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Transcripts for Section 3 of Episode 68
|From murder to torture. Torture of political prisoners was routine in South Africa’s prisons. We have heard the perpetrators of torture describe their methods: the wet bag, the helicopter, electric shocks. Sadistic attacks against the body. Yet the one form of torture described as the worst the world over is that of solitary confinement, where a prisoner is alone 23 hours a day, deprived of human contact, an attack on the mind and the soul. This is the story of Zahrah Narkedien, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre who was confined in a basement for seven months.
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|The sound of nobody but myself. I’d be crying and screaming against this loneliness. I had this feeling that God has abandoned me; the world doesn’t exist. Only I exist. A part of my soul was eaten away like by maggots. I can hold on one more day, I can do it.
|Zahrah Narkedien spent seven months alone in the basement of Klerksdorp prison. In July this week she spoke about it for the first time at a special TRC hearing on prisons. Before she converted to Islam Zara was known as Greta Appelgren, a fiery activist from Wentworth in Natal. In 1986 she was recruited into an Umkhonto we Sizwe unit by Robert McBride. She was willing because she was already very frustrated with aboveground political work.
|I’m not going to talk about apartheid anymore. I’m not going to campaign against it; I’m going to fight against it. If I have to burn apartheid, I am going to do that. And I was on my way after that to Umkhonto we Sizwe.
|The unit of eight was involved in a number of missions in Natal. One of them was a daring rescue of their commander, Gordon Webster form Edendale hospital. A shoot out ensued and an innocent was killed. But the mission that caused the biggest outcry and which led to their arrest was the Magoo’s Bar explosion. On June 14 in 1986 a powerful car bomb exploded at the Why not Bar, also known as Magoo’s in Durban. Three patrons died and 67 were injured. Robert McBride had placed the bomb. Zharah Narkedien was involved in reconnaissance and logistics.
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|I think with Magoo’s, you know we had a certain philosophy – after every activity that we did, after every action we would tell ourselves that it never happened, it was just a nightmare – it never happened. And you would sort of conscientise yourself to deaden that memory. It was a horrible situation. But you must remember when you’re going into the armed struggle and you’re telling yourself I am ready now to use violence to the extent that others would be injured or even die for that matter. You really do go on a level that, on the one hand you’re saying it’s an honour as a soldier I’m going that high; but it’s also a dishonour, because violence is something unreasonable. I read once that violence is the lowest form of human behaviour. Actually, Robert was very emotional after that incident, contrary to what the people have made him out to be, and OK what he’s made himself out to be. This is what he hates me talk about, because he’s this big, macho man you see ...more
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|Soon after, the two were arrested on the morning they had planned to slip into Botswana and exile. McBride was sentenced to death and Narkedien to two and a half years of imprisonment. When she arrived at Klerksdorp prison, she’d already spent a long time in solitary confinement before and during her trial. Her happiness at being in a communal cell in Klerksdorp came to an abrupt end when she was sent to the basement for seven months as a form of punishment.
|As the months went by I realized I really don’t have anyone to talk to. I have only myself. And OK letters don’t help in the end, and the silence in the cell, I can hear it. You know it’s loud, I can hear the silence. My spirit and my body used to get so depressed that I would cry not because I want to cry, but my body would just go into spasms. I’d throw myself on the bed, like a child and I’d writhe and writhe. I’d be crying and screaming against this loneliness. And I thought why, why can’t I endure it? I will be out in the next, I had a year to go, I can endure a year of this. Just one day at a time, but every day I couldn’t. Some days it used to be so bad, even my parents don’t know this. I used to fill the bath with boiling hot water and I used to throw myself in, because the pain of getting burnt was easy to handle. It distracted me from the psychological pain. Or I’d fill a sink with hot water and I’d plunge my hands in. Because at certain times of the ...more
|But Zara was damaged in more complex ways. She spent seven months in that basement, because of some of her comrades. There was racial tension; she was belittled for being Coloured. One woman, a high ranking MK soldier, made sexual advances. Zara rejected her. In retaliation she was blamed for a fight between two prisoners and once again Zara was confined to the sound of nobody but herself.
|That really hurt me a great deal, because I was in solitary confinement in every prison I was at until I got to Klerksdorp. And I was so thrilled to meet my comrades and they were all strong women, at least that’s what it seemed, until after about the third or fourth week the honeymoon was over. And then I really saw how damaged my comrades were. They’d been in prison longer than I was. But OK I know sex is a good – what can I say – it releases tension in the body and it’s also reassuring for each other whether it’s between two men or between two women. But I hadn’t been in prison long enough to need that, so I wasn’t ready for a sexual relationship with anybody and least of all this tough, masculine women who was determined to bully everybody left right and centre. OK I know she was the most damaged and we all understood that, we were all older than her and we were all willing to mother her. But I wasn’t willing and ready to be her sex partner so to speak. So I paid ...more
|I went through that seven months of solitary confinement and all the other months and I’m still living, I’m still OK and I know I can do a lot of things. But if I deny that I’m damaged then I feel I’ll be weak. By acknowledging that I’m damaged, I’m strong. Do you understand that contradiction? // It’s not a contradiction. // By saying yes, I had been hurt, I had been damaged and the damage won’t go away. It won’t heal, but time will make it less and less and less. Because I know, after two years I wouldn’t accept it, but when I accepted it two years later after being released, I noticed I was becoming stronger. I was more confident about myself. I could dance more and really live with that, you know a certain part of my soul gone. It’s like the soul is a round thing and there’s a small part that’s gone and I can survive with 90 percent of my soul. I really can.
|‘After the break: // The Ex-files // The poisoning of Activists // Winnie Mandela accuses the Special Report’