52 STEPS to death
Family members of political prisoners who were executed in the 1980s took an emotional tour through the gallows building at what is now Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria
Vuyelwa Langa cuts a forlorn figure as she takes heavy steps up the same stairs climbed by her brother, Mangena Jeffrey Boesman, to the room where he was executed. It was here that almost 4 000 lives ended at the pull of a lever that flipped open the trapdoor through which their bodies would be left to swing. Almost 27 years ago, Langa stood with her late mother, Buyisiwe, outside this building once called a “human abattoir” by a death-row prisoner. They were waiting for the warder to come out and confirm that the noose had put an end to her brother’s life.
“We waited as if there was a chance for a miracle to happen, while we knew very well it was only the bad news we were anticipating. We travelled back home to Sterkstroom in the Eastern Cape without even seeing my brother’s body, nor were we told where he was buried,” Langa recalled.
A United Democratic Front (UDF) struggle activist, Boesman (37) was executed on September 29 1989 at the gallows on the grounds of what is today known as Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre. He is believed to be the last of 130 political detainees to have been executed there. He was sentenced to death for taking part in the killing of a teacher during a school boycott. The two others sentenced to death with him were reportedly reprieved a week before his execution. It is unclear why Boesman’s life was not also spared.
On Friday, sobbing quietly, Langa and the families of four other UDF detainees executed there climbed the same stairs their loved ones ascended to their death. A tour guide took the families through the gallows building, which is now a museum, explaining the details surrounding their loved ones’ last moments – information some of the families found difficult to take in. Their relatives were buried like paupers: once hanged by the apartheid government, the bodies became state property. Families were not allowed to attend their burials and, in most cases, they didn’t know where the graves were.
From the cheap, dull brown coffins to an autopsy room filled with shiny metal tables, the building sends shivers down the spines of those who visit.
Family members heard of how some prisoners would walk to the execution rooms singing hymns, while most did not say a word.
On the walls are inscribed the memories of death-row prison warders, prisoners and even the executioner himself, Chris Barnard, who is believed to have executed about 1 500 prisoners between 1962 and 1986.
“Some were dragged screaming to the gallows,” one recollection on the wall reveals. Former death-row convicts said they would hear the voices of prisoners, cuffed and escorted by a warder, as they were led up the 52 steps to the execution room.
At the top of the stairs, prisoners were lined up against the wall and white hoods were placed on their heads with the front flap folded back. To their left was a wooden door, which they would walk through minutes before they would take their last breath.
Many stories have been told of how some prisoners would walk on to the wooden trapdoor screaming, praying and begging for forgiveness, while others remained quiet. Up to seven prisoners were executed at a time.
Once standing on the trapdoor, their details would be verified one last time. Thereafter, an echoing voice would be heard: “Klagtes en versoeke! [Complaints and requests!]”. It was rare for prisoners to say anything – it was futile.
There is a black telephone on a desk in one corner that was connected to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. It was meant to inform the sheriff of the court of any last-minute stay of execution.
“But it never rang to spare a life,” the tour guide said. Another recollection on the wall recounts the change in the mood of a prisoner standing on the trapdoor: “In most cases, nobody says anything ... most prisoners also don’t sing any more. There is total silence.”
The hoods would then be lowered to cover the prisoners’ faces just before the executioner pulled the lever.
“I can still hear that man’s breath escaping from his mouth. It’s like a soft breath coming from his body against his will,” reads the remembrance of one warder.
For some prisoners, death would not be swift, and they would hang from the rope, still alive. “If the pulse is still there, and it often is, justice is mercilessly pursued,” reads a quote by executioner Barnard on the wall.
Former death-row prisoner Mthetheleli Mncube told family members that if a doctor, holding a clipboard with death certificates ready, was not satisfied that the prisoner was dead, “a hammer would be used to finish you off”.
Mncube said that, after executions, blood-stained hoods would sometimes be washed in basins in their cells “just to traumatise us”.
What he hated the most, Mncube said, was that most bodies were not buried whole.
“Before burial, bodies would be taken to the post-mortem room, where doctors would savage any body part they needed,” he said.
Although it has so far not been confirmed who received those body parts, Mncube was adamant that they were used “to save white lives”.
After their emotional tour of the gallows, Langa and other family members were taken to Mamelodi West Cemetery, where their relatives’ remains were exhumed.
Looking at the skeletal remains of her brother, a relieved Langa mumbled a last message to him.
“It was our mother’s biggest wish not to die until she had given my brother a dignified burial. She left, but, as we have equally shared the pain over the years, we’re all relieved and can say we have found some closure and will have him buried right next to my mother,” Langa said.
“My mother saw Mangena days before he was hanged and all he did was cry. I have just learnt exactly how cruelly they were killed, but knowing that we now have his remains to bury at home is our biggest relief.”
WITNESS Mthetheleli Mncube, an Umkhonto weSizwe operative who escaped death in combat with apartheid security forces, speaks about the process of how prisoners were led to the gallows. He was on death row at the prison, but escaped execution
IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS Family members of political prisoners who were executed in the 1980s walk through the gallows at Kgosi Mampuru II prison before going to the cemetery, where the bodies of their loved ones were exhumed for dignified reburial
IN MEMORIAM Almost 4 000 prisoners are believed to have been executed at the notorious prison in Pretoria. The gallows building has been refurbished and turned into a museum
OLD WOUNDS Vuyelwa Langa (right) and the family members of other political prisoners who were executed at the prison were not given the opportunity to see the bodies of their relatives after they were hanged