The day the emergency was declared

2011-06-13 00:00

THE winter of 1986 was particularly cold and for Pietermaritzburg’s anti-apartheid activists there was an added political chill. They were well used to threatening telephone calls in the early hours of the morning. But on Thursday, June 12, the callers, orchestrated by the police security branch (SB) from behind their bombproof partition on the top floor of Loop Street Police Station, arrived in person. Another State of Emergency was about to be declared.

For Joan and Peter Kerchhoff the bang on the front door came at 12.30 am. Three police officers searched the house and garden (even the drains) for over two hours and then detained Peter under the Internal Security Act. When Joan tried to phone friends, she discovered the lines had been cut. That day a suspiciously large number of post office vans were observed on the streets.

Teacher Dennis Dickson was detained at home at 3 am and after an anxious journey via Thornville ended up at Plessislaer in a cell with criminals. Station Commander Joshua Gwala, recognising him as a political prisoner, moved him into his own cell. He slept on the floor, but had a Bible and read the psalms, which “became very meaningful and kept me sane”.

The late Lyov Hassim, a student with the socialist Forward Youth, was picked up on Friday morning. Arriving at New Prison, he heard the voice of Peter Kerchhoff, who shouted out the names of other detainees: A. S. Chetty, Vasu Chetty, Frans Ngcamu, Vis Naidoo and Chota Motala. “Hey,” he thought, “this can’t be too bad if they’ve locked up the liberal Christians and all these eminent people.”

Yusuf Bhamjee, then a university researcher, says that June 12 was always etched in his thoughts as it was his late wife Sabera’s birthday. She was working in Durban and was puzzled why her husband had not phoned as “we were very punctual about our special days”. Neither she nor Yusuf’s extended family could find any trace of him, so she rushed back to Pietermaritzburg and established in the late afternoon that “I was in solitary at Alexandra Road Police Station”.

Lecturer Mike Hart was woken by police climbing over his gate. He hoped his old bull terrier would “spook the spooks, but the bloody dog slept through the whole performance”. The police found Marx for Beginners, but not some banned literature “hidden under the cushion of the couch they were sitting on”. In the house they discovered three young refugees from Imbali, one of whom had some ANC literature, “which excited the SB enormously”. Mike Hart recalls speculation about why some police raids were carried out unusually late: “The joke went around that they had raided Yunus Carrim early and that he had kept them talking.”

By late that Thursday morning it was known that about 40 detainees were held at the New and Women’s Prisons and police stations. They included a number of university staff and students, and after a massively attended protest meeting a group of St Joseph’s Scholasticate seminarians decided to march to town in support of detainee Theo Kneifel (later deported). They were arrested at Woodburn. No one was quite sure how many there were, but the answer came at supper time: Howick Police Station demanded 20 sets of cutlery. Bizarrely, three lecturers waving to the detained students through a window were also arrested.

The worst fear of all anti-apartheid activists was disappearance. Yusuf Bhamjee said on release that one consolation was knowing that this was Pietermaritzburg and his whereabouts would be carefully monitored. Information was protection. The police knew full well that a database of detainee details was quickly compiled at the university (this would be communicated regularly via telex to Amnesty International in London for the next four years). What they didn’t know was that there was a second, abbreviated database on another computer. The main information gatherers were Pacsa, Radley Keys of the Progressive Federal Party, and John Aitchison and Vaughn John at the Centre for Adult Education. Most members of the Detainees Support Committee found themselves guests of the state, undergoing a spot of involuntary fieldwork.

The dirty tricks department of the SB soon sprang into action. On the Thursday night a bogus pamphlet on a fake UDF letterhead urging Cosatu members to join a Soweto Day stayaway and collect their pay at five private addresses was distributed in Sobantu. Young comrades, suspicious of unknown men distributing leaflets at night, collected as many as possible and destroyed them. But the following day bundles were thrown out of a car in the city centre. MP for Pietermaritzburg North, Graham McIntosh was a few days later to read out the five names on the pamphlet and many others under parliamentary privilege in order to get detainees’ details into the public domain.

Over the weekend, Joan Kerchhoff was told that a “Sergeant Naudé” had phoned to say that her husband had suffered a heart attack. She rushed to Grey’s Hospital where ICU had no knowledge of the patient, who was perfectly healthy and in his cell. The family of Joe Vawda had a similar experience. Other, possibly apocryphal, stories did the rounds: a domestic worker was detained after exuberantly announcing in a Scottsville street that she had been given a holiday on Soweto Day. Another rumoured detainee was someone who had placed an advertisement in The Natal Witness challenging President P. W. Botha to free political prisoners. The advert is real enough.

As Colin Gardner pointed out at the time, South Africa was one big prison. It was a stressful period, whether inside or outside formal prison walls: eating, sleeping and concentration all suffered. Ironically, detainees at New Prison held a commemorative meeting on Soweto Day, something that was banned outside. The pattern of detentions was erratic, adding to the tension. The SB had been ordered to clear up their back yards and applied personal prejudice and outdated information. The military police added to the confusion, pulling in members of the End Conscription Campaign. Most of the high-profile detainees of June 12 were out within 14 days, but Peter Kerchhoff and A. S. Chetty were held for 96 days and other detainees were released only in May 1987.

Mary Kleinenberg vividly remembers the visible and intimidating presence of the police: “Freedom from this tyranny seemed very far off, possibly not in my lifetime.” It was hard for anyone to believe otherwise. But, as Colin Gardner remarks “in retrospect, it is quite clear that the State of Emergency was the desperate act of a regime that had begun to sense it was on the way out”.

South Africa was already a police state, so why was a State of Emergency in mid-1986 necessary? Most importantly, all members of the security forces were granted detention powers which allowed mass arrests and officials were indemnified from any repercussions.

The government would have preferred to declare unrest areas, but the Public Safety Amendment Bill was temporarily held up by the Indian and coloured houses of Delegates and Representatives of the Tricameral Parliament.

Under the Public Safety Act of 1953, four sets of emergency regulations were issued covering security, prisons, media and educational institutions. They would remain in force until June 1990.

Over four years, 2 000 people were detained in and around Pietermaritzburg. Country wide the figure was 50 000.

‘In retrospect it is quite clear that the state of emergency was the desperate act of a regime that had begun to sense it was on the way out.’

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