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Apartheid revisited, for a better future

Resource type: News

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By Sue Blaine

STEPPING from the dazzling light of a highveld day into the dimness of the rooms in the ramparts at Johannesburg’s Old Fort — home, until the end of the year, to the South African History Archive’s exhibition on apartheid-era detention without trial at Johannesburg’s police headquarters, John Vorster Square — is strangely metaphorical. You swap sunlight for sound — a deep, dense drumbeat, the stamp of heavy shod feet, the thud of a terrified heart — as you encounter the first exhibition room, dedicated to conveying a sense of the physicality of incarceration in the cells on the top two floors of John Vorster Square.

“I think it’s rather brave of them to have remained in that building, although I don’t think they have addressed its past…. John Vorster Square is still police headquarters, but it was the site of such cruel torture, death and interrogation. It shows the unchecked power of our (former) security forces, who were relied on by the government to prop up the regime,” says Catherine Kennedy, director of the South African History Archive.

The building, 1 Commissioner Street, is now Johannesburg Central Police Station.

“We are trying to bring our history into the 21st century. It’s a heavy, complex, unexplored sore,” says Kennedy of Between Life and Death: Stories from John Vorster Square.

In the first room, scrolls against the walls tell the history of the 11-storey behemoth, opened in late August 1968 by then prime minister BJ Vorster, who described it as a breakthrough in modern policing because it brought all police branches together in one purpose-built edifice. Kennedy describes how archivists found government documents showing that John Vorster Square was built so the 10th and 11th floors were accessible only through a basement lift so the security police — and its victims — were kept apart from other police units: “These public works documents speak to the need to build torture and interrogation into the building.”

Later, when you get to the penultimate room, where video clips play on a continuous loop, you get to hear former detainee Molefe Pheto: “I never forgot the blue colour of the building, even when I was in exile. I couldn’t forget the blue of this building, the structure, what it looks like … the shining floors, the metallic, shining, grey floors in the corridor … the clanging of those gates … the force and the ringing keys, almost every time there is a ringing key and you would wonder, which cell are they going to open or are they coming to my cell?”

Two former cells, gritty-floored and dusty-windowed, contain displays about some of the detainees, eight of whom died in police custody in John Vorster Square: old photos, newspaper clippings, police dockets and — in the one dedicated to survivors — photos of them back in their cells.

“The second room is dedicated to the people who died in detention. We don’t have their words, but we have used primary sources to try to explain their stories,” says Kennedy.

It is also testament to the scorn the security police had, not only for political activists, but also for the public. Ahmed Timol “fell” from the 10th floor; Wellington Tshazibane was found hanged in his cell; Elmon Malele died after hitting his head on a table; Matthews Mojo Mabelane fell from the 10th floor; Neil Aggett was found hanged; Ernest Moabi Dipale was found hanged; Clayton Sizwe Sithole was found hanged; and the body of Maisha Stanza Bopape, who was probably killed during electric shock torture, was never found.

The deaths inspired Chris van Wyk’s poem, In Detention, and the short, stark piece would have been a touching addition to the exhibition.

Across from the display on Timol, with pictures of the window from which police claimed he threw himself, and the car on which his body apparently landed, is a display on doctor-turned-unionist Neil Aggett, whose death in detention on February 5 1982 sparked countrywide and worldwide outrage and marked the beginning of the end for detention without trial, says Kennedy. He was the first white person to die in detention since 1963. But the exhibition is not only about the victims.

Another room attempts to unveil the complex relationship between incarcerator and detainee, of how detainees’ fortitude and determination impressed the captors. “There was a level of respect built around the idea of black South Africans somehow being less; (former security policeman) Paul Erasmus speaks of the ‘crème de la crème’ of the anti-apartheid movement. The contradictions are fascinating. Also, it’s so strange how, where the perpetrators have been disowned by the politicians, they have turned to the victims — because they are now those who understand.”

The exhibition includes a timeline covering the 1959 plans for the new John Vorster Square building and the legislation that allowed detention without trial; the layer upon layer of legislation; the deaths elsewhere, most notably the 1977 murder of Black Consciousness Movement founder Steve Biko.

It ends with the building’s reincarnation as post-apartheid Johannesburg’s police headquarters.

“It shows how the creation of John Vorster Square can in some ways be traced back to Sharpeville and the growing resistance to apartheid. The more successful it was, the more they needed tighter and tighter power to silence the opposition. We speak of ‘apartheid fatigue’, how we should ‘just get on with things’, but the 20th century has revealed that countries that have suffered trauma like this go into a collective post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s too close, too near, and we are struggling to understand. But a failure to have done that feeds into the growing discontentment now. If we don’t understand our history, how will we protect our future?”

Kennedy is an archivist and is careful to point out that she is not a historian. She says she was drawn to this work because she was “very interested in how we use information to support development and human rights. Without information, you can’t do anything. In the constitution it’s called a leveraging right.”

SA’s new information legislation has thus been keeping the archive “very, very busy”. The new Protection of Personal Information Act has caused a major headache for archivists, who are having to go through all the information they hold to ensure personal information is protected, even if the documents have been bequeathed.

The flip side is the “secrecy bill”, which Kennedy sees as “the next big challenge” for the archive.

The exhibition is stark, even sparse, but deeply affecting. Kennedy says she and designer Vaughan Sadie struggled to create a display that would unsettle without preaching.

“How do you create an exhibition that unsettles people’s assumptions of the past without disempowering them? It’s so easy to present something singular that takes one side. We have tried to give no judgment. This is more about the complexity and it hopefully allows viewers to find their place in the history.”

• Between Life and Death: Stories from John Vorster Square, Old Fort Ramparts, Constitution Hill, Kotze St, Braamfontein. Entrance is free, open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm, and Saturday 10am-3pm,

The South African History Archive is an Atlantic grantee through the Reconciliation & Human Rights programme. 

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