Written by political activist, Sylvia Neame, the recently published book, Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid describes how the spirit of Christmas shone through even in the darkness of the Barberton Prison Complex. Described by some as apartheid’s Alcatraz, Barberton was a maximum security prison in the eastern part of what was then known as the Transvaal, far from any city centre. Female prisoners were kept in a small space at one end of the prison in extreme isolation.
A political activist, and member of the South African Communist Party, Sylvia Neame was given a four-year prison sentence in 1965 under the Suppression of Communism Act, with two two-year sentences to run concurrently. She was later also charged, and found guilty, of advocating violence, but was acquitted on appeal.
Altogether Neame was incarcerated for almost three years and released in 1967. She wrote the script for Imprisoned following her release and the book is based partly on diary entries that she detailed in minute handwriting on tissue paper while she was in jail. Below is an excerpt describing Christmas day spent at Barberton in 1965:
And Christmas was coming. We were allowed to buy small quantities of sweets, cheese and fruit and one or two other items. Early on Christmas morning we woke up to jubilant singing, with various other sounds such as drums. The black women were celebrating. It was strange, waking up to this noise in the usually silent gaol…
To my left there was sunlight on the wall that divided us from the black women. We did not yet know what it looked like over that wall. We knew nothing about the other side of the gaol. From there were coming the singing voices…
Unlocked at 7 am, we said ‘Happy Christmas’ to each other and did all the things we did on every other day – emptied our sanitary buckets, cleaned our teeth and then stood on parade, waiting for the porridge pot…
And then we stood around since there was nothing else to do. The jubilant singing doubled in volume on the other side. The drumming sounded particularly good. ‘Gosh, I wish we could join them,’ somebody said.
The wardress on duty that day, Miss Wilkin, whom we sometimes called ‘Pomposity’, stood in the boiler room listening to the singing and watched us as we stood around with nothing to do. Suddenly something seemed to strike her. ‘Dis onregverdig dat die nie-blankes kan sing en dans, and julle blankes kan niks doen nie,’ she said…
A little later a grille was opened for us, not the grille at the entrance to our section but out in the courtyard, next to Matron Bester’s office. Then followed the opening of a grey door and we were escorted into a passage to the left and finally into a room on the left of the passage. We found ourselves in what was called ‘the hospital’. A wardress told us that we could go up to the large window on a side of the room. We did so. The pale green venetian blinds were down and the window was closed but we could see through into a large courtyard.
In the centre was a crowd of black women, some just sitting, some dancing. There were a few sitting with buckets between their legs drumming on the metal base. Some were blowing on combs covered with cellophane paper. Others were dressed up as men with black moustaches and little beards. Every now and again somebody from the watching crowd would come forward and do a vigorous dance which looked like a war dance. There were smiles on many faces. It was quite a scene, especially inside a gaol.
The women out there now became aware that some people were watching them from the window. One of them glanced now and then in our direction. However, most of the women were too taken up with the dancing and singing to care about us. They probably assumed that we were all wardresses.
My heart was beating fast. This is marvellous, marvellous! Thank God Bester is not on duty. If she were told, there would be real trouble for these wardresses. We realised that we would get away with quite a lot if we kept up our image of white madams watching African tribal dancing. And so I tried to put that sort of white madam look on my face and say things like ‘Aren’t they marvellous?’ We were desperate for contact with them, for them to see us and know who we were. But we had to hide this very carefully from the wardresses and appear totally taken up with the singing and dancing…
And then we saw one of the white wardresses in the courtyard hustling together about ten of those prisoners, classified under apartheid as ‘coloured’, and she shepherded them over to our window, where they lined up. And they sang us a few songs, songs that had been on the hit parade before my arrest.
Ann was next to me and I felt her discomfort. This was too white-madamish for her liking. She would have preferred no contact rather than contact at this level. After the coloured women had sung us two or three songs, in fact while they were singing their last song, Ann and I arranged to sing them two of our freedom songs. We decided on ‘Shosholoza’ for a start and so we sang, ‘Shosholoza Mandela!’ ‘Shosholoza Sisulu!’ ‘Shosholoza Kathrada!’ Some of the women made as if to join us but the others said, ‘No. No. Don’t. We want to hear the words.’ Ann was shaking with excitement next to me.
As we sang, I noticed the wardress beginning to look panicky. Things were getting out of control. As we finished our second freedom song, the women standing on the other side of the window were whisked away.
‘At least they know who we are now, what we are in for.’ It was crucial for our psychology to have managed to make some contact outside our little section. The white wardresses were not quite sure, I think, what had happened, and if they had grasped some of it, they chose, for their own peace of mind, at least for the moment, to pretend it hadn’t happened. The African wardresses, of course, had got the message. That day and for days afterwards, as they went off duty and passed under the windows of our section, they sang ‘Shosholoza’ and laughed and giggled. And from then on when we saw a black prisoner, although this was very rare, we got the Congress thumbs-up sign.
We were locked up specially early that day so the wardresses could go off early to enjoy their Christmas celebrations. We must have been in our cells by 3 or 3.30. We had the long gaol Christmas lock-up ahead of us. We arranged that we would study until about 6.30 or 7 and then we would have our drink. This was to be a mouthful of tonic, a red liquid prescribed by the doctor for one of us, a liquid which went down our throats warm and tasting of alcohol. We had given a portion to each cell…
‘Come on. Time for our Christmas toast.’ We each had a little in a teaspoon from our bottle of tonic. And then a second round.
‘Mmmm … lovely! Cheers, everyone! May we not have many more Christmases in gaol.’
‘To the men on Robben Island. To the men at Pretoria. To the women in Kroonstad and Port Elizabeth.’
‘To all political prisoners. To all freedom fighters.’