‘Death fac­tory’ faith­fully re­stored

Hold­ing cells re­fur­bished and mor­tu­ary fridges re­in­stalled as SA’S gal­lows are de­clared a mu­seum, writes Kevin Ritchie

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

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.”

PIC­TURE: NOMAZWE BUKULA

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.

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