SA gallows site becomes museum

2011-12-15 22:32

Pretoria - Martha Mahlangu can't bear to visit the prison where her son, an anti-apartheid guerrilla, was hanged. But she says it's important that other South Africans see the gallows the government opened as a monument on Thursday, and contemplate the example her son set.

"Solomon only thought of freedom, to free the black man," she said in an interview in her Pretoria home. "He never thought of himself, only about seeing the black man free."

The 87-year-old former maid's voice faltered when she tried speak about being invited to take part in a series of events this week at the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison. She sat on her porch in a neighbourhood set aside for blacks under apartheid that today remains predominantly black and poor.

She said she was instead sending her eldest son and a nephew to Thursday's inauguration by President Jacob Zuma of the gallows and the death row block housing it as a national memorial and museum.

She also sent her son and nephew to a traditional ceremony on Wednesday during which relatives of those hanged offered prayers and burned incense in remembrance.


Zuma toured the building on Thursday morning at the start of the ceremony to open the site, accompanied by several Cabinet ministers and George Bizos, a prominent campaigner against the death penalty who was also former President Nelson Mandela's lawyer.

Death row was in a low, brick building with imposing oak doors just outside the main block of Pretoria Central Prison. The gallows were abandoned after the death penalty was abolished in 1995.

Freshly painted wall along a hallway leading to the gallows told visitors some 3 500 South Africans were hanged over the last century. "Of these, 130 were patriots whose only crime was fighting oppression," it says.

Not all those hanged were executed in Pretoria, but many of the most prominent were.

South Africa's highest court ruled in 1995 that the death penalty was a cruel, inhuman and degrading violation of the country's post-apartheid constitution.

Executions had been on hold since 1989, as a debate raged that touched on the executions of anti-apartheid militants and on whether there could be a fair or just way of deciding who would be hanged.

Solomon Mahlangu was among the class of 1976, young South Africans radicalised by a student uprising in Soweto that year that was met by a brutal police crackdown.


He was 20 when he left South Africa to train in Mozambique and Angola with Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

One of Solomon Mahlangu's trio got away. Another, the only one accused of firing a gun, was so badly beaten in custody he was judged unfit to stand trial.

Prosecutors did not dispute that Solomon Mahlangu never fired a gun, but he was convicted of sharing his comrade's deadly purpose. He was hanged on April 6 1979.

The next day, his mother was brought to Pretoria Central and shown her son's plain wooden coffin. She remembers thinking it looked very small.

The gallows were destroyed in a smelter after the death penalty was abolished. Visitors to the site will see a replica: Seven nooses dangling from iron loops over a trap door.

A prison employee who said he had been a death row guard helped ensure the new museum's details are correct, down to the thickness of the ropes. He refused to give his name, saying he feared reprisals from South Africans who might consider him a murderer. But he said he was just doing a job.

The guard said the political prisoners were disciplined, never struggling, sometimes singing anti-apartheid songs as they climbed the stairs.


David Kutumela, a 56-year-old anti-apartheid activist who like Solomon Mahlangu began his fight after the 1976 uprisings, helped campaign to create the gallows memorial. He and other activists visited the gallows often as it was transformed into a museum.

"Walking up those 52 steps, we all think, 'It might have been us instead of Solomon,'" he said.

Kutumela said the museum is for South Africans as young as or younger than he and Solomon Mahlangu were when they became militants. He said he worries today's children "don't even understand how this freedom came about".

In another sign of how far South Africa has come, the top spokesperson for the prison department is an ANC veteran who trained as a teenager in the same Angolan camp where Solomon Mahlangu became a guerrilla.

Sibongile Promise Khumalo has a hug for everyone she meets, including the white guards at Pretoria Central who once escorted ANC fighters to their deaths.

Khumalo said she embraced the museum project, speaking with the families of those hanged instead of delegating the emotional job.

"I cried with those people," Khumalo said. "We were reopening wounds for them."

She said the goal was to offer closure to the families, and to society a chance to confront the wounds of the past and then move on.

"I know South Africans are forgiving," she said. "We need to help each other carry out this journey of remembrance."

  • cobus.jonker - 2011-12-15 23:54

    The ANC is like with everything else, exploiting this museum. In this article, only mention is made of the so called freedom fighters that were executed. What about Daisy de Melcker, Maria Lee and many others who were executed here for taking people's lives. My grandfather was a warden at correctional services many years ago and was present when Daisy de Melcker and Maria Lee were executed. As a matter of fact, today there was a program on BBC in Sierra Leone, where it was said that people were hanged at these gallows by the second...WHO is misleading the world with utter lies like this...come on ANC...your reponsibilities are to take care of the people of South Africa and it's not necessary to are failing DISMALLY.

      Tc - 2011-12-16 07:37

      Yip, agree with the "so called" freedom fighters. What freedom did they fight for? Whose freedom did they fight for? I know of no real victories, only civilian targets, killing innocent people. Now they turn the execution-place of those terrorists into a celebration of their wasted lives. The ANC has so little to celebrate!

      inwardk - 2011-12-16 10:40

      Yes I agree. The article even states that 130 of the 3500 executed were "freedom fighters" - that's only 3.71%. That means 96.29% of those executed were criminals. No wonder we cannot win the war against crime with this mindset.

  • Billy - 2011-12-16 00:07

    I salute our government for taking the brave step of honouring those who were hanged. May the museum become a shining beacon to human rights. How I long to see the day that they also honour the memories of those victims who were brutalised, maimed and murdered by these same people who were hanged. All in the name of Equality and Freedom, of course.

      johnnymacza - 2011-12-16 07:01

      pity they don't honour human rights by still murdering raping an plundering all people

  • Irene - 2011-12-16 02:08

    Forget about it being a museum and put it back to good use!

      Wesley - 2011-12-16 05:57

      They must make it a living museum

      George - 2011-12-16 09:55

      Make it into a working museum

  • Dakey - 2011-12-16 02:26

    I'm sorry but when a struggle for freedom involves training up to be a soldier and killing or attempting to kill innocent civilians or police officers, what exactly do you expect? In the entire apartheid era, 130 activists were executed? How many farmers are murdered each year?

  • Andrew - 2011-12-16 06:30

    How bizzare to create a museum at an operational correction facility (prison) and then honour 130 of some 4000 persons who were hanged for crimes committed against the laws of the land at that time. Once again public funds used could have been put to better use.

      Darkie - 2011-12-16 07:08

      It is important for us(Africans) to always remember what it took/how many innocent lives it took to get freedom. It may be irrelevant to you(Afrikanners) but it is important for us to pay tribute to those who were murdered by your government.

      Tc - 2011-12-16 07:43

      Darkie, likewise we have to start paying tribute to the far-far greater number of our people who are being sytematically killed-off by your government! More blood is bing spilled today in this horible new SA than ever-ever in the apartheid days.

      Billy - 2011-12-16 22:16

      Yes Darkie - and I would love to see tribute paid to my former school friend who was murdered by your cowardly comrade Robert McBride when he planted a bomb in the Magoo's Bar in Durban. A person's death does not become more or less important by reason of the political views of the person who does the killing.

      Andrew - 2011-12-17 07:46

      So many monuments have been erected all over South Africa honourng heroes of the so called struggle, it is about time money should be spent on housing the living and homeless people who need it more than the dead.

  • Darkie - 2011-12-16 06:51

    Its so funny how you(Afrikanners) see our freedom fighters as terrorist and still maintain that your apartheid policies were good for the country. I'm singling Afrikanners out because we all know that a lot of English speaking South Africans stood against your apartheid government. You still don't realize that you're living these perfect lives because those freedom fighters. The freedom that they were fighting for included you. The freedom chatter(that you always speak against) was talking about all who live in South Africa(Afrikanners included). You compare the killing of our people by your government to farm murders committed by worthless criminals. How many school children died in the hands of your government? How many black people were shot and killed for merely protesting against a government that they didn't recognize. I sometimes wonder if you think Chief Albert Luthuli, James Moroka, Dr John Dube and many other founders of the ANC as your heroes or evil demons. I wonder how you feel when you see footages of your security forces killing unarmed and defenseless people{Do you celebrate and feel that what they were doing was right or do you see it as inhumane and disgusting?}.

      Tc - 2011-12-16 07:46

      Darkie, dammit, what freedom did thos so-called freedom fighters bring for me and my people? Huh? My people are being killed-off and plundered at a rate that exceeds the killing in countries that are at war! Please do not talk crap.

      Hugh - 2011-12-16 09:08

      Oh come on you are hate filled because of propaganda and lack of knowledge. Do some reading of SA history as recorded by the UN if you do not trust the White SA version. You will see that 1] SA black population was the only African population to grow in unprecidented numbers. 2] That a black man's health and living standard was far higher than any other country despite apartheid. 3] That far fewer were socalled murdered by apartheid than the numbers you have been indoctrinated. 4] The life expectancy of the average Blackman was 65 years in SA and 55 in other countries. Now under the ANC we match that stat. 5] That everyone from Mandela down to the lowest MK cadre plotted death for any SA citzen [ blacks were colateral damage in the ANC's eyes] Those hanged were given all the opportunity to defend their actions. In the end none repented or claimed innocence for the acts but claimed innocence because they thought and and some still do today that as "freedom" fighters they had no right to hang because their cause was Just. That said I bet you consider every right winger be imprisoned as he has no claims. Consider that now the boot is on the other foot that the right winger has a right to freedom [same as you claimed ] to act and protest, even perhaps blow up a few people and not be imprisoned. For is he not also a comrade of freedom and rights as per your interpretation. Note I say interpretation not cause.

      inwardk - 2011-12-16 10:58

      Darkie, you are missing the point. At these gallows, 96% of those executed were criminals (100-(130/3500*100)). So who is this new museum honouring? The greater majority of those hanged were not victims, they were criminals, the victims were those murdered by them. It sends the wrong message when sweeping statements are made, honouring all those hanged as brutalised victims. Yes it would be fine to say that "a very small minority (not even 4%) of people hanged were freedom fighters, but lets be honest about what happened here.

  • LandyNut - 2011-12-16 07:21

    I would love to see the killers of my son hanging there. Seven years ago on Sunday and NO ONE WAS EVER arrested or charged for his murder even though there was strong evidence of (dis) hourable members of a certain force were involved.

  • Johan - 2011-12-16 08:05

    They must please maintain the facilies for future use.

  • nspaynter - 2011-12-16 09:30

    I fully support this memorial and understand the painful memories of people who lost loved ones through execution by hanging. But is anything to be done to create a memorial to all those who were so cruelly necklaced during those times. We often talk about the executions, but we never talk about the necklacing.

  • Michael - 2011-12-17 08:32

    Please stop bringing up farm murders, if you would like something to thing about, about 3500 farmers have been killed since the end of apartheid, take on average 25000 people murdered each year, multiply that by 18 years and you get 450000 people murdered. Only 0.007% are farmers! You would probably find more people with a Bcomm have been murdered, should we have a big Bcomm murder crisis? For once think about the other 99.993% of those murdered and not just a very very very small minority! You are welcome to correct my math if I am wrong.

  • dingane - 2011-12-17 09:44

    Did they invite a single victim or family of victims to the opening of this "museum"? Anybody who plants bombs to kill people is a terrorist and a coward, no matter what his motive or reason for doing so. Only 131 terrorists were hanged there - how many hundreds of people were victims, how many hundreds were family of their victims? But of course in this country criminals are protected and revered.

  • Bernard - 2012-05-22 09:48

    "South Africa's highest court ruled in 1995 that the death penalty was a cruel, inhuman and degrading violation of the country's post-apartheid constitution." So what of Rape, Pillage, Murder & Hijacking - Bring those gallows back into operation, you guys have it all wrong.

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