Winnie’s prison suicide plan

2013-08-11 14:00

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela once hatched a plan to take her own life while detained for 491 days on dubious charges under the Terrorism Act because she could not take the abhorrent, barbaric treatment at Pretoria Central Prison. Xolani Mbanjwa reports.

Distressing revelations are contained in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s book, 491 Days, released this week.

It is compiled from a recently discovered prison journal she kept to detail her trauma while detained in 1969 along with 22 others for organising the funerals of banned ANC activists and flying the ANC’s flag in 1964. While detained, she secretly passed the journals to her lawyer David Soggot.

She spent the entire time in solitary confinement, a move she says was designed by apartheid police working in cahoots with prison staff to break her physically and psychologically.

Madikizela-Mandela’s plan was not to take her own life at one fell swoop.

She wanted to commit gradual suicide, so as not to discourage her comrades inside and outside of prison and to prevent the apartheid state from rejoicing at her demise.

She also took a jab at her ex-husband’s 27 years on Robben Island, saying solitary confinement was a much worse and more horrific experience.

1April 1970. “During the second week of April, I just could not take solitary confinement any more.

I realised it might go on for another year before we were charged.

There was no sign that we were going to be interrogated again.

It suddenly dawned on me that if I took my life there would be no trial and my colleagues would be saved from the torturous mental agony

of solitary confinement. The long and empty hours tore through the inner core of my soul.

There were moments when I got so fed up, I banged my head against the cell wall.

Physical pain was more tolerable.“I decided I would commit suicide but would do so gradually so that I should die of natural causes to spare Nelson and the children the pain of knowing I had taken my own life.

I thought there would be no better method of focusing the world’s attention on the terror of the Terrorism Act than this.

I wanted also to avoid my death being interpreted as an act of cowardice, hence the decision to make it look a natural death.”

She stopped eating, taking her medical treatment and asking for the doctor whenever she felt sick.

She changed her suicide plans when, three weeks later, she saw the statement of the then justice minister that she and her comrades would either be charged or released soon.

2For months, she diarised all her medical conditions every day and logged the following conditions. In her medical diary of December 24 1969, she wrote:

“Sharp pain in the middle of the chest – lasts approximately five minutes.

Complete loss of control of muscle function.

Breathlessness, choked, tongue as if full in the mouth, could not swallow or move at all.

Half conscious.

“With a spasm, body jerked into function.

Palpitations – burning pain beneath left breast. Unable to estimate length of time each attack took.

It seemed quite long – soaking wet – excess sweat.

Eyes bloodshot the whole day following attacks – persistent headache and loss of appetite – bitter taste in mouth.”

All this was during the trauma of constant isolation. Requests to see her doctor were ignored repeatedly and she received incomplete treatment. She often had to take several tablets a day though.

Requests for breakfast were regularly refused, while she suffered from constant diarrhoea and vomiting.

3From Madikizela-Mandela’s diary in 2012, recounting her days in solitary confinement:

“Being held incommunicado was the most cruel thing the Nationalists ever did.

I’d communicate with the ants, anything that has life. If I had lice, I would have even nursed them.

That’s what this solitary confinement (does).

“There is no worse punishment than that. I think you can stand imprisonment of 27 years. You are mixing with the other prisoners, you get your three meals a day. The only thing you have lost is your freedom of movement. Your mind isn’t incarcerated, that’s all, but with solitary confinement you are not allowed to read. You are not allowed to do anything. You have just yourself.”

4July 21 1970. Madikizela-Mandela reveals how, even after the handful of visits, wardresses would search her cell and she would find what little clothing she had missing, her suitcase gone and food brought by her relatives taken away. She did not even have panties to change into.

“Bezuidenhout (a white Afrikaans-speaking wardress who was new to the torture block of cells) brought me the following items: In one dixie (metal plate) there were a few glucose sweets, two halves, beef sticks, two rotten oranges and two pieces of cheese, unwrapped.

In the other dixie were the following tinned foods, all emptied into one dixie and spilling over: one tin of peas, one tin of green beans, one spaghetti in tomato sauce and one biryani – curry and rice.

“The water from the tinned peas and beans was not drained, the whole thing was a shocking mess. Even a dog could not possibly eat food served in this manner.”

When Bezuidenhout brought the food, the wardress said: “And that is the news for the day.” I kept quiet.

5“In solitary confinement, my daily routine is full of nothing. My cell inventory is highly limited too. It’s as follows: Two mats, four blankets, one filthy plastic bottle in which is my drinking water, one “pon” (sanitary bucket), one metal mug, soap and all my clothes.”

Madikizela-Mandela’s menu always included the following: For breakfast was uncooked porridge and coffee.

Lunch was porridge, sugar beans and beetroot (sometimes overcooked spinach or half an ounce of milk) and supper was dry cooked mealies and phuzamandla.

She was often served porridge with maggots.

“My daily routine in all three cells was the same, full of nothing. After cleaning the cell, I washed my mouth, face and hands in the sanitary buckets with the drinking water poured into the mug. There are no lavatories in all three cells so I had to use the same bucket for everything. I trained my stomach to work once a day, in the morning just after washing my mouth, face and hands, because this sanitary bucket is changed once a day, in the morning only.”

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