My ANC: ‘We were put close to the gallows’

2012-01-07 11:51

Professor Renfrew Christie listened to about 300 hangings while imprisoned in the 80s for smuggling information to the ANC. He spoke to Lucas Ledwaba

Professor Renfrew Christie (63) spent two of the seven years of his imprisonment in the early 1980s locked up in a cell next to death row at Pretoria Central Prison.

In that time, he heard the eerie sound of the trapdoor at the gallows creak open at least 300 times, as the hangman sent political activists and common criminals to their deaths.

This, after all, was long before capital punishment was suspended by FW de Klerk in 1989.

Memories of the clanking of cell doors, as prisoners were led to the gallows on the morning of their execution are still fresh in the mind of the man who smuggled sensitive information about apartheid South Africa’s nuclear programme to the then banned ANC.

Christie served seven years – from 1979 to 1986 – under the Terrorism Act, for leaking to the ANC in exile information about Koeberg, SA’s nuclear research centre.

He spent seven months in solitary confinement at John Vorster Square in Johannesburg before his trial.

His covert operations were exposed when Craig Williamson, a double agent who also served in the student anti-apartheid movement, informed the apartheid government.

“We were put as close to the gallows as possible. In that time we listened to about 300 hangings,” says Christie of his time in Pretoria Central.

“The whole prison would sing for 24 hours before people were taken to be executed. It was the most beautiful singing on Earth.

“Then you would hear the banging of doors in the morning as people were taken out to the gallows, and everything would go quiet.

You would hear the sound of the trapdoors opening and, half an hour later, you would hear the sound of nails being driven with a hammer, which meant the people were dead and were being placed into coffins,” Christie recalls.

During his incarceration, Christie obtained a BCom in economics and auditing and an honours degree in economics.

But even then, at a time when he smelt and heard death almost daily, he never had any doubts about the path he had taken.

“Some of my family participated in the Second World War to fight fascism and Hitler.

Even as a 17-year-old I knew apartheid had to be defeated and the armed struggle was key to defeating it.

I did not trust the apartheid government and I didn’t want them to have an atom bomb, which is why I leaked information to the ANC. Even in jail I never once regretted my actions,” Christie says.

By the time he turned 21, Christie had already been detained four times for his political activism.

His public profile grew in 1971 when he was elected deputy president of the National Union of SA Students.

Now dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, Christie says he’s proud of the achievements of the organisation he served during the dark days of apartheid, and which he still serves as a member of the Rondebosch-Mowbray branch in Cape Town and as a member of the SA National Defence Force Commission, which advises the minister of defence.

“Considering victory seemed completely unlikely at one stage, we must be very proud of the achievements of our democracy,” he says.

“We could have had another 20 years of shooting at each other, but it didn’t happen. We have a stable country, a stable economy and elections. All this is a triumph for the ANC.

“Yes, we have stupid politics sometimes, but it happens all over the world.”

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