Upon first examining the records of South African prison deaths during the Apartheid era (Williams 337-339) some peculiarities immediately come to attention. Namely, a vast number of the prison deaths are attributed to what officials recorded as “suicide by hanging” or “fell out of window,” the instances of which seem especially prevalent during the subsequent months surrounding the Soweto uprising. There is no evidence to corroborate or elaborate the government’s data (339). While we might at first be honestly confused by this data, it becomes a insidious and incriminating revelation when considering the testimony of prison system survivors.
Frank Chikane writing in 1977, described his work in attempting to locate the African missing following the Soweto uprising in “Detention and Torture.” By ministering to the families which had lost relatives and kin in the uprising Chikane was suspected by the regime of being a collaborator in the civil unrest, and so was summarily captured, detained and brutally tortured for weeks, all without habeas corpus, representation or official charges (340-343). Chikane’s report reveals numerous human and civil rights abuses at the hands of the South African officials, a nearly continuous stream of assaults, abuses and torture, including stress positions, extended solitary confinement, beatings, deprivation and humiliation. Most revealing in the author’s document is what the South African officials finally subjected him to after weeks of continuous abuse: physically exhausted and nearing dillerium, he was ordered to kill himself (341). Resisting his captor’s attacks, Chikane eventually was subjected to a kangaroo trial, without any formal charges, where his case was dismissed by government judges (342). Under the Apartheid system innocent Africans such as Frank Chikane could be detained without charges and tortured to the brink of suicide, without the right to petition for a redress of grievances.
Not all Africans who found themselves subjected to the opression of Apartheid seem to have been sorely abused by the system. Michael Dingake in My Fight Against Apartheid described prison life within the infamous Robben Island. While Dingake portrays the conditions as being Spartan in Robben Island, the level of care he received at the hands of his wardens does not approach the level of negligent homicide that Africans were subjected to in provincial police stations as described previously. In particular one of the unjust practices that Dingake brings to our attention is the racist system of food distribution at Robben, wherein “Whites” receive the best and largest quantity of foodstuffs, while the Africans receive the most meager, with “Coloured” and Asians somewhere in between (345). While this system is not ideal for the wellbeing of the people subject to it, rife in ignorant Afrikaner racial prejudices, and perhaps contributing to variable malnutrition, humiliation or irritation among the prison population, it is not murderous in its application. Dingake and his fellow political prisoners seem to have at least nominally fraternized with the guard population, striking deals for wardens to look the other way while foods were smuggled in (346-347), and had the luxury to stage elaborate hunger strikes, cook their own meals and to complain openly to the government staff without facing immediate violent reprisal. This condition contrasts sharply with the intolerable conditions that Frank Chikane and other provincial Africans were subjected to, who killed themselves to avoid the constant pain they were assaulted with and were fed so sparsely that they did not have the luxury to reject racist food distribution, lest they starve to death.
From the South African past: narratives, documents, and debates by John A. Williams