‘Death factory’ faithfully restored
Holding cells refurbished and mortuary fridges reinstalled as SA’S gallows are declared a museum, writes Kevin Ritchie
DEATH Row is deep in the middle of the sprawling complex of Pretoria Central Prison, home to thousands of prisoners and warders. What was Death Row is now officially C-max and during apartheid it was known as Pretoria Maximum. But to the warders who worked there, almost exclusively Afrikaans, it was TDV Tronk ( ter dood veroordeelde), Death Row to its inmates.
Death Row was apartheid SA’S death factory, built to precise specifications in 1966 and commissioned in 1967.
SA abolished capital punishment on June 6, 1995, in a unanimous decision by the brand-new Constitutional Court, but the hangings ended in 1989.
Two years before, SA was hanging people at the rate of almost one every two days – the third-highest in the world.
By the time former president FW de Klerk imposed the moratorium in February 1990, Death Row was almost 50 percent overcrowded. Of the 283 condemned waiting to hang at the time, 11 were white.
But there was no apartheid on Death Row; black and white prisoners spent their last days on Earth together and died together. Burial was another matter, with whites sent in unmarked coffins to paupers’ graves in Zandfontein in Pretoria, coloureds to Eersterust, Indians to Laudium and blacks to Mamelodi.
Only legendary Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrilla Solomon Mahlangu was treated differently. His body was interred in Atteridgeville because the government did not want his grave to become a shrine.
More than 20 years after hangings ended, up to 85 percent of all South Africans are said to want a return to the death sentence.
On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma will inaugurate the first phase of the Gallows Memorial, the gallows faithfully restored, the holding cells refurbished and the mortuary fridges reinstalled. It will be the only public museum in the middle of one of SA’S highest security jails, holding prisoners like Chris Hani’s killers Clive Derby Lewis and Janusz Waluz, apartheid’s “Prime Evil” Eugene de Kock, multiple escape artist Ananias Mathe and the Boeremag terror accused.
The project is the brainchild of Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-nqakula and was adopted by Correctional Services commissioner Tom Moyane.
As veteran journalist Anneliese Burgess explains, the second phase of the memorial will be creating a separate entrance to the facility, including a tunnel under the new and expanded 300-cell C-max prison which is still very much part of the original Death Row building.
C-max is scheduled to be redevel- oped into Super- Max, an ultrasecure holding prison where inmates are kept under lockdown for 23 hours out of 24.
Burgess has been part of the project since its inception, interviewing former death row inmates and the families of the condemned and the warders alike.
“This place was built specifically to kill. We’ve turned it into an anti-death sentence statement.”
The museum begins in the old Death Row. “Baadjies en adres” (jackets and address) would be the shout. The condemned men would be locked into their cells. The warders would head for a specific cell and take the inmate to the “feedback room”.
There the sheriff of the high court would tell him that his appeal had failed and that he would be hanged in the next seven days.
His “baadjie” and all his other possessions would be transferred with him to the “pot”, so named because that’s where the prisoners believed the warders liked to let them stew before executing them.
He would be measured and weighed for the hangman to prepare the correct length of rope.
The pot is a tiny cell with inspection windows set into the wall and ceiling. There’s a bed with a standard army-type mattress, a desk you reach by sitting on the foot of the bed, a sink and a bare toilet bowl.
During the seven days, the condemned men would be allowed a daily 30-minute visit from their families, sitting on stools bolted to the floor, peering at each other through armoured glass. The only people they could see without the glass would be the chaplains or lawyers.
On the day of execution, the condemned would be woken at 6am. Few slept that night. There would be an opportunity to pray in the chapel and then, accompanied by a warder, their hands cuffed behind their backs, they were lined up in the corridor with everyone else expected to be hanged that morning. There are 52 steps to the top floor. The museum has picked four politicals, showcasing one on each of the four landings: MK’S Vuyisile Mini, hanged in 1964; the African Resistance Movement’s John Harris, hanged in 1965; Poqo’s Zibongile Dodo, hanged in 1968, one of the Langa 6 whose body was exhumed by the NPA earlier this year; and, finally Solomon Mahlangu himself, the best- known of all the condemned political prisoners.
The politicals were disciplined, the warders remember, determined to die with dignity. The criminals were different. One had to be teargassed out of the pot. Others begged, pleaded before the noose was even around their necks.
Today, at the top of the stairs, there are pictures of the 130 political prisoners executed. Opposite is displayed a quote by heart transplant pioneer Professor Christiaan Barnard on hanging, dated 1978: “It may indeed be quick,” he says. “We do not know, as no one has ever survived to vouch for it.”
Next door is the gallows. Nothing can prepare you for it.
There is a gantry in the middle of the room, suspended from the ceiling. It has a block and tackle capable of winching back the 1.5-ton trapdoors below it. There are seven nooses and below them on the trapdoor are seven pairs of painted foot- prints. There is a desk and an old Bakelite phone. The phone was for 11th hour reprieves. It never rang.
Some condemned – like Barend Strydom, Robert Mcbride and the Upington Six – were reprieved, but never right there, cuffed, hooded and waiting for the drop.
On the far wall is a framed copy of a 1988 Saturday Star interview with Warrant Officer Chris Barnard, a policeman who moonlighted as one of the country’s three hangmen. His tally was 1 500 executions by the time he retired.
The prisoners’ identities would be checked, hoods placed on their heads and then they would be marched on to the trapdoor.
Oom Barries, as the older warders remember the hangman, would walk up to each of the condemned, flip the flap of the hood over their eyes and place the noose around their necks. When he got to the end he would push the lever that would crash open the trap door.
It took him 18 seconds from the first noose to the lever.
It’s a three-storey drop into a purpose- built human abattoir, termed the “blood catchment pit area” on the architectural plans.
The bodies would hang over the pit for up to 15 minutes until the district surgeon could no longer detect a heartbeat. The bodies would be undressed and sluiced off and then taken down one by one.
Autopsies would be performed and the cause of death noted: “Fractured dislocation of the first and second cervical vertebrae.”
The bodies would be placed naked in coffins with small yellow tags on them. The clothes would be sent to the prison laundry to be washed for reissue.
Two hours later, the coffins would be lowered into the chapel by special lift where all the condemned’s families would take part in a 30-minute funeral service.
“You know,” says Burgess, “there were some real horrors who were executed here. I’ve always been against capital punishment philosophically, while understanding the need on a purely personal level for revenge. But after working on this project I am now more convinced than ever that this is a heinous thing to do to anyone. There are alternative punishments.
“That’s the story we’ve set out to tell.”
NO GOING BACK: The trapdoor at Pretoria Central Prison’s gallows. The trapdoor has several pairs of painted foot soles, close together, all pointing away from the door.
EXECUTED: umkhonto we Sizwe guerrilla Solomon Mahlangu.