Laying the gallows' ghosts to rest

2016-03-23 17:00
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PICS: 20 chilling photographs of apartheid executions museum

The launch of the Exhumation Project included a chilling tour of the Gallows Museum in Pretoria where 134 political prisoners were hanged during the apartheid regime.

Pretoria – Justice Minister Michael Masutha looked sombre as he walked up the 52 steps to the gallows on Wednesday, in the footsteps of the 134 political prisoners hanged at Kgosi Mampuru II prison during apartheid.

"The abolishment of the death penalty marked a pivotal moment in our history," said Masutha, who was visibly moved after being taken through the last moments leading up to execution, and the moments thereafter.

He visited the gallows as part of the government’s announcing its Exhumation Project. It would see the remains of 83 political prisoners who were executed and buried in unmarked graves exhumed. DNA tests would be conducted to identify them and they would be reburied.

PICS: 20 chilling photographs of apartheid executions museum

Named after Mampuru who was hanged at the prison in 1883 - a case that made headlines in The New York Times - the prison now features a museum to remember those executed at the gallows.

The condemned would walk through a gate called 52 steps. After passing through it, they would have to climb 52 steps to the gallows to be hanged. Each step is numbered.

An old corded telephone stands on a small table in the execution chamber. It was there for the president to use to spare a prisoner's life. It rarely rang.

Mampuru was among the country's first liberation icons that refused to recognise the oppressive hut tax law that the colonial government imposed on African households in the 1860s.

As a result of his refusal to pay tax, he was executed in public at the old Pretoria Central Prison in November 1883. The rope around his neck broke and he survived. He was taken back up the staircase and hanged again. This time Mampuru did not survive.

The museum gives a brief history of most of the prisoners who were executed. On the walls are quotes by inmates, words from some of the warders, and even from famous heart surgeon Dr Chris Barnard.

"It may indeed be quick. We do not know as none has survived to vouch for it," Barnard said.

Masutha said that in the 1980s, South Africa had the second highest execution rate in the world, after Iran.

Death certificates of executed political prisoners, including that of Solomon Mahlangu, are there for visitors to see.

Families could visit a person for the last time the night before their execution. After the hanging, the family could only see his coffin. A hearse would take the corpse to a graveyard where the deceased would be buried, up to three in a grave in racially segregated municipal cemeteries.

Five members of the Vulindlela family were executed. Sadunge, Maliza, Shilegu, Bonase and Bekapansi were all hanged in July 1964.

The families of political prisoners were not allowed to attend the burial.

Read more on:    pretoria

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