This is an excerpt from Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison (Jacana). Initially imprisoned for almost 8 years between 1975 and 1983, Suttner was released in 1983, but had to go underground in 1985/6 to avoid arrest. ‘Surfacing’ after the end of that State of Emergency, he was again detained in the June 1986 State of Emergency and held until September 1988, when he was released into strict conditions of house arrest, until February 2 1990.
There is a launch for Inside Apartheid’s Prison on June 12 at 7pm at the Troyeville Hotel in Johannesburg including a discussion with the author and Charles Leonard spinning some of Suttner’s favourite jazz tracks. For more information email: email@example.com
John Vorster Square
‘That’s how it goes, my friend.
The problem is not falling a captive,
it’s how to avoid surrender.’
(Nazim Hikmet, from ‘That’s How It Goes,’ Selected Poems, 1967.)
JOHN VORSTER Square, the notorious police headquarters in Johannesburg, is a terrible place. It was named after Balthazar Johannes Vorster, who, when Minister of Justice, initiated long-term detention without trial. It saw the deaths of numerous people, including Ahmed Timol in the 1970s and Neil Aggett in the 1980s. The police relished this reputation and would threaten detainees with the same fate as Timol, that is, falling from the 10th floor. When Prema Naidoo was interrogated, they told him they would rename the building ‘Prema Heights’ after he had fallen. Even if one were fairly experienced, the name John Vorster Square evoked fear. I hoped I would never find myself there.
June was always a dangerous time in the 1980s. We commemorated the Soweto June 16  uprising annually. The Security Police expected heightened political activity and would take pre-emptive steps to prevent problems for themselves. To avoid falling into their net, many political activists moved into hiding.
I found a fresh hiding place, but I could not be fully underground. I wanted to hold onto my job at the university and felt that I should, at the end of the first emergency in February 1986, reappear at work. One morning, as I left my place of semi-hiding in Houghton (Johannesburg) and drove towards Empire Road on the way to Wits, I saw some men get out of a car and hastily move to the door of a house. I thought they were police. I drove on to Empire Road and, as I turned, a second car came off the curb and followed me. I went into Wits and parked. That evening, I swapped cars with a friend and left the university with the intention of finding somewhere new to stay.
I went to a house in Westdene, a suburb of Johannesburg, where I had stayed eight or nine months previously. I was about to go in when I noticed a dark Toyota behind me, a car I had seen a number of times, with a number plate I recognised. I immediately got back into my car and raced off, with the Toyota behind me. I sped around corners and through red lights, but the car followed me. I went onto the highway and off the highway, on again and off again, round and round. I felt the car on my tail was faster than the Honda I had borrowed but it did not try to cut me off. They just remained behind. What did they want? Were they trying to force me off the road? I had to stop at the traffic lights at the road opposite the zoo. The Toyota was right behind me. A second car, which had not been there at first – a Ford Escort, then a favourite vehicle with the police – wedged itself on one side of me. But the occupants of these cars did not attempt to arrest me.
I did not know what was happening. I raced back onto the highway, sped along before turning up again at one of the off-ramps near Rosebank. This time, I was in luck. I managed to slip in between some cars. The pursuers could not immediately force their way in. I drove a short while, then turned right, down one of the side streets. I rushed down the street, which ran parallel to the highway in the direction of Sandton.
I had been told that you could turn off your lights, but still see ahead of your vehicle, by pressing the bright switch. The rear lights would not be illuminated, or seen from behind. I did this and managed to shake them off. But I drove around for some time just to make sure.
I had to find a completely new place to stay. Certain people had once assured me that I could stay at their house if I was ever in trouble. I arrived at about 10pm. When I told of the car chase, however, they were not brimming over with pleasure to welcome me. I, nevertheless, settled in for the night.
The next morning, they explained that the husband’s business involved various government contracts and they could not risk my being caught there. I had to change my car again and find somewhere new to stay. I had enough money to hire a car for a short while. I think a colleague, Cathi Albertyn, helped me with this. She had started to lecture at Wits but had found herself, uncomplainingly, having to fill in for me for months on end while I was on the run.
That night, I met with a number of comrades in a house in Doornfontein.
In the light of the car chase, I wanted to know whether I should still go to Zimbabwe the next morning. Professor Reg Austen of the Law Faculty had invited me to give some lectures at the University. But the main reason for going was, really, to meet Mac Maharaj – who was then a leading figure in the ANC and SACP – to discuss the possibility of expanding underground structures. Amos Masondo felt I would be picked up at the airport and should not take the chance. The consensus was, however, that I should go. It was important to coordinate our work with the ANC outside South Africa. I was not happy about going but abided by the collective view.
Mohamed Valli, Ismail Momoniat and I spent the night in a hotel room in Hillbrow. Valli was to take me to the airport early in the morning. I had made no secret of my trip, applying openly for a visa, on the legitimate grounds of giving university lectures. At this time, I was constantly operating in this ambiguous way, partly underground, partly openly. I wanted to assert my professional identity as an academic. I had hoped it would provide me with a measure of protection, but this hope was to prove unfounded. Being a lecturer also meant my hands were tied in ways that did not apply to many other activists. People who worked for ‘struggle organisations’ could simply go underground. That was part of the understanding of the job, especially for people in the UDF. But those who did not have ‘struggle jobs’ could not simply abandon their work.
The three of us were so tired, that we did not hear our alarm clocks and had to hurry to make the plane. Unfortunately for me, because of the rush, no one read the headlines of the Citizen before we set off. The government was to declare a new state of emergency on that very day, June 12, 1986. I found out about this much later.
As I arrived at the airport and was heading for the plane, a man called out: ‘Mr Suttner, Zimbabwe plane?’ And, for a moment, I thought it was a helpful airport official. Soon he waved to two or three others to come and join him. I was under arrest. I hoped Valli would guess what had happened. He did, and managed to get away.
I had dreaded this moment. I was back in police hands. I wondered how I would handle it, now that I knew all of what it entailed. I asked a question of the arresting officer, Major Oosthuizen, and he answered me rudely. I immediately felt angry at being treated this way. I think that anger was also a surge of strength flowing back into me and this made me better prepared to deal with what lay ahead.
On the way back into the city, they spoke to someone on the police radio. They first asked this person to look for Valli’s car. Regarding my arrest, I also heard the person on the other side saying, ‘Gaan jy hom ‘n ding of twee wys?’ [‘Are you going to show him a thing or two?’] That is, were they going to beat me up? I said nothing. I just waited.
They went to a house in Mayfair, where I had stayed for some months, and searched it. Then they took me to Wits.
Some of the police did not know how to behave in this environment. They wanted to appear different from the image we had of them – as being thugs. But on arriving at a security barrier, they simply got out, displaying their guns, and lifted the barrier. After they parked, just before going in to the law faculty, one of the policemen came out brandishing a huge rifle. Oosthuizen, slightly embarrassed, told him this was not necessary.
They took me to my office. This is where their problems started. I am not very neat and tend to accumulate a lot of paper. There were lecturing and research notes going back to 1968. There were also political papers. The police had no idea where to start, what was relevant to their task and where this mass of papers should end up. In the meanwhile, people were knocking on the door of my office. Eventually they let in Professor June Sinclair, then dean of the law faculty, and decided to bundle me out, abandoning their search.
In the passage, I told those around my office that I had heard the police say on the radio that they intended to beat me up. I said I had been tortured the last time I was in detention. I asked them to bring an interdict preventing similar assaults.
The police then pushed me away. The late Etienne Mureinik, who stood by me very loyally throughout this period, raced after us to get the exact words I had heard on the police radio.
The police were furious. Oosthuizen turned to me in the car and said, ‘Now we are seeing the real Raymond Suttner.’ It was as if I had betrayed a sacred trust, by taking steps to avoid being tortured.
I was then taken to John Vorster Square. We had often driven past the Square on the highway to Soweto or Lenasia. We would look to see if lights were on. They always were, and we would wonder who was being interrogated. I had never been inside. On entering the building, I met Colonel du Toit, then deputy head of the Security Police, whom I had known from my Durban experience. Referring to my mention of possible torture, he said, ‘This is not Durban.’
I was taken to the cells after seeing a doctor – which was then a routine procedure (following various inquests into deaths in detention). After Aggett’s death, various precautions had been taken to prevent suicide attempts. All cells were openly monitored through video and audio systems. The police had three video screens, which they rotated in order to monitor all the cells. One could do nothing in private.
There were two types of cells. The better ones had windows, out of which one could see what was going on outside. I later took advantage of this view, until the police stopped me. The other cells, in which I spent most of my time, had no access to the outside. The bars, windows and door were covered with Perspex, which was perforated with small ventilation holes. When the police brought food, they did not open the door but shoved it through a gap in the Perspex – similar to the feeding of rats in a laboratory experiment.
There was a toilet, mat and blankets in the cell. There was no pillow. They gave us drinking water in unhygienic plastic containers. You could not wash or brush your teeth in the cell, but only when taken to the showers. There were only two showers, located in separate parts of the building, to service all the prisoners. There were probably about 60 prisoners at that time. Officers were supposed to let only one prisoner go to the showers at a time. We were not supposed to have contact with other prisoners. One practical result of this was that some would have showers at 6am and others during the rest of the day, right up until after 2pm. One never knew when one’s turn would be. You just sat in your cell, feeling dirty.
Often, the police said nothing and, even if you addressed them, would leave without answering. In the first week or two, I was in one of the cells without the Perspex on the windows. I tried to make out what was going on outside, especially whether there was a successful ‘stayaway’ on June 16.
Having a ‘view’ was an advantage, but these cells were very far from the office where the police sat. That meant it was a complicated process if you needed something and wanted to contact them. Generally, the bells did not work and you had to shout. There was a terrible sense of insecurity and dependence on the police for everything, and you could go for 12 hours without seeing anyone.
According to the state of emergency regulations, which took some time to extract from my jailers, detainees were supposed to leave their cells to exercise. In my first 19 days, I had exercise on only two occasions. In reality, John Vorster Square could not comply with the regulations regarding exercise without breaking the rule that we were not allowed to see or talk to each other. This was because the only exercise yard adjoined one of the showers.
I nevertheless bombarded the authorities with letters of complaint about the lack of exercise. After 19 days, they did allow Azhar Cachalia and me to take our exercise. (Azhar, who is also a lawyer, was then UDF national treasurer and, currently a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal.) The rest of the prisoners were not taken out to exercise. We tried to communicate this to them, so they could also claim their rights.
Once I had established my right to exercise, one of the policemen would take me out of my cell. The first day he said, ‘It is twenty-five to four now. You have an hour’s exercise. You finish at twenty-five past four.’ I thought that perhaps I had not heard correctly. I did not argue. The next day, however, he said, ‘It is twenty to four now. You have until twenty past four.’ So I asked myself, ‘What would happen if he were to take me out at five to four, would the exercise end at five past four?’ I explained that an hour was the period from 20 minutes to one particular hour until 20 minutes to the next hour that followed it – not until 20 past the first hour. He looked at me suspiciously and called another policeman ‘Jacobs, kom hierso!’ [‘Jacobs come here!’]. Jacobs confirmed my version.
In many situations, the police control would break down slightly. Sporadically, the different prisoners did have contact with one another. Some of the police were less vicious than others and were prepared to let us speak to each other, provided they did not land in trouble. And we would try very hard to avoid bringing any trouble on their heads.
I had not met Moses Mayekiso before. He was then a leading trade unionist and civic leader. I spoke to him in John Vorster Square. He was returning from the showers. I was on my way in, and we compared notes about interrogation. We discussed the question of organs of people’s power, which later formed the basis of charges against Mayekiso.
I remember also seeing the late Zwelakhe Sisulu, then editor of New Nation. Back then, I did not know him well. He was walking down the passage with a towel around his shoulder, much like someone going off to the beach. He seemed completely at home. Indeed, he knew the place well from his various spells inside.
Some of the police stationed at John Vorster Square made things difficult for us. Most were fairly easy-going, uniformed police. They had no special reason to give us a hard time. Nor did they go out of their way to make things any easier. They mainly made things easier for themselves; for example, by not worrying whether we got our food hot or cold, taking their time about coming round to the cells to take us for showers, and so on. But one or two were quite decent. I remember one day, early on, a policeman arrived with a red apple and said, ‘This is from your friend Azhar.’ I had not known until then that Azhar was inside.
One night, my lawyers brought me some fruit. I asked the policeman on duty if I could take one to Zwelakhe Sisulu, one to Azhar, one to Mayekiso and one or two others. He said he would take them. I replied that I wanted to take them myself. He said: ‘You are section three and they are section three, OK.’ The fact that we were held under the same emergency detention section was good enough reason to keep us apart, but I did not say so. I walked down the passage, greeting the various prisoners and then returned to my cell.
I always wanted to do my own washing. But there were no facilities – you could only wash clothes at the showers. And they were normally in use. At about 6pm, if one of the more reasonable police were on duty I would ask if I could do my washing. Since no officer was likely to come around then, they often agreed. I could walk around the yard and look out onto the highway while my clothes were soaking. I tried to imagine it was not the road to Braamfontein but really Sea Point beachfront.
While strolling around, I would always peer into offices, reading what notices and correspondence I could see. As a sentenced prisoner, I learned the habit of reading ‘upside-down correspondence’ while standing before the desks of prison officials. In one of the offices looking into the yard, I saw someone tuning a radio. He turned around and it was Azhar. He had persuaded the police to allow him to listen to the World Cup soccer, while he was actually trying to pick up some news. We were able to share information about our detention; especially in regard to what questions people had been asked. The police came upon us doing this, and we did not deny speaking to one another. We said we were friends. And they just let us be.
I remember Azhar said, ‘We are going to sit here for months.’ I did not agree. Azhar was wrong in his own case, too. A week or two later, I was in the passage and I saw them releasing him.
Not all relationships were amicable and sometimes one had to do something to remedy the situation. When I first arrived at John Vorster, the constable who took me to my cell was fairly cordial and he said, ‘You Regulation three. Yes, no that is OK. Section 29 very serious.’ He then allowed me to take soap into the cell. The next day, a new young constable arrived. The first thing he did was to take the soap away. While we were walking back from my shower he said, ‘You are going to have to learn this is not a five-star hotel.’ I thought to myself, ‘I don’t need to be told this by a young fool.’ But I decided to wait. This was not the right moment. I knew that in dealing with conflict in jail, it did not help to take these things up on a one-to-one basis with a junior person. It was best to wait for a senior officer.
Every day, at about 5.30am, an officer visited the cells. I would be half-asleep and he would have left before I could offer a complaint. On one occasion, I tried to raise a complaint and he just said, ‘Lees jou Bybel man!’ [‘Read your Bible man!’] And I consequently did not get a chance to complain in the morning. But, one day, a brigadier came around later in the day. The young man who had been rude to me was with him. I said, ‘I have generally been treated in a professional manner, with the exception of this young man.’ The young man was also there and I told the brigadier what had happened. Usually, when officers reprimand their staff, they are supposed to call them aside. But he delivered the reprimand there and then, saying: ‘You must treat him in a professional manner! This man is in trouble. It is not your job to make it more difficult for him.’
In the beginning, there was a general state of ignorance about our conditions, the prospects of our release and how long we were likely to spend in detention. Thousands of people had been pulled in and the officials had not sorted out who would go and who would remain. I was not interrogated at all for the first 19 days. I had expected to be interrogated immediately. But once the expectation of being interrogated was removed, I used the time to rest. I just lay on the mat in the cell and reminisced about what I had done in the three years I had been out of prison – all the interesting things, as well as the errors I had made. I did a little exercise. I did not think I would be in very long.
From inside the Perspex-sealed cells, cars outside on the highway made a ‘whoosh, whoosh’ sound. I tried to imagine it was the sea. I felt alone and abandoned in the cell. Sometimes, the only social interaction the whole day would be rudeness from a policeman. Most of the time, I felt powerless.
After 19 days, I was interrogated by two policemen who did not seem to know much about politics and kept on bandying cliché’s, such as ‘You act as if you are as innocent as a lamb,’ and giving me their own view of politics. If this were the standard of interrogation, I thought, there was nothing to fear.
During this period, many people were being held for just two weeks, although they had no idea that was the case. In fact, many only knew they were in jail, but not the provisions under which they were being held. One day, I bumped into the unionist (now a judge) Bashir Valli in the showers and he said to me, ‘Raymond, what is this about a state of emergency?’ I said, ‘Yes, there is a state of emergency.’ He said, ‘Does this mean we will be in for long?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Bashir was out a few days later.
Even in John Vorster Square, in the middle of this awful place, there was defiance. When I walked round the small exercise yard one day, I saw scribbled on one corner, ‘Long Live the ANC/SACP alliance,’ then ‘Long live SACTU/COSATU! Long live UDF!’ And in another part of the building I saw ‘Free Mandela!’ One day I saw someone had written ‘Long live Azapo! Long live the PAC!’ Unfortunately, we had not done enough to rid our ranks of sectarianism, for the next day that had been crossed out, while the pro-ANC slogans remained.
Back in the cells, however, there was evidence of private soul-searching. On the walls, written in pencilled script that could not have been seen from the door, there was a dialogue between successive inhabitants in the cell. One wrote: ‘This place is hell.’ He added that he just wanted to get out. And then someone else wrote: ‘Look here, comrade, don’t despair. Despair leads you to forget your beliefs. Next thing you are a state witness.’ Someone else being held under Section 28, which was a state witness provision, wrote: ‘Comrades, just know I will never give evidence for the state.’ These brief notes reflected the private agonies of people who, faced with hard choices, were trying to pump courage into themselves.
While I was sitting there, I did not know what was happening in most places outside my cell. Suddenly, one day, a man in a suit arrived and gave me part of a court record. It was an undertaking that the police would not assault me. From this, I worked out there had been an interdict. They denied they had said, ‘Are you going to show him a thing or two?’ They claimed they had said, ‘Is he going to point things out to you?’ That is, reveal the whereabouts of arms caches. Since no such question ever arose, they were obviously lying. Although this was not an absolute guarantee that I would not be assaulted, it was sufficient to give me some sense of security.
I did not look for trouble in John Vorster Square. I took risks only where I had to. I was not prepared to invite unnecessary attention. In the cell opposite me, there was for a time a person who had been arrested for holding a poster saying: ‘State of Emergency or State of Bankruptcy?’ I knew he would be out in about a week. I hoped I would be in for only a short time, but knew it could be months or even a year. This person wanted to have running conversations with me. It was a risk I did not want to take, just for nothing. On the face of it, I may have appeared more cowardly than he was, but I was not prepared to get into confrontations with the authorities over nothing. I was prepared to ‘make waves’ only over matters that were important to me, such as rude treatment or failure to give me exercise time out of the cell.
While at John Vorster Square, I had two or three visits from my brother, John, and my sister, Sally, and was visited twice by lawyers. These visits took me completely by surprise. I told my brother they had arrested me under the Criminal Procedure Act. I understood I was then being held under emergency regulations but had never been formally re-detained under the state of emergency provisions. I doubted whether they had followed the correct procedure. In fact, this was how one detainee obtained his release – by pointing out this lack of procedure. My lawyer, Peter Harris, came to see me with a draft for an application along these lines. I was called for this visit by a Lieutenant Gordon Brookbanks, who had been a police spy on Rhodes University campus and I think had a lot to do with my remaining in detention. He is still in the police force as a colonel. He insisted on sitting in on the lawyer’s visit, which was illegal.
Pete said to me, ‘It seems you have got a good chance of getting out on this.’ The next time he saw me he said, ‘What they are doing is trying to avoid your release at all costs. They are saying this is a very important case. Even though there has been a decision in the Pretoria division, they say we need a full bench (that is, three judges).’ But they would still have had to reverse an earlier court decision, which had released someone on the same grounds upon which I was basing my case. So, I had a glimmer of hope. I did not want to have illusions about the court case, but it raised wonderful possibilities.
[That hope was not realised. I was held for some 27 months, 18 of these in solitary confinement]
Main Photo: The author with Jail Bird or JB , the parakeet/love bird that the authorities allowed Suttner in the last month or so when they feared he was being psychologically damaged and became concerned about the consequences for themselves (not Suttner) — by Gisèle Wulfsohn