A time of extraordinary events

2008-06-12 00:00

Familiar faces vanished — people went on the run, kept their heads down, or disappeared into detention under the Public Safety Act. The winter of 1986 in Pietermaritzburg was grey and menacing, courtesy of weather and the security police.

During the early eighties local people were detained for brief periods under security legislation, activists periodically went into hiding and there was a police presence everywhere. Phones were tapped, threatening calls were made in the dead of night, and meetings and demonstrations were spied upon.

Soweto and Freedom Charter Day meetings were prohibited in 1986, but church services were planned instead. Rumours of martial law, an emergency and mass arrests flew thick and fast. But few people were ready for the night of Thursday, June 12, or the three-and-a-quarter years of emergency rule that followed.

Ordinary Pietermaritzburg people were caught up in extraordinary events.

Lyov Hassim says: “They picked me up in town on the Friday morning. The first voice I heard at New Prison was Peter Kerchhoff’s. I thought, hey, if they’ve got the liberal Christians here, it can’t be too bad.”

Lyov Hassim worked for the South African Council on Higher Education and had been an activist in the socialist Forward Youth. “Then when I discovered that A. S. Chetty, Vasu Chetty, Frans Ngcamu and Dr Mahomed “Chota” Motala, the anti-apartheid leadership of Pietermaritzburg, were there it got even better.

“I did have ambiguous feelings because both my parents had been political prisoners and my father had a case going against the government, but overall I felt exhilaration, a sense of purpose and belonging to something historic that was bigger than all of us.”

Interrogation over several days involved pressure from Drug Squad members drafted in because of security police shortages. “They were particularly interested in a chicken project mentioned in our group minutes and thought details about feed and cleaning out the run were some sort of revolutionary code.

“Detention wasn’t a dark cloud, but a positive experience of which I was proud,” he continues. But for Hassim the identity created out of the struggle was soon overshadowed by the setbacks suffered by international socialism in the late eighties. “It brought a new sort of freedom, but meant I gradually drifted out of active involvement and into a complex personal journey.”

In the mid-nineties, Hassim returned to university to undertake legal studies. Today he practises as an attorney and lectures part time in human rights law at University of KwaZulu-Natal. His particular interests are freedom of expression; and corporal and capital punishment — to which he is totally opposed.

Dennis Dickson, then a teacher at Haythorne High and local deputy chairperson of the National Education Union of South Africa (Neusa), was detained at home in the early hours. “It was especially worrying with a three-year-old at home and the police didn’t seem to know what to do with me. From Loop Street Police Station we went to Thornville and then I was put in with common criminals at Plessislaer.

“Station commander Joshua Gwala realised I was a political prisoner and transferred me to a single cell.” But conditions were really primitive and “sleeping on the floor in the cold gave me permanent back problems. I occupied myself cleaning out the place. Pat Stilwell arranged for my wife Nalini to deliver some bare essentials, but only 15 minutes a day were allowed for a wash and a bit of sun.”

There was of course a Bible available: “The Psalms became incredibly meaningful and kept me sane,” Dickson recalls. Then he was joined by Charles Shelembe from Sobantu and “we developed a comradeship and shared our few possessions”. Several sessions of questioning at Alexandra Road Police Station centred on Neusa affairs. For the last few days of detention Dickson was transferred to New Prison. “It felt like a hotel — hot water, good company ...”

Was it all worth it? “Yes, I emerged stronger and more determined.” Dickson continued his involvement with anti-apartheid organisations and social justice initiatives of the Roman Catholic Church. He qualified as a teacher, obtained his MEd and now works for the provincial Department of Education on inter-governmental affairs. And he believes the sacrifice and commitment that led people into detention 20 years ago can be rekindled to address current-day problems.

Sandy Jocelyn says: “Detention for a white person was very different from a black person’s experience.”

Jocelyn was also detained at home in the middle of the night. She was projects officer of the Pietermaritzburg university campus Students’ Representative Council and in the last year of her BSc.

“As a woman I had protection — the authorities were wary of the possible reaction of white society to my treatment.” She played on this to gain a feeling of control: “I was privileged and had the psychological and physical security that went with it. I was conscious that this was in direct contradiction to black people. Their daily lives were more traumatic than my detention experience and in detention they faced the constant threat of harm.”

There was no trauma. “Having been arrested and not knowing what was going to happen was scary in places. But it was only for two weeks and came at a time when I needed a rest, so I slept a lot.” Jocelyn was with two other women and all of them were treated well. They were interrogated separately, but “quite politely. We coped by laughing our way through it to lighten things up.”

Throughout her detention she knew it was complete over-reaction by the state. “I have always been able to put things in perspective if I understand why something is happening. So I didn’t feel persecuted or let myself be intimidated.

“Detention had no lasting effect on my life, apart from a feeling that I contributed more to the struggle than I would have otherwise. My life had more to do with personal matters and being part of the struggle against apartheid, rather than detention. To pretend otherwise would be making too much of it.” Jocelyn now works for the Department of Corrections in Auckland, New Zealand, as a clinical psychologist.

Detention without trial

Detention without trial allowed the police to hold anyone without charge virtually indefinitely in a prison or police station. Pietermaritzburg had 268 cases during the 1986 to 1987 emergency. Over half the detainees were students, educationalists, church workers and community activists, most associated with the United Democratic Front. But the Azanian People’s Organisation, various NGOs such as the Association for Rural Advancement and even the Progressive Federal Party had members detained.

A few detainees were held for nearly a year. On release some were deported, harassed by the police and vigilantes or subjected to various restrictions. At least two were killed by vigilantes and, in another case, by Azanian Student Movement members.

The situation was to get much worse before the State of Emergency in Natal was lifted in October 1990. By then over 2 000 people had been held in the Natal midlands out of an estimated national total of 25 000 detainees.

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