Book extract: Black and blue and broken in apartheid jail
An extract from 'Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid' by Sylvia Neame
Sylvia Neame was a political activist and member of the South African Communist Party (SACP). She was given a four-year sentence under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1965 (with two two-year sentences to run concurrently) and was afterwards also tried in Humansdorp (on a charge of advocating violence) but was acquitted on appeal. This is her account of her experience in Barberton Prison. The prison was maximum security, part of a farm jail complex in the eastern part of what was then known as the Transvaal province – far from any urban centre. The women were kept in a small space at one end of the prison in isolation under a regime of what can only be called psychological warfare. - Jennifer Platt
Something of the life of black prisoners at Barberton
The front big cell was a nice cell, as cells go. At this stage I did not yet internalise that it was north-facing and that we could look to the west. All I knew was that we could see the sun setting over the mountains there across the valley. At this time, April-May 1966, I still could not look with open eyes at the landscape outside because I feared the pain that it would give me in my chest and the gaol feeling.
I dared look just a little, not allowing my eyes to relax and drink in the picture of the trees across the gravel near the golf course, the sisal lands down there to the left of the golf course, the farm gaol, a mile or so away in the valley, down in the west, and the mountains over which the sun set.
I tensed my body and kept the shutters just a little over my eyes. I did not yet see the detail, the lines of sisal plants, the colour of the leaves of the trees, all the different colours in the valley and of the mountains when the sun set. I was only conscious of the orange sun setting, making the cages on our windows orange and creating a square of orange on the wall above Sheila’s bed.
I was here inside with the orange reflection. The sun made itself a part of us by coming inside through the cages and bars. But the rest of the outside world was beyond. Out of reach. True, I would observe ordinary gaol things through the window, in other words, aspects that belonged to the life of the gaol. I used to watch the African prisoners in the morning, sweeping the gravel smooth below our windows, and I used to observe their babies, often on their backs, but sometimes put down on the gravel on a grey blanket while their mothers worked.
Other women filled buckets of water at the pond, treading carefully on the stones on the edge, and bending over, stretching their arms forward as they pushed the mouth of the bucket into the water, and allowing it to fill, and then drawing their arms back and lifting them as they placed the buckets on their heads. Then they moved slowly up the stone edge of the pond and to the flower beds, where they emptied the bucket in big splashes.
All in slow motion. Life had lost its real purpose, and the same job had to be done, apparently meaninglessly, every day. We politicals were the only prisoners I have ever seen who went about bustling, walking fast. We became almost compulsive in our hurry to do useful things, to keep ourselves busy all the time.
One of the wardresses once said to us, ‘I have never in my life seen people like you inside or outside gaol. You are moving and busy all the time.’ I used to watch the long line of African women every morning going down to the sisal lands but I had to be careful that no wardress saw me looking out of the window.
It was easier for us now because the wardress on duty with us was not there all the time. She would sometimes go and sit on a chair in the boiler room or sit at one of our tables in a cell, and dream the day away, utterly bored, and with nothing to do, for we ran our own lives without any supervision now. We did not have to be told to work. Everyone diligently performed their tasks and we did not fight amongst ourselves like other prisoners did.
The wardresses were not allowed to read or smoke on duty. It was not pleasant for them. I watched the long line of women, in red headscarves and brown overalls, walking in twos across the grey gravel with the little stones crunching. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch, crunch, crunch. There were probably 150 to 200 women. Most of the black women prisoners worked in the sisal lands. Only a few worked in the laundry in their section, did odd jobs in the gaol or worked below our windows on the gravel and flower beds. Those who worked with the sisal went down to the lands about 7.30 in the morning. Each of them carried a folded kitchen towel over one arm, and some carried large tin containers which must have had their food. At intervals amongst them there were African wardresses, dressed differently from the white wardresses. Each was dressed in light khaki shirt, khaki skirt and jacket and with a topee on the head to protect her from the sun
Also with the women going to the lands were African warders, in khaki too, with rifles. At various points in the lands there were platforms from which look-out points wardresses kept an eye on the prisoners so that none escaped. An African warder with a gun was on one of the platforms. And about 50 yards from the first row of sisal, close to the prison building, was another platform with a white warder with a rifle. He was on duty there all day.
He kept a keen eye on the lands down below him. We could see him from the window of the front big cell. The prisoners only came back at half past three in the afternoon. Our wardresses told us proudly that the policy of Barberton Prison – the ‘best prison in the country’ – was to break prisoners.
They told us that the most difficult, the most dangerous prisoners were sent to Barberton. If a prisoner caused trouble in another gaol, somewhere else in South Africa, or tried to escape, they were sent to Barberton as ‘C’ and ‘D’ prisoners. Here after one day in the appalling heat of the subtropical summer, with the sisal blistering their hands, they were broken in. They never gave trouble again.
The wardresses insisted that they, themselves, would not go into the sisal lands even for a few minutes on a summer’s day because it was unbearable. At some stage, we politicals tried to get the authorities to allow us out of the prison for short periods, just to get the feel of the outside world. The white women in Worcester prison in the Western Cape, we had been informed by prisoners who had been there, including Stephanie Kemp, were not confined all the time to their section (Worcester Prison was built according to the same plan as Barberton Prison).
They were allowed outside in their grounds for sports activities, and they used to go for tea to the quarters of the Matron-in-Charge, and were even allowed to go to milk bars in Worcester. When I asked the Brigadier during Complaints and Requests whether he would not allow us to go into the prison grounds occasionally, particularly as there was no public to see us – the grounds were self- contained – Matron Bester threatened that she would send us into the sisal fields. She obviously felt this was a dire threat.
The Brigadier confirmed that the policy of Barberton Prison was to break prisoners. He knew that one could not reform a convict unless they were broken down first. Only then was it possible to reclaim a prisoner. We knew that it was not an unusual occurrence for the black women prisoners to be severely beaten by the wardresses. One day, sometime in the first half of 1966, we heard terrible screams coming from the other side of the gaol.
It was nothing new. We had heard wild screams quite often before. When we first heard them we were shocked rigid, but one gets used to anything, on the surface anyway, and so when we heard screams, one of us would simply look up from our work and say, ‘The wardresses are at it again. Listen to those screams.’
And go back to our work. But every time it happened, I felt something snap inside me. Every time I heard one of these piercing cries my determination to fight the South African authorities was strengthened and I waited for the day when I would be out of there, and could tell the world about them. I think these kinds of thoughts entered the minds of all of us. We could do nothing about it then because our wings were clipped, but one day ... On the day I am describing, the wardress who came from the front to lock us up for lunchtime lock-up (the Bird of Prey, Barnard), had a bandage around her hand and wrist.
As she crossed the portal in the direction of the courtyard big cell, with her keys jangling, she held up her arm importantly before her. At lock-up we all had to stand just inside our cells, behind the grilles, with our hands behind our backs, at attention, and so she knew we were all watching her. She looked so smug. Somehow it was all so naive. In a way I felt sorry for her, except that I knew that she had just beaten up a woman.
‘O, ja,’ Barnard spoke partly to herself, partly to the other wardress with her but she was performing above all for us. ‘O, ja, ek het haar gedonner! [Oh yes, I beat her up].’ Most of the wardresses we knew at Barberton were proud of being able to fight. It is something that was apparently a part of the culture of young Afrikaner girls of their particular social group. If you couldn’t beat somebody in a fight, you weren’t worth your salt.
When they began talking more freely to us, they used to tell us stories, not only about beating up prisoners but even beating up other wardresses, or at least threatening them, and beating up men, too. One of them, who had once been a nurse, described to us how she had beaten up the boyfriend of a member of the prison staff. And she was proud of it.
Imprisoned: The Experience Of A Prisoner Under Apartheid by Sylvia Neame is published by Jacana (R280)