Inside Apartheid’s Prison

First published in 2001, Inside Apartheid’s Prison by Raymond Suttner, was rereleased at the end of last year.

Suttner, an academic, was one of a small number of white South Africans who were imprisoned for their efforts to overthrow the government during apartheid. He was first arrested in 1975, serving eight years for his underground activities with the ANC and SACP. Three years after serving his first prison sentence he was again imprisoned when a State of Emergency was declared, allowing detention without trial. He spent 27 months in prison, with the majority of this time in solitary confinement, as white prisoners were kept separate from the rest of the prison poluation. Upon his eventual release from prison in 1988, Suttner was placed under house arrest for a further two years, until the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.

While awaiting trial in 1975, Suttner was held at the Durban Central Prison, which now forms part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route. Below is an extract from Suttner’s book, which describes the period around his time in ‘Sentele’:

I was initially charged under the apartheid regime’s Terrorism Act on August 3 1975. But this was merely a formality. The actual trial would start two months later, with the charges formulated under the Internal Security Act.

Just before being charged, I was given fresh clothes and taken for a haircut. I also decided to have my beard shaved off, since it might make me look more respectable in the eyes of a white South African judge. I also wanted to appear as dignified as possible, as I was a representative of the liberation movement.

Durban Central Prison before it was closed in 1985

Two things changed after I was charged and returned to the Durban Central prison. I now had access to lawyers and could see visitors for 30 minutes, twice a week.

Although aspects of my conditions were better than I had expected, I was impatient to have my trial settled and know my sentence so I could adapt to the life that lay ahead.

It was pleasant, as well as unsettling, to be visited by friends, and for them to send me food and fruit, which was allowed prior to sentencing. This made life easier, but I kept on thinking that I should not get used to such “luxuries”.

Although not yet a sentenced prisoner, I started to get a glimpse of what lay ahead of me. I saw the various ways in which prison rules try to rob prisoners of their individuality. There were constant invasions of privacy and attacks on the dignity of prisoners. One little thing that immediately struck me was the “Judas hole” on the door.

The lovebird bought for Suttner by prison warder, Sergeant Bertie Joubert

Any passerby could look into my cell whenever it took his fancy and sometimes other prisoners would do so, and shout obscenities at me. I felt, then, a peculiar sense of powerlessness. I could not see much of the outside from inside the cell, but anyone looking in could see as much as they liked and deprive me of any semblance of privacy. It was sometimes quite intimidating to have a person I could not see shouting threats at me from outside the cell.

From early on I noticed the prison noises, the occasional silences, broken by terrible noises, the banging of steel doors, jingling of keys, shouting and swearing of warders. No prison official speaks softly. Officers would shout at warders and warders always shouted at prisoners.

At this time, I was preoccupied with preparing my statement from the dock. There was not a lot I could say in my defence. Purely in terms of the law, the case against me was cut-and-dried.

In a letter to my grandmother, which was dated August 18, 1975, I wrote:

Generally I do not feel very depressed here. It is a great waste to have to spend this time locked away and conviction for a minimum of 5 years will mean that – but I cannot pity myself in this context: there are others who have far longer sentences and also went to prison around my age. Though I do not want to go to gaol, this does not mean that I have any regrets for what I have done – I would do everything, but more again. That I have done insufficient is what I regret.

This passage is written in the tone of the revolutionaries I studied and tried to emulate. It is also a good example of my tendency to deny my own pain precisely because I knew others were experiencing worse. ANC leader Nelson Mandela had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Therefore, I chose to say nothing about my own suffering.”

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and social and political analyst based in Johannesburg. He is currently a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, and Professor Emeritus at the University of South Africa.

Images courtesy of and

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