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Type Prison Hearings
Starting Date 21 July 1997
Location THE FORT - JOHNNESBURG
Names MRS ZAHRAH NARKEDIEN
DR BORAINE: We call now Zahrah Narkedien please. Thank you very much indeed for coming, you are most welcome and weíre very glad to see you. Could I ask whoís with you today?
DR BORAINE: Weíre very, very pleased to see you and you know I think itís so important to have somebody with one at a time like this and you are both very welcome indeed. Mrs Narkedien will you stand for the oath.
MRS ZAHRAH NARKEDIEN: (sworn states)
DR BORAINE: Thank you very much please be seated. Just before I hand over to Mr Mdu Dlamini, there will be a guided tour a short guided tour at 1 oíclock before lunch so that everyone is still together and not scattered and anyone who wishes to join that short guided tour is most welcome. Mr Dlamini I hand over to you.
MR DLAMINI: Thank you Mr Chairman. Good day Mrs Narkedien and good day Mr Appelgreen. Zahrah by way of introduction weíve got plus minus twenty to twenty five minutes at our disposal to give allowance for other questions, can I just take you from the time when you were arrested which, according to you statement was in Nigel. Was that after the so called Magoo bomb in Durban?
MRS NARKEDIEN: Yes it was long after that. We were trying to leave to go to Botswana and that morning they arrested us.
MR DLAMINI: After that you were taken back to Durban under very ... conditions with balaclavas pulled over your faces, is that right?
MR DLAMINI: Can you tell us what happened from the time you arrived in Durban?
MRS NARKEDIEN: You mean at the Seerswart Square police station?
MRS NARKEDIEN: I donít think Iíll give too much detail because then it will take too long but maybe if I can go straight on by saying that the Nigel police handed us over to the Seerswart Square security police at Harrismith and from Harrismith we were taken down to Westville prison just for a few hours and then we went to Seerswart Square on the 13th floor. The 11th, 12th and 13th floors were the interrogation rooms.
For the first seven days they did torture me quite a bit because I felt that I didnít have to cooperate in terms of what my other comrades were doing, even in terms of what I did. I was proud of who I was as an MK comrade and I was proud of the fact that I joined the struggle, that I was a revolutionary and I was willing to just suffer the consequences. They wanted me to say certain things so they tortured me for these seven days and the only thing that really made me break in the end was when they threatened to go back to my house where my sister was staying with me and kidnap my four year old nephew Christopher, bring him to the 13th floor and drop him out of the window.
At that point I really at my weakest because I felt I could risk my life and I could let my body just be handed over to these men to do what they liked but I couldnít hand over someone elseís body so at that point I fully cooperated. By then I was becoming weaker and weaker because what they had done was swear at me a great deal and say for instance they would take me out of my cell after breakfast at about half past 7 or 8 oíclock and interrogate me the whole day, the whole night right through until 2 or 3 oíclock in the morning. Iíd be standing all the time and whole groups of them would be swearing and screaming at me but that was bearable because I could pray silently while they were doing that and not even hear the abuse.
They started to realise that I was enduring that kind of abuse so they started to take a plastic bag, I need to show you for you to get an idea. They took a plastic bag, a dark blue one which I couldnít get, then one person held both my hands down and the other one put it on my head and then they sealed it so that I wouldnít be able to breath and kept it on for at least two minutes, by which time the plastic was clinging to my eyelids, my nostrils, my mouth and my whole body was going into spasms because I really couldnít breathe. Theyíd do it to me for about three times but I still wasnít prepared to surrender to them, I was willing to just suffer it out and then they decided I had to do physical exercises.
They always had a woman present when they were torturing me and they asked her if she would like to leave because they were going to intensify the treatment. All these days I was wearing the same clothing, just a dress and I was also menstruating at that time which I told them so I couldnít stand so long and I was bleeding a lot. They made me lay on the floor and do all kinds of physical exercises lifting my body with my hands, what they call press-ups then reducing the fingers until I had to pick myself up with just two fingers. By then I couldnít because my body was tired, it was sore and I had to drop it and lift it up and I was hurting my knees every time I dropped it. While I was down they would kick me and tramp on me.
All this time it didnít really matter but it was beginning to hurt physically. They did this for hours on end. Even Inspector de Beer who was the investigating officer, even he came in and started hitting me with a clothes brush. As I said any physical pain didnít matter because I just sort of transported myself out of there.
After a while he kept intensifying the physical treatment and he would use both his hands to strangle me, strangle me so hard that when he let go the ... became so painful, he would strangle me and lift me right off the ground and then just drop me like that, grab me by the hair and throw me down and pick me up. After a good few hours, I think thatís when they realised, after the seventh day that they would have to use psychological treatment because I was just like a person who was physically there but spiritually and mentally I wasnít there. After he threatened me with my nephew I said I would do anything you want.
MR DLAMINI: Can you take us to your experience when you were actually in prison?
MRS NARKEDIEN: I think I also just need to mention that I reported the abuse to the Inspector of detainees but nothing was done there and I reported it to the District Surgeon. I wasnít able to walk for several weeks, I had to hold onto the wall and there was some Major ... who also walked in there and wanted to know whether I had any complaints when all these men were swearing and abusing me and I said yes I do have complaints. I want to complain about the way Iím being treated but he just swore and said to hell with you, youíre just a terrorist you deserve the treatment youíre getting.
So this person sort of misled me only to find that he just didnít care. That was disturbing because I was explained that Section 29 was there to get you to speak without torturing you so it means that we had to go through the isolation with Section 29, no contact with family lawyers and so on and still be physically and psychologically tortured. To me that was really unfair.
I was in solitary confinement under Section 29 at Seerswart Square for about say three and a half months and as I was the only female political prisoner I was put in the furtherest cell in that female section. All those conditions didnít bother me, being locked up all the time and only being taken out for interrogation for half an hour a day, less than half an hour to go and see the Inspector of detainees once a week.
What really bothered me was the rats. I know thereís this chauvinist thing where men would say women are just afraid of mice and rats but these were not little mice, these were huge rats, the size of cats that were in the cells, in the passages all the time. I would sit and eat my food and three of these rats would just sit and look at me. Iíd be in the yard praying, the rats would just be around me and Iíd get up and chase them but theyíd come back in. I had to use my clothes eventually, we did get a change of clothes, I had to use my towels and clothes to block the access where they were coming in under the door and the rats just used to rip all that and eventually come in. One particular evening one was crawling on me and I didnít quite mind until it got to my neck, I went totally berserk, I screamed the whole prison down. The other prisoners wanted to know what was wrong and I told them it was a rat that was on my neck so they all got angry and the whole prison screamed. The guards came running as they didnít know where this problem started. When they eventually came they found me in the corner and I was actually eating my T-shirt. Thatís how berserk I went.
MR DLAMINI: Mrs Narkedien at some stage you were transferred to Klerksdorp Prison, was it after the sentencing and why Klerksdorp Prison? Iím sure youíll tell us of your experience there?
MRS NARKEDIEN: I think before I got to Klerksdorp if I can just say that when I was Pietermaritzburg Female Prison for two or three months when I was attending the trial at the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court, I was charged with about eighteen different counts of terrorism, furthering the aims of the ANC, the Magoo bombing, the raid we did on the Edenvale hospital to rescue Gordon Webster.
Every time I left the prison I would first have to get dressed and then as soon as the vehicles arrived, there was a whole convoy that used to escort me to the prison and back, as soon as they arrived I had to strip naked for about three or four prison wardresses. I had to strip naked and they would go through everything, one would go through my files, my briefcase and the other one would take all my clothing and take all the seams to see what I was hiding there. I had to stand fully naked and I used to say never, Iím not going to take my panties off for you, you do all the searching and when youíre finished Iíll pull it down quickly and I had to do that every single day for two and a half months, when I returned it was the same process. Theyíd follow me to my cell, Iíd have to take off everything and stand there semi-naked as I wanted to, they would do everything and then the quick pull-down.
I used to hate that but they told me that was prison regulations and I was one of the worst prisoners, I was dangerous terrorist that they had to check and I used to ask what they were looking for. When I came back from the prison they would turn the entire cell upside down, all the mattress, my clothes, completely scatter everything as if Iíd hidden something there and they were looking for it. That was something that would really get to me but I was determined not to let them see that they were destroying me because for two and a half months, twice a day no woman wants to stand naked and when youíre menstruating they still want you to pull your panty down. On these occasions I used to say one of them can come into the little cubicle where there was a shower and only one was going to look because I mean no woman can stand in front of another group of women at that time of the month. These were very aggressive women so I really had to stand up to hostile people.
Then I was transferred to Klerksdorp Female Prison because I was then sentenced, I was fortunate that I had a very short sentence where most of it was actually suspended for a good few months and years otherwise I would have spend nine years in prison. Of the eighteen counts I was eventually convicted on five. I was transferred to Klerksdorp for that. I was in isolation all the time from when I was arrested in July 1986. I canít remember what month I went up there but it was a wonderful day to get to Klerksdorp Prison and I was there with three other comrades of mine. It was a big celebration for us because I was ending my solitary confinement.
I was with them for only about six months and then a fight broke out between two of the comrades from Kwazakela and they strategized amongst themselves that they should blame it on the Coloured woman. Unfortunately they knew that the prison wardresses, especially the head of the section was a very racist woman and she believed that Coloured people were violent, they were gangsters and because of that, that racist and those stereo types, I was just taken one morning at about 5 oíclock when all the other prisoners were sleeping, out of my cubicle. Everything even my mattresses were taken and I had to go down and live in the basement in isolation for seven months.
That was very, very painful, I donít even want to describe psychologically what I had to do to survive down there. I will write it one day but I could never tell you but it did teach me something and that is that no human being can live alone for more than I think even a month or even three months because thereís nothing you can do to survive all by yourself every single day. The basement was an entire wing of the prison. It was like so much at the bottom with high walls, perhaps even higher than these but I felt as the months went by that I was going deeper and deeper into the ground, physically I wasnít but psychologically I was.
I had to live in this basement with long passages and all the other cells used to be locked and I was in this tiny cell which was the size of my parentís bathroom at home. Itís a two bedroomíd house so if you know the size of a bathroom in a two bedroomíd house youíll know the size. If I got up from my bed I only had to take two steps or lets say four steps to get to my toilet. I only had a bed and a desk in there and I became so psychologically damaged that I used to feel that all these cells are all like coffins and there were all dead people in there because they were not there, no-one was there, it was as if I was alive and all these people were dead. I was so disturbed but I would never, never let the wardresses know.
MR DLAMINI: Take it easy Zahrah, take your time please donít rush yourself.
MRS NARKEDIEN: But they did destroy me. After three months I complained to them because I knew the regulations said that only violent prisoners, who were violent in the prison could be separated in isolation for a maximum of three months. She said no, she was not going to take me back up to where the others were because she just didnít believe that Coloureds could live together with Blacks. No amount of convincing her used to help. One time when she went on leave my comrades asked me to join them in a church service so I at least saw them once a week for about a half an hour.
As soon as she returned she stopped the church services and I had a big fight with her because I wanted to go to church and she said church is just a privilege, I canít fight for it. Even to get Bibles out of them was a major fight because as far as she was concerned I was a terrorist, I was one of the most evil and I didnít need a Bible so I had to fight until I got those things but church I couldnít get out of her.
MR DLAMINI: Zahrah give yourself time, donít rush yourself.
MRS NARKEDIEN: So I had to pay the price just for being a coloured person. It was the first time that I had to face the fact that I was part of a minority. Other than that I was just an African woman so even my comrades used the fact that I was not really an African in their eyes. It was painful for them to also deny me that right to be an African woman because my parents have always taught me that my Zulu ancestors mean a lot to them so it hurt to also be tortured by your own comrades. I understand that they were in prison longer than me and they were more disturbed than I was but I suffered unnecessarily because of this Coloured issue. I think I should end on this isolation. When you were asking the question earlier on about isolation I feel that the Correctional Services and the Human Rights Organisation must ensure that they visit the prisons and no prisoner other than a really violent one should be alone for more than three months. I did complain to the Magistrates as you also asked earlier on but the were utterly uncaring. All the Magistrates that visited us in the prisons even in the Section 29, at every prison they came there but they just took record and they did nothing so ... they should also be charged because they were just as brutal in ignoring us, taking our complaints but doing absolutely nothing.
MR DLAMINI: Zahrah if we had to benefit from your wisdom and personal experience, in order to make sure as a country that this kind of ill-treatment doesnít happen again, do you have any suggestions?
MRS NARKEDIEN: I didnít hear the last part.
MR DLAMINI: In order to make sure that this kind of abuse of human rights does not happen again, do you have any suggestions?
MRS NARKEDIEN: My suggestion is that no prisoner regardless of their crimes should ever be in isolation per say not even this Section 29 business for two weeks. I know it serves a purpose but ultimately when itís prolonged I donít think anybody can handle it. Iím out of prison now for more than seven or ten years but I havenít recovered and I will never recover, I know I wonít, I have tried to. The first two years after my release I tried to be normal again and the more I struggle to be normal, the more disturbed I become. I had to accept that I was damaged, a part of my soul was eaten away as if by maggots, horrible as it sounds and I will never get it back again.
MR DLAMINI: Mr Chairman before I hand back to you I just want to for your information, mention that Mrs Narkedien has applied for amnesty in respect of the ... she touched on earlier on. I just mention this so that if questions are being asked people are aware of that. On a lighter note Zahrah I notice that when you were relating your traumatic experiences, it would appear that prayer and worshipping sustained you but when the Chairperson asked you to take an oath you were not comfortable.
MRS NARKEDIEN: No itís because Iíve converted to Islam so when I say in the name of God I get the problem of the Christian and Allah the Muslim, that is the problem.
MR DLAMINI: I was wondering whether perhaps when you were praying to God during your detentions and imprisonment God did not answer you and you had given up.
MRS NARKEDIEN: No Iím glad you mention that because I was a Catholic before so I had the rosary and I used to pray every single day throughout the day with the rosary and that was to help me not to be there physically. As the months of isolation went I used to feel that God has abandoned me, the whole world has abandoned me, I am totally alone in this whole universe. As winter came and even the birds went away, butterflies, there was no life other than these wardresses who brought my food three times a day, I really felt that he had abandoned me. One day I was sitting on my bed, I was locked up during the lunch break and we had to sew these big winter coats of the other male prisoners by hand with needles which used to poke us and make us bleed and suddenly I had this feeling that Iím really all alone so God has deserted me and Iím going to die here. Then I had this feeling that he was sitting on the bed with me, Jesus is sitting on the bed with me. This was a psychological feeling and from then I corrected myself and said no, he hasnít abandoned me.
MR DLAMINI: Thank you Mr Chairman can I hand over to you?
DR BORAINE: Are there any questions? Mrs Seroke?
MRS SEROKE: Zahrah do you think that they deliberately reared those rats in that prison to terrorize you?
MISS NARKEDIEN: I donít know because I used to complain to everybody, even to the Station Commander and he would say that the other prisoners were living with it, why canít I so I wouldnít be able to say that.
MRS SEROKE: Iím amazed that you carried this for all these years. My final question is, did you ever receive councelling after your release or presently because you say even up to now you still canít forget?
MISS NARKEDIEN: Iím a social worker by profession and I think Iíve been councelling myself a great deal and I am afraid to go for counselling because thereís certain parts of that experience that I canít open up to anybody so I have to council myself and maybe my soul will hear. Itís not to say that I have hatred or anger, I do forgive my torturers, itís just that the kind of person I used to be I could never be again. Thatís the reality Iíve come to terms with.
MRS SEROKE: Thank you Mr Chairperson.
DR BORAINE: Anyone else? Tom Manthata?
MR MANTHATA: Sorry my question is, having experienced this feeling of rejection as a minority, is there any way or any means that you are trying to address it where you can even tell it to us for the benefit of others.
MISS NARKEDIEN: I think prior to that experience of my Black comrades, I was denying this history that was forced on my by the South African Government that you are a coloured and I was trying to shake it off and be this African woman that my parents tried to encourage me to be but I think when I came out I realised that I was being too much of a dreamer, too idealistic that even though Iím achieving this African women status this Coloured woman status may not be in the inside of me but it is on the outside of me. I had to set that reality painful as it was, it was like taking a good few steps back or eating your own vomit, thatís how bad I felt it was but it was reality and I decided to rather embrace and deal with it. I make it my business whenever I talk to Black colleagues or Black friends and if they make remarks about Coloured people as Coloured people, I correct them immediately.
Even with my fellow people who still see themselves as Coloured, I now help them to get over that without pushing them the way I used to and in the job Iím doing now as the Director of Welfare in the Northern Cape where the Coloureds are in the majority and they do feel this minority status, I now deal with that minority status. Iíve accepted it as reality whereas I didnít want to acknowledge it, I just wanted to see this African dream and that was it.
DR BORAINE: Mrs Narkedien youíve said that youíre not sure that you will ever become fully a whole person again, I think you are. I think you have helped us and I think itís when we listen to people like you who has endured what you have it helps to make us whole again. We thank you very much and we commend you. We wish you well in the work youíre doing and we trust that the courage that you displayed will be taken into this new country of ours and the very tough thing you had to say about discrimination which is much, much wider than we ever imagine, much more hurtful, not easy for you to say that and to say it publicly. Iím not sure if you know but your voice is being carried all over South Africa on radio and Iím very glad of that because I think the whole country needs to be healed, thank you very much.
DR BORAINE: Thank you very much indeed to the audience and those who are here and supporters. We will break now and I ask you please to be in your seats promptly at 2 oíclock as we have a very full programme and we do want to give everybody as much time as possible. Weíll start again promptly at 2 oíclock, thank you.