Michael Hathorn’s Detention Diary

One of the sites that make up the Durban Liberation Heritage Route is Durban Central Prison, or more specifically one of its boundary walls, as the prison itself was destroyed some years back. Surprisingly though if you look online for images of the prison before it was demolished, you’ll find very few photographs. One of the reasons for this perhaps is that it was (and still is) illegal to photograph prisons in South Africa. It was also illegal to describe conditions within South African prisons, a ban which has since been lifted. Harold Strachan, one of the original members of uMkhoto weSizwe, was re-arrested and sent back to Pretoria Central when the Rand Daily Mail published an account he wrote of the four years that he spent in prison between 1961 and 1965. So the account that Michael Hathorn kept of his time in Durban Central Prison was itself an act of defiance, and provides interesting insight into the mechanisms of what at the time was Durban’s primary correctional services facility.

Michael Hathorn

Hathorn was a qualified engineer, as well as a medical doctor and political activist. He was arrested on the 30th March 1960 under the State of Emergency that was declared by the government following the Sharpeville Massacre that had taken place just over a week before. The 1960 State of Emergency lasted for five months, and resulted in more than 11,500 detentions. In the log that Hathorn kept while he was detained at Sentele, the local name given to the prison, he refers to the prison number of Norman Phillips, the foreign editor of the Toronto Star who was arrested just over a month after Hathorn. Norman’s prison card number was 7019 and Hathorn’s was 6315, meaning that 704 prisoners had been admitted to Sentele between the 30th March and the 9th April, the majority of these presumably political prisoners.

Below are some excerpts from Michael Hathorn’s detention diary:

Thursday 31 March

A Block contained about 34 cells on two floors housing about 135 white male prisoners, while the identical B – E Blocks were for non-whites. There was also a small Block for black female prisoners. In Afrikaans, A Block was pronounced “Ah Seksie”. Errol and I soon found out from Warder Viljoen that Cell No. 1 was the death cell, used for prisoners awaiting transfer to Pretoria Central for execution. It was right opposite the warder’s office next to the entrance gates to A Block, so that condemned prisoners could be easily observed at frequent intervals. There had been no hangings at Durban Central for a number of years now: this was being done more efficiently at Pretoria Central. But Warder Viljoen assured us that the gallows at Durban Central were still being maintained in a state of readiness in case there was a change in policy. A Block was full, and as there were no prisoners awaiting execution, it had been decided to put the two “politicals” in Cell No 1. Usually two prisoners were not allowed in a cell together because of the danger of “homosexual practices,” but the Chief Warder had thought it would be safe to overlook this regulation in our case.

Margaret Cormack (left) and Vera Ponen (middle), demonstration in Smith Street, Durban, 1960

Margaret Cormack (left) and Vera Ponen (middle), demonstration in Smith Street, Durban, 1960

The cell measured about 7 x 10 feet, with a ceiling about 12 feet high. The walls were of brick about 22″ thick, painted with grey enamel paint to about 4 feet from the ground and then a cream colour above. There was a small window about 12″ square, with iron bars but no glass, high up on the wall opposite the door; this overlooked the exercise yard which I could just see if I sat on Errol’s shoulders. The door was the only one in the block to have a small peephole through which to keep a watch on the condemned prisoner. The floor was of red cement with a gleaming wax polish.

We each had 3 blankets (one of mine still had dried vomit on it) and a small hard pillow about 1″ thick. In addition, we each had a felt mat about 1/2″ thick to lie on at night, and a small wooden stool to sit on during the day. There was also a toilet – these had recently been installed in A Block because of the recent typhoid epidemic in Durban Central, but of course not in the Blocks occupied by black prisoners. Errol and I each had a plastic mug, a plastic spoon and a scratched plastic dish. That was the entire contents on the cell.

At about 4pm we were allowed out for 10 minutes to collect our evening “meal,” a disgusting mess, a slice of bread and a mug of alleged coffee, and we took it back into our cell. We had to leave our shoes outside the door, which was then slammed shut for the night as we started eating our food.

Saturday 9 April

Pandemonium broke loose in the prison this morning. We heard orders being shouted to all warders, and then we heard the ominous sounds of rifles and ammunition being distributed and sound of rifle bolts being tested. Warder Viljoen whispered to Errol and me through the door “President Verwoerd has been shot. There is going to be big trouble.” But about 20 minutes later, the news spread round that it was a white man who had shot at Verwoerd, who had been only wounded – a big sigh of relief went up all round the prison population.

Daily routine in the Prison

One of the complications for the prison authorities was the insistence by the Special Branch that we were to be kept isolated from the other prisoners at all times. We suspected that this was ostensibly to prevent us “contaminating” the ordinary prisoners with our ideas, but in reality it was to prevent us knowing what was going on in the outside world. Prisoners awaiting trial had access to their lawyers and were allowed to have newspapers; ordinary prisoners were also allowed to have newspapers sent in to them. Errol and I were denied any access to newspapers or lawyers, and the warders were instructed to search the ablution block before Errol and I were allowed there for our 20 minutes each day. But there was no toilet paper in the ablution block, only torn up squares of newspaper, and on several occasions we found interesting information from the “toilet paper”.

Black prisoners

On several occasions, black prisoners doing manual labour outside the prison during the day, arrived back late, escorted by their armed guards, at the same time as we were queuing up for our evening meal in the open space between A Block and the Administration (entrance) Block. We would watch these prisoners being forced to strip naked and be searched for contraband items. The vast majority of these men showed striped scars across their buttocks where they had received lashes. Many of these were still fresh lesions, oozing pus and blood.

While prison life was tough for Hathorn, the disparate treatment of the different races continued even within the prison system. Hathorn and his cellmate were afforded privileges that no black prisoner would ever have been granted:


Errol and I were greatly surprised when a few weeks after Norman was released, Volkenhorst told us to get ready for our beds. Two black trustees brought in two iron beds: they were each 24” wide, which meant that with one on each side of the cell, there was a space of just over 24” between them. They both had sagging springs, and lumpy coir mattresses about 3” thick. But they were sheer luxury compared with our 1/2” felt mats and the two small wooden stools which were then taken away. It also meant that we could lie on our beds in the daytime, something strictly prohibited with our mats.

The Gramophone

My friend Frank Walt, a consultant paediatrician who also worked at the McCord Zulu Hospital in Durban, happened to know Colonel McLachlan. After negotiating with him, Frank bought me a Phillips portable battery operated gramophone, collected some of our records from Margaret, and delivered it all to Colonel McLachlan early in May. It was arranged with the Head Warder that I would be allowed to play it in our cell for the hour before lights out each evening. It created a sensation in A Section – each evening, the warder on duty would knock on our cell door and give us the other prisoners’ requests. The most popular record, requested almost daily by prisoner Knight (a trustee serving 15 years), and played at full volume so that it could be heard all over A Block, was My Fair Lady, the most popular track being “Wouldn’t it be Luverley.”

"In May 1961, when Margaret and I were driving in Durban on the day before we sold our car, a few days before we escaped to Ghana, I decided I must have a photograph of the Durban Central Prison. Margaret took the wheel, and I quickly set the focus and aperture on the camera, raised it and took a snapshot as we drove past. The unprocessed film went with us to Ghana and I had it developed and printed there."

“In May 1961, when Margaret and I were driving in Durban on the day before we sold our car, a few days before we escaped to Ghana, I decided I must have a photograph of the Durban Central Prison. Margaret took the wheel, and I quickly set the focus and aperture on the camera, raised it and took a snapshot as we drove past. The unprocessed film went with us to Ghana and I had it developed and printed there.”


On the afternoon of Tuesday 28 June 1960, Volkenhorst came to our cell door to say that we were to be released from prison the next morning! We couldn’t believe our ears.

I was told that my wife would be picking me up in the car. I then was led through the last remaining iron door to the entrance to the prison, and there I saw Margaret standing next to our car! But the final touch was that as a white man I was not supposed to carry my own belongings: a black prisoner, a trustee under the supervision of a white warder, carried my meagre belongings the few yards from the prison entrance to the boot of the car which Margaret had just opened.

After his detention in Durban Central Prison Hathorn and his wife Margaret Cormac, also a medical doctor, decided to leave South Africa, originally moving to Ghana. In 1965, Hathorn and Margaret moved to London, where they continued their work in the medical field. According to SA History Online Michael Hathorn eventually returned to South Africa, and passed away in Pietermaritzburg.

Images courtesy of www.sahistory.org.za

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