is a Committee member of the Human Rights' Violations Committee and he is stationed in our KwaZulu Natal office in Durban.

And next to him as I had already welcomed him, is Dumisa Ntsebeza, head of our Investigative Unit. On my right, immediate right, is Hugh Lewin who is a member of the Human Rights' Violations Committee, based here in our Johannesburg office.

And on my extreme right is Tom Manthata, a member of the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, also based in the Johannesburg office. I am Joyce Seroke, a member of the Human Rights' Violations Committee.

We welcome you. I hope you all have copies of the programme and for those of you who were not here yesterday - yesterday we looked Robben Island and we had three people telling us about their experiences in that famous - or infamous - prison in Robben Island.

We also had heard experiences of women who were in detention and who were incarcerated in prisons and we heard stories from famous families who told us about the experiences of their families, the Braam Fischer family and the Naidoo family.

So today, as you will see from your programme, we are going to be looking into several issues. Issues of capital punishment, and experiences of people on death row. Both from those who were sentenced and very importantly and interestingly, we are going to hear from a warder who served on death row.

We are going to hear how the State responded to reports of conditions in prison and we are going to hear about the experiences of other prisoners who were not incarcerated in our prisons in South Africa, but who experienced detention in the camps outside the country.

The programme for today is that we are going to break for tea at about 10.30, depending on how much time we still have or when we, how the proceedings go and during lunch time, we are going to have a tour of the Fort for those who are interested to see some of the cells that are still kept as they were.

It is only the women's prison that is not on view because it has been converted to offices. And so those of you who would like to go round during lunch time, you are welcome.

We also have an exhibition of photographs outside and we hope you will take time to go round to see some of those, to view some of those photographs and without any further waste of time, I would also like to welcome here specially a group of 20 trainees from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Mr Theo Albrechts. We welcome you all.

Now, we will call upon Paula McBride to come to the podium and she is going to lead us with a submission on capital punishment.

MS MCBRIDE: As competitor and not as someone who was a victim of death row or capital punishment, but as someone who was more a witness to the effect that being sentenced to death, has on human beings, and not only the human beings who are sentenced to death, but those who look after them while they are waiting to be hanged and really, maybe more importantly I have come here because in my mind the death penalty is a gross human rights' violation and it should be recorded in the record at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a gross human rights' violation.

And I hope that if we can give testimony today about the effect that it has had, that it will never, ever, again come back onto our statute books because I think it brutalises not only those who are sentenced, but those who sentence them ie the Judges and also it brutalises our whole country, because then if we allow it to happen, we participate in it.

So really I am here to just talk about the history of it as it was carried out in the prisons. The Judges who sentenced will be dealt with in the legal hearing because they were obviously the people who sent them to prison to be looked after by the Department of Prisons.

So today I am just going to look at really what death row meant from my experience. I started going there from 1987 until 1990 and I was there every day from 1987 to 1990 except for maybe one or two, so what I saw was the people who were being processed towards the execution chamber.

I saw the people, sometimes the day before they were due to be hanged and it is that that I want to talk about. There were in South Africa and I will talk about Pretoria Maximum Security Prison, because in a way that was the head office of hangings. There were hangings that were carried out in Bophutatswana and Venda and the Transkei and the Ciskei, but I did not have other than Bophutatswana, I didn't have experience of that, so I am going to talk about what Pretoria Maximum Security was like as a visitor and as someone who worked on death row.

I think that probably the first and probably the most important image of it, is that it is a place that was perfectly designed to kill people. And it was perfectly designed in the sense of its normality. It was a prison that had very pretty little gardens around it, there were bambies, little bucks that were playing in the garden, there were rabbits out there, there was a pond and there were ducks and when you entered through that section, you went into the maximum security section, where there were perfectly ordinary people who were employed by the Department of Prisons to feed, to guard, to watch over the people who were under sentence of death.

They were in the womens' section there were young, middle aged, old women who were there to look after them and in the mens' section, there were young, middle aged and old men who were there to see that the people in their custody didn't kill themselves before the State got a chance to kill them. So they were there to ensure that they remained healthy until there was an opportunity, until the State President denied clemency, till there was a chance for them to be given their seven days' notice period.

While people were in prison and Duma will tell you a lot more about this, they were kept under 24-hour lights like this. The lights were never, ever, ever switched off. The only time that people got a chance to close their eyes properly and sleep, was when there was a power failure in Pretoria, which during the four years that I was visiting there, happened twice.

And you could tell when it had happened, because the next morning the prisoners looked at least vaguely rested. Apart from that, there was 24-hour surveillance. You never had a moment's privacy, there were, the grill bars above the cells where the warders used to stand or walk and be able to look down on the people who were kept in prison beneath them.

And in visiting time, you had a warder behind you. For example if I had visited, I had be sitting here, Robert would be there and we would have warders either side of us listening into your conversation, because that was their duty and watching that nothing was said about what happened inside the prison.

You could actually talk about pretty much anything as long as the prisoner didn't mention anything that was happening inside the prison and more importantly and particularly in the early years, that they didn't mention that anybody was due to be executed because it was not supposed to be known, which is why before there was vigilant visiting, before 1987, many people went to the gallows with nobody knowing about it other than their families who had been sent a second class rail ticket to come up for their last visit.

I think that probably that seven day period before execution is the time that anybody who supports the death penalty should be exposed to and particularly the Judges who passed the sentences, who should have gone and spent the last seven days with the people they sentenced.

Because what happens is that there is a slight flurry in the prison, maybe on a Tuesday when the Sheriff arrives. The Sheriff would be sent up to Pretoria Maximum with a bunch of notices in his hand and those notices would be for people who the State President had decided were worthy of his clemency or of his pardon.

The other bunch of notices would be for those that he decided really weren't fit any more to live. So the Sheriff would take both sets of notices up and prisoners would be called. Prisoners would first of all, all be locked up because there was a Sheriff arriving.

The warder would then walk down the passages in between cells, with prisoners waiting inside wondering whether it was their turn today, whether they were going to get handed a notice of release or a notice of death.

And as it was described to me, there was complete and utter silence during those periods. There was complete silence, while the footsteps went down, everyone waiting to see where the footsteps would stop.

When they stopped outside a door, they would tell the prisoner in a - and I don't speak Afrikaans - but they would say to them "pak", pack your things because you are leaving. Either you are leaving for your date with death or you are leaving to go and serve a prison term.

At that stage they were still not told, all they were told was to pack their things. They would then, all those who had been told to pack, would be taken out of their cells, and they would wait in a line outside the office where the Sheriff was waiting.

The only time they would know which decision had been made about their lives, was when they went into that office and they were told the State President has decided that you will be granted clemency or the State President has decided that in seven days from today, you would be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

They would then be shifted into the various places. Those who were given a sentence of death, were moved into what was known as the pot and it was known as the pot in my understanding because that is where you boiled because of levels of stress before your death.

And in that week, that week was set aside for things like measurement. Measurement of your neck to make sure that the hangman got it right. Measurement of your weight to make sure that they are guaranteed that the drop would be correct when you were hanged. Measurement maybe for your coffin, who knows, but it was a time set aside and seven days, let me tell you, is a very long time and Duma will tell you, a very long time in the life of a human being, when you know the exact time at which you will be killed.

And you know the exact way in which you will be killed because everybody in death row knew what would happen to you. In that seven days you had even tighter security just to make sure that you wouldn't take away from the hangman and from the State, the duty of death.

No one, no one, no one would be allowed to kill themselves during that time. It didn't matter that they were scheduled to die in seven days time, they couldn't have that right to do it to themselves, so they would be under very, very strict surveillance.

They would be as most death row prisoners were after a suicide in 1987, where someone killed themselves by gauging out their wrists with a shoe nail in desperation, all death row prisoners were in soft shoes. Even those they had to leave outside when they went into the pot.

They were clothed in minimal clothing so that they could not hang themselves. And it was in this state that they were allowed to see their families for the last time, but still as with all death row visits, they were not allowed physical contact with their families.

So the last view that families had of people who were going to die the next morning, was through glass and through bars and through a funny megaphone where you heard a disembodied voice speaking to you.

And on the last night, before they were going to be hanged, what was left of them, was given a very, very - what would you call it - bang up meal. They were given a whole deboned chicken to eat as was the tradition inherited from Britain where you were given the last supper.

You were given food that you hadn't eaten the whole time while you were on death row. And you were given initially I think, it was R6-00 to be able to buy something from the tuck shop on the night before you were to be killed.

The stories that people tell and you will hear it from someone who experienced it, is that the whole night through before the hanging, in fact in the whole seven days, the only thing that the Prisons' Department were less strict about, was noise because people would sing other people to their death.

In a way as a comfort, I suppose for the people who were to be hanged and for those who were going to be hanged themselves. And so the singing, and you could hear it even when you went to visit in those last days, you would hear singing in the background of people waiting to die and of people waiting for others to be led out to their death.

And just for a scale of it, I know in the four years that my husband spent there, there were over 300 people hanged in that time. That is the scale on which we were hanging people in South Africa and in one of the years, which was, I can't, I think it was 1988, or 1987, in December there was 28 people hanged in the space of a week.

There were seven people hanged on a Tuesday, a Wednesday and a Thursday, seven people each and on the next Tuesday there were seven. So the people who were visiting to see their people for the last time, had a view of the black taxi's coming out of the prison, stacked high with coffins in the taxi. So you would have the (indistinct) kombi come out of the gate, you would be sitting in a bus stop waiting to go into prison and there you would see that morning's pickings, seven people in coffins, stacked into the (indistinct) ready to go to the no-name burial site that they were buried in.

And the next morning it would be the same. So if you had managed to come up to see your family for four days before they died, you would have seen 14 people go out dead, knowing that the next day it would be your son or your husband or your daughter or whoever had been selected.

And so the hangman in those days was a very, very busy man. And it became known in prison as the Christmas rush. It was because there was a leave period over Christmas where there was no hanging that that December we had a Christmas rush, where cut down the numbers in prison quickly, get as many people hanged as possible so that there is space in the prison for the next intake from January, when the sentencing would start again.

I think for families who were there, and who went to see their sons or family members for the last time, they had their last visit, they then slept outside the prison walls for the last night knowing that their son or whoever was inside, being prepared for his execution to be led out at 05.30 in the morning, to be led up the steps by the warders, to have the hood put over his head, to make his feet place on the black footprints that were in the gallows, chambers so that he stood in the right position to have the noose put over and for the hangman to bless his soul before he pulled the lever, because that is what he did.

He always said Chris Barnard was the hangman who probably had the longest tenure and he said in an interview that he always said a prayer for the people he hanged so that their souls would go to heaven.

And then the lever to be pulled and then depending how efficient the measuring had been, it would take five, ten, twelve, seventeen minutes before the person finally died. The longest recorded in South Africa was seventeen minutes of someone who the hangman described as a very strong man, who just wouldn't give up on life and so his body hung twitching for seventeen minutes, before the Doctor who was on duty, would pronounce him dead.

The families would then be informed, normally at about half past seven that their son was dead and that they could come to a little church service. The church in my memory and Johan who is going to give testimony, may correct me, was beneath where the gallows chamber was.

Because you must remember we had a very Christian State and so churches were everywhere and this one was placed very close to the gallows chamber and the families were allowed to come in and have a church service with the coffins in front of them.

They were not allowed to touch the coffins which is one of the reasons why I am sure a lot of you heard of the myth that was in death row that no one was actually hanged because you could never see the body, you were not allowed to see the body of the person who was hanged, because that body was State property.

It was no longer your flesh and blood, it was State property. So the myth that developed was that people were not hanged, they were sent to work in the Mint and they were sent to make money and people would ask you, family members asked me have you ever met anyone who made money, you could never meet anyone who made money because if you did, then everyone would know how to make money and then we would all be able to get very rich.

So in fact condemned people were the people sent to make money and they were sent into the hill behind Maximum Security Prison and it was there that they lived out their days.

You would never see them again because otherwise they would pass on the secret of how to make money, and it was that myth I think, arose out of protection of yourself because you don't want to believe that someone actually was hanged, but more than that, because you were never allowed to see the body.

Andrew Masondo's father after he was executed, was asked that he wanted to come to the church service but he can see the coffin, but he can't see the body and he said if he wants to see coffins, he would go to a funeral home.

He wants to see his son so he didn't attend the church service after his death. He left before his son was hanged because he said he doesn't want to come and look at a coffin.

And I think family members would very often after the church service, they would have their second class rail ticket, they would get the last possessions of their child or their relative, and they would go home with a grave number that would be sent to them.

Somewhere in either Mamelodi cemetery, Eersterus, wherever, Pretoria cemetery, that was an unmarked grave which is a section reserved for people who were State property - sentenced to death.

And I think and I won't say any more because there are lots of people who are going to say from their own experience, I just think that people who call or put out the call hang them, hang the bastards, you know, put them away, bring back the death penalty, do not have any understanding of what that does, not just to the people who are hanged, but to our society. I think it is a brutal, barbarous, uncivilised, grotesque part of our society and I think that South Africa should be prouder, more than anything, that we have done, prouder that we have been one of the countries in the world to completely take it off our statute books.

And I for one, would put everything I had, into fighting anybody who tried to bring it back, because I think that we have done well as a country to take that away from our lives. Thank you.

CHAIRPERSON: Thank you very much Paula. I will now ask anyone of the panellists to ask questions if they would like to do so. Dumisa?

MR NTSEBEZA: Thank you Paula for that very moving account of life for those who were in death row, especially when you say it was not just the victims, those who were waiting to be executed, but those who were charged with the duty of guarding them and then being there and make sure that they face their executioners.

The experience was harrowing for not only those sort of people, in fact I just want to say that the late Matthew Goniwe who was incarcerated in Umtata, and had been sentenced only to four years imprisonment with others, with whom he had been convicted in the Transkei court, spent two years in death row and all of the experiences that you talk about, were experiences that he was forced to undergo even though he had not himself been sentenced to death.

It just shows the depravity of our society in those bygone days. That was just a side comment.

Have you in your research been able to find out the relevance or otherwise of the racial factor in the imposition of the death sentence?

MS MCBRIDE: It was very relevant. I had prepared a submission which people can have if they wanted. I didn't talk to it, but statistically in the period that Truth Commission is looking at, the statistics at the end of all of it is that 95 percent of the people who were sentenced to death in this country, were Black - and Black I say as a category, a broad category.

And 100 percent of the people who sentenced them to death, were White and in fact 100 percent of them were until probably the last year, White and male. They were the Judges who sat in judgement upon the people who they eventually sentenced.

So, in terms of the Truth Commission's enquiry it is of extreme relevance what happened in terms of racial break down. The other thing that came up, and it has come up here and in America, is that you were much more likely to receive a death sentence if your victim was White.

So those people, because by the Government of the time, Black life was regarded as pretty much meaningless, people who were convicted of murder or rape of Black people, were very rarely sentenced to death. It was - you were much more likely to receive a death sentence if your victim was White. Some Judges in the 1960's and 1970's boasted about the fact that they had sentenced "x" number of men to death for the rape of White women, which was considered the most heinous crime ever.

But for the rape or murder of Black women, there was one Judge who boasted he had never sentenced anybody to death for that. Probably the difference with the victim was when in the upheavals from the 1980's, when Black stooges, informers, councillors were killed.

That was regarded as very serious and we know from the introduction of the common purpose, the use of the common purpose doctrine, that that was also considered very serious because there were people who had been bought over into the system and when they were killed, there were a lot of death sentences handed out for that.

But prior to that, the race of the victim was also very important.


MR LEWIN: Paula, thank you very much. In your experience of meeting these people on death row, did you ever find anyone who said that capital punishment of the threat of the noose was a deterrent?

MS MCBRIDE: I, it is difficult to say, I probably met in terms of people on death row, during that period, I probably met I don't know, 200, 250 of the people who were sentenced to death. I know a lot of them well.

And obviously that is a question you ask, because that is one of the reasons that people say bring back the death penalty, it will stop the crime. Firstly, theoretically it has never been proven that it will stop the crime, but also when you talk to individuals, so much, so many of the crimes that occurred are what could in a broad sense be termed, crimes of passion.

Things that happen when your blood is hot, you know, when you just - it is not many people who like the State, plan a murder and plan how it is going to happen. So that not one person that I ever spoke to, said you know, well before I carried out that murder, I sat back and I thought damn, I am going to get hanged for that.

Not one single person. Because of the way murder takes place, the only, as I say, the only people who very systematically planned murders, are the State when they carry out the death penalty. Other than that, murder does not happen as a very calculated, it is either a by-product of something that is going on or it is something that happens in the heat of the moment.

And not one person has ever said God, you know, I was really worried I was going to be hanged. You know, it just is not something that crosses anyone's mind.

MR LEWIN: Could I then ask the concomitant question, if not the rope, what?

MS MCBRIDE: Yes, well, I mean I have obviously strong views on that. I think that there are short term and there are long term solutions. And the long term solutions are to do with the way we order society and it is a very, very long term solution.

I think the short term solution is to cut down on the number of crimes that happen. Not just to punish the people who carry out the crimes and so I would say in our present situation, obviously crime is a major factor in all of our lives, that we need to bring out a much more public deterrent and in my view there could be options like, and it sounds probably horrible, but bring out the Army, let the Army patrol the streets, let people feel safe in their homes by saying here is an Army which is part of a national democratic government, who we all support and who is our people.

Let them come onto the streets and protect us inside our country, we don't have an outside threat at the moment. Let's say if the police are overstretched, they don't have enough capacity, let the Army come in, let them help us, so that we in stead of saying, how do we punish the criminals, let's stop the criminals before they get to committing crime.

And in the long term, let's make our society a place that is better for all the human beings who live in it, so that people do not resort to crime. And let's make things more difficult for organised criminals, and organised crime who are out there having pretty much a field day. I think there are short and long term, obviously prison terms will come into that.


MR MANTHATA: Paula, you are talking about the communities that gets affected, that is the warders, the Judges and so on. Where would you place the church in the whole issue, like you are saying there are Chaplains going to pray for dying people?

MS MCBRIDE: Yes, you know there were Chaplains of every denomination who used to serve the people on death row. And there were some of them, I would say all of them were deeply affected by what they saw, but there were definitely some of them who had a zeal to kind of gather souls that would go to heaven before they got there, so there were people, and I have a prejudiced view, I am an atheist, so I am probably not the right person to ask about church issues.

But there were people working on death row who wanted to convert as many people as possible to God before their souls went to heaven. My argument was can we, before converting people, can we try and stop the people who want to hang them. The people who needed to be converted were the people who wanted to hang them, not the people who were sentenced to death.

So I would, there were the SACC were a very active body in working against the death penalty and in giving very practical support to prisoners on death row. As was the Catholic Bishop's Conference.

There were other churches, and there are churches who have taken up position, that support the death penalty and so they wouldn't work against the death penalty. All they would try and do is save souls and I objected very vigorously to that. But as I say, we did have church bodies in the country and SACC and SACBC were noteworthy for that, who actually not only worked to stop the death penalty but actually supported prisoners and made them feel not just like people on the conveyor belt to death, but actually made them feel like human beings.

MR MANTHATA: Thank you.

CHAIRPERSON: Thank you very much Paula, for this illuminating address and exposure about the death penalty. And I am sure even those people who are not clamouring for a reinstatement of the death penalty as a result of a high rate of crime in this country, would pause to even want to make that call.

In the last ten years, 16 countries in the world have abolished the death penalty and we should consider that if other countries are moving away from this, how on earth can we think that it is going to be a solution and just to quote a few statistics of the 81 Blacks convicted of murdering Whites between June 1982 and June 1983, 38 were executed.

However, out of the 52 Whites convicted of murdering Whites, one was hanged, while none of the 29 Whites convicted of murdering Blacks, were executed. So I think Paula is right to be so vehement that the death penalty should be regarded as a gross human right's violation. Thank you very much.

Ladies and gentlemen, I did not inform you about the headphones that we have here. And those who need translations should note that Afrikaans will be on channel 1, English channel 2, Zulu and Xhosa channel 3, Sotho and Tswana channel 4. However, if there are no people who specifically want Afrikaans, and who will be satisfied to listen to English, we will not have Afrikaans translation and the same goes for Sotho. We can only do so if there are special requests for that, otherwise we will have Xhosa, English and Tswana.

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