John Vorster Square Prison is said to be “a true embodiment of the violence of the apartheid system.” The notorious Johannesburg jail opened in August 1968 and was named after the prime minister at the time. John Vorster later became the fourth president of the apartheid state and was known for his stringent adherence to the oppressive system. During his rule, he oversaw the Rivonia Treason Trial that sentenced Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment, and his legacy lived eerily on through the prison’s concrete walls and the horrors that occurred behind them.

The prison’s opening emerged in a climate of racial segregation and political repression, and it is long remembered for countless human rights violations, detention without trial, numerous tortures, violent interrogations, and the death of eight of its detainees, including Neil Agget. An inquest into his death was launched during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and once again in January 2020 at the High Court in Johannesburg.

The Dreaded Tenth Floor

View from the 10th floor, Craig Matthews, 2007.

Perhaps most notorious of all was the prison’s tenth floor, which housed the feared Security Branch of the prison and became synonymous with brutality. The elevator did not reach this level and those forced to endure the horrors of the tenth floor would be walked up to an inevitably torturous fate. It was on the tenth floor that many anti-apartheid activists were held without trial, some for months, with no idea about when they might be released. It was also on this floor that death in detention occurred. The first recorded death was that of Ahmed Timol, an activist and political leader with ties to the South African Communist Party. While officials claimed that he jumped from this height, other accounts point to the direct involvement of the security police in his murder. It is believed that he was dangled out of one of the windows – one of the many nefarious torture methods used against detainees – and subsequently fell to his death.

Kulumani Support Group show their support during the inquest into Ahmed Timol’s death.

A History of Detention Without Trial

United Democratic Front poster, 1985

Detention without trial was one of the most brutal weapons used by the apartheid state. A law was passed in 1963 and meant that the state could hold detainees for 90 days without trial. Detainees would not be given any access to the courts, were not allowed any legal representation, and were isolated from any contact with their families or medical professionals. Upon expiry, this period could be renewed. By 1965 the period was extended to 180 days and by 1967 indefinite detention was enabled through the Terrorism Act. It was thus used as a torture device and enabled the state to hold prisoners for extended periods of time under the guise of the law. Amnesty International have noted that this system was used to “intimidate opponents of apartheid [and] to suppress, or prevent the growth of effective African political opposition.” It was thus utilised to break down detainees at both a physical and psychological level with little consequence. We might never know the full truth of what occurred on the tenth floor, nor the final moments of those who lost their lives at the hands of the Security Branch, but it’s imperative that we remember who they were.

Sharing Stories from John Vorster – Remembering Heroes of the Liberation Struggle

While the brutal history of the prison is a startling reminder of the inhumanity of the apartheid system, we have to remember the stories of brave activists who lost their lives during the fight for freedom at Vorster Square. Their lives, and the suffering that they endured, have been documented by the South African History Archive, the Sunday Times Heritage Project, and Craig Matthews of Doxa Productions in a DVD called Between Life and Death: Stories from John Vorster Square. The film includes interviews with former prisoners and security police, and other archival materials such as photographs and press clippings.

It is imperative that we remember the stories from Vorster Square Prison, as harrowing and painful as they are. We must not forget the lives that were lost and those who endured inexplicable trauma so that these crimes are not repeated and a culture of impunity does not prevail. We must continue to search for the truth, particularly for families who are seeking closure and justice for loved ones who died at John Vorster Square. As philosopher and writer, George Santayana, once observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” May we always remember the past so that the horrors of Vorster Square are never repeated.

Images courtesy of Aljazeera, Times Live, and Google Arts & Culture.

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