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

CityPress - - News - POLOKO TAU poloko.tau@city­press.co.za

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.”

PHO­TOS: TE­BOGO LETSIE

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

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