Between 1960 and 1990, successive National Party governments in apartheid South Africa relied extensively on detention without trial as a weapon to combat political opposition, growing resistance and insurrection.
Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the subsequent banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC), and the declaration of a partial state of emergency, Prime Minister HF Verwoerd appointed BJ Vorster as the Minister of Justice.
Balthazar Johannes [Afrikaans equivalent to John] Vorster, who would later replace Verwoerd as Prime Minister, was a “verkrampte” - a hardline Afrikaner nationalist - who warned,
"... the breakdown of law and order would not be tolerated under any circumstances whatsoever".
The state of emergency lasted 5 months, resulting in over 11,500 detentions. Vorster quickly tightened South Africa’s security policies, instituting a virtual zero-tolerance approach to any resistance against the state and ensuring that the Security Branch of the South African Police acquired formidable powers.
The Security Branch of the South African Police had originally been established in the late 1940s in direct response to activities of the then still legal South African Communist Party (SACP). In keeping with widespread anti-Communist sentiment in the wake of World War 2, the Security Branch was tasked with keeping tabs on Communists, black nationalists and so-called "radical" organisations.
Under BJ Vorster's watch, they grew to become the "mad forces", feared across the country.
"Perhaps it is not inappropriate to remind honourable members that the great American lawyer, Wigmore, asked on one occasion,
'Why the sudden concern for criminals?'
My question is,
'Why the sudden concern for Communists in South Africa?'"
Together with an evolving battery of other laws designed to silence opponents of apartheid, detention without trial was used for interrogative and punitive purposes, as well as for separating individuals from their communities and constituencies.
The option for detention without trial was first contained in the regulations of the 1953 Public Safety Act that was introduced in response to the growing militancy and opposition exemplified by the Defiance Campaign.
In 1961, the General Laws Amendment Act provided for up to 12 days detention without trial in non-emergency situations. This was extended to 90 days detention in 1963, in response to an upsurge in ANC and PAC armed activities. This was later amended to allow for 180 days detention without trial.
Finally, the formidable Terrorism Act of 1967 allowed for indefinite detention for the purposes of interrogation.
Detainees were permitted visits by a magistrate but were not permitted access to the courts or visits with legal representatives.
"John Vorster Square was the pinnacle of torture chambers"
Over 40 years ago, on a chilly day in late August 1968, Prime Minister Balthazar John Vorster opened John Vorster Square station. He heralded the squat blue structure that overlooked the motorway in downtown Johannesburg as a "state-of-the-art" modern police station because it housed all major divisions of the police under one roof, boasting that the shining new precinct was the largest police station in Africa.
It was perhaps fitting that the building was named after Vorster - as the former Minister of Justice, he had overseen the institution of harsh security laws designed to crush opposition to apartheid and ensured that the Security Branch of the South African Police (SAP) acquired formidable powers.
John Vorster Square soon earned a reputation as a site for brutality and torture, becoming the primary location for detentions and interrogations on the Witwatersrand during the 1970s and the 1980s.
Between 1970 and 1990, eight people, all of whom were being held under detention regulations, died as a result of having been detained at John Vorster Square.
Construction for a new building to replace Johannesburg's Marshall Square police station began at No. 1 Commissioner Street in 1964. Designed by the firm Harris, Fels, Janks and Nussbaum, the building was intended to facilitate the growing requirements of the Security Branch for space for detention and interrogation.
The offices of the Security Branch were to be located on the 9th and 10th floors of the new police headquarters, with access to the soon to be notorious 10th floor limited by ensuring that the lift only went up to the 9th floor. Political prisoners were walked up a final flight of stairs to reach the 10th where an undetermined number of detainees were tortured.
The detainees' cells were on the lower floors, specifically designed for solitary confinement. They were painted dark grey and the floors were black. In one corner was a foam mattress, in another a toilet. Thick fibreglass covered the windows and bars. In the centre of the high ceiling was a single light bulb that was never switched off. For the hundreds of anti-apartheid activists that were detained in the cells, John Vorster Square was hell.
"I was upstairs in a cell where there was thick glass, bulletproof type of glass where you couldn’t do anything. And this side also, there was glass on top of the bars all over. So that cell was very isolated. You felt at times as if you’re mad. You will think until no more... And then the smell, you become part of the smell..."
"The security police had a cruel calmness of people with no souls"
"Fighting a revolutionary war is much more difficult than fighting ordinary criminals. You must remember that you are fighting sometimes against the crème de la crème; the best brains available in this onslaught are your opponents. You have to be one step ahead of these people.
In retrospect it’s unfortunate that these things happened. If my opponents look back it’s also unfortunate that certain policemen were killed in bomb explosions and in attacks on their houses. But both sides have to prove a point and you have to be result driven… We were there for the preservation of the internal security of the Republic. So sometimes it was very, very difficult."
From the 1960s, all members of the Security Branch were sent on courses to receive special training in torture techniques.
The Security Branch developed a reputation for extreme viciousness and inhumanity in its methods of interrogation, especially at John Vorster Square.
Sleep deprivation formed the basis of all interrogation with squads of interrogators working around the clock to reduce detainees to a state of total dependence.
"We were, according to General Coetzee, a lot of idiots that misinterpreted the whole thing. His hands were clean. He simply said, 'Permanent removal from society...', but he didn’t mean that.
It was halfwits like us, you know, the rank and file down below, I suppose, the bourgeois, but anyway, I suppose, the idiots, that misinterpreted this. But the reality is that we had laissez-faire to kill and plunder on a scale that was unbelievable and you knew you could get away with it and that’s exactly what happened."
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing
AHMED TIMOL - died 27 October 1971
By 1971, there had already been 21 deaths in detention throughout South Africa’s prisons.
On this day, John Vorster Square added to this tally when Ahmed Timol, a 30 year old teacher, fell to his death from the 10th floor. A member of the then banned South African Communist Party (SACP), he had been arrested at a police road block for carrying banned literature.
The police claimed that Timol had committed suicide; an excuse that was backed up by an official inquest, even though state pathologist Dr Jonathan Gluckman noted that Timol’s body showed signs of being beaten before his death.
The security police used to tell detainees that "Indians can't fly" and referred to John Vorster Square as "Timol Heights".
Ahmed's family had hoped that the policemen involved in his death would come forward at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings to tell the truth about how he died. But they did not.
"Visually, 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?"
In the wake of the June 1976 Soweto uprising, the powers of the police to detain suspects without trial were increased.
This was achieved when the Internal Security Amendment Act was passed, making it possible to detain suspects for an unlimited period of time without authorisation from a judge.
"They brought in an electric generator and told me to strip, and I told them I’m not going to assist them to torture me. If they want to torture me, they would first have to strip me unconscious... Ultimately they got frustrated and they started using chairs that had steel frames to beat me.
Of course whenever they would assault, already I was bleeding through the nose, the mouth, I would spit back my blood at them, just to get them angry.
A tactic that begins to say, once they are angry they are not going to be able to think rationally and as professionally as they are supposed to be as interrogators. Once they are angry, they will boil up and use whatever, so they did that until they beat me up."
"John Vorster Square... four or five men and then hood and then electric shock, everything. I don’t know… Angry. Hood and torture, breasts, everything. Why? I don’t understand... Why torture? Anyway, it’s sad… And then me angry so no talk. Why torture? So I don’t talk. So angry. Rape or what, I don’t care. No talk."
"I was taken for thirty days, upstairs, and I stood there for twenty-five days, day and night. After twenty-eight days they released me and they kept me in my cell. So you can imagine, if I have to revisit this place, it reminds me of those bitter nights that I spent with the police raining blows down on me."
"... those moments of real spiritual perception... one of the few that had happened to me in my lifetime was here, after I came round after that first interrogation and I was all alone in that cell... the walls were green and I remember walking around that thing and being absolutely convinced that we were going to win.
There was no question, they might kill me, they might do anything to me, but we were going to win the struggle. It was a tremendous experience of faith which buoyed me up tremendously all the way through…"
WELLINGTON TSHAZIBANE - died 11 December 1976
After being arrested for alleged complicity in an explosion at the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg on 7 December 1976,
Wellington Tshazibane, an Oxford University engineering graduate, was found hung dead in cell 311 at John Vorster Square.
An official inquest, much like the previous inquest into Timol's death, exonerated the police of any wrongdoing.
ELMON MALELE - died 20 January 1977
Elmon Malele, arrested on 10 January 1977, died of a brain haemorrhage at the Princess Nursing Home in Johannesburg. He had been taken there after he allegedly lost his balance after standing for six hours (a standard torture technique) and hitting his head on the corner of a table.
Although the police negligence and violence almost certainly led to his death, the police were once again exonerated. An inquest found that Malele’s death was due to natural causes.
MATTHEWS MABELANE - 15 February 1977
Barely a month after Elmon Malele’s brain haemorrhage, Matthews "Mojo" Mabelane fell to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square after having been arrested under suspicion of being on his way to Botswana for military training.
The police later claimed that he'd climbed out of the window, lost his balance and fell onto a car below.
Mabelane was the 39th person to die in South Africa's prisons.
"My cousin-brother Matthew Marwale Mabelane died at the hands of the police at the John Vorster Square Police Headquarters in February 1977. It was claimed that he jumped from the notorious tenth floor of the building and died instantly. Seeing that the stories of the 10th floor jumps were never and will not be true, we want to know why the killers are not coming out and apologising for their deeds. Such tricks by the perpetrators of those atrocities are really infuriating because these killers will only start talking about these things immediately they are exposed - otherwise they will keep quiet.
Do they really think that their victims will just forget about the hardships they caused them? Or do they think that the people are still afraid of them, hence talking about their deeds would cause them some more troubles like in the past? The family and relatives are very upset about the silence of the killers of Matthew. Time is running out now. Let them come out and tell the story. We also want to see them, how they look like, whether they are real human beings and have families, children, relatives and friends."
"At John Vorster Square it was always the same people.
What were they like? They were business-like. Their view was simple. They were going to intimidate us, they were going to torture us, they were going to interrogate us.
We were going to tell them the truth. We were going to tell them who was inciting us, who was giving us instructions. We were going to tell them who in the ANC was giving us guidance to do this. If we refused we were going to be beaten up and threatened."
"It was a place of evil, a place where dreadful things happened to people ... it was a place where torture was carried out, and it was the centre for the Security Police. It was a place where there was no mercy and it was a place where, basically, psychopaths hung out."
"Hearing pigeons cooing on the window sill was harmonious... one would try and cling to sounds that offered any form of life, in order to survive."
NEIL AGGETT - died 5 February 1982
Dr Neil Aggett supported the rights of workers and become an organiser for the African Food and Canning Workers' Union. He played a central role in organising a boycott of Fattis and Monis products to make the bosses recognise the workers' right to belong to a trade union. The government saw his ability to organise workers as a threat and said he was a Communist.
Following a massive spate of arrests of trade union leaders in 1981, Aggett was found hanged dead in his cell at 3.25 a.m. Aggett had hanged himself with a scarf knitted for him by a friend. This time, however, the truth of this death in detention came to light, as a high profile court case led by George Bizos showed how Aggett’s 80-hour interrogation on the weekend before his death had led to his emotional collapse. Nevertheless, the police were again cleared, as it was claimed that Aggett had long had suicidal tendencies.
"It was like a game, if you like, with the rules made by them, and you had to do what you could to try and break through those rules or extend the rules, but it was made quite clear that no access would be allowed either by ourselves or by a lawyer and we then heard of other people who were in a similar situation and we started contacting one another to see what we could do about it.
We soon learned that there were things; there were pressures that you could bring to bear upon them. And that was the game that we started."
ERNEST MOABI DIPALE - died 8 August 1982
From a politically active family, Ernest Dipale had been arrested and detained at the same time as Aggett in November 1981.
He had made a statement to a magistrate in which he complained of assault and torture by electric shock. Nothing came of his complaints. He was eventually released after three and a half months.
He was detained again on 5 August 1982 and held at John Vorster Square.
Five months after Neil Aggett’s death, Ernest Dipale was found hanged dead in his cell. He had hanged himself with a strip of torn blanket.
Dipale, who was only 21 at the time of his death, had been subject to severe assault and torture, including the use of electric shocks.
AC/2001/279 - Extract about Dipale's abduction from application of Butana Almond Nofomela to the Amnesty Committee of the TRC
"The applicant testified that he received instructions from Captain Jan Coetzee and Lieutenant Koos Vermeulen to kidnap Moabi Dipale from his house in Soweto for the purpose of interrogation. He was to be assisted by Joe Mamasela. They wanted to obtain information about his sister who figures in the next incident.
They proceeded to his house in Soweto and enquired whether he was present. A young girl said he was not but, on entering the house, they found him hiding behind a wardrobe. Mamasela accused him of not repaying money he owed to him. This served as an excuse to force him to accompany them.
They took him to Roodepoort where they met Jan Coetzee and Vermeulen. Thereafter they proceeded to Zeerust and on to a farm in the vicinity where Moabi was interrogated about the whereabouts of his sister Joyce Dipale. During the interrogation he was assaulted by them to such an extent that he lost consciousness. The assaults were carried out by Nofomela, Mamasela and Vermeulen. Grobbelaar and Coetzee did not take part in the assaults. He could not say whether they obtained any information which assisted them in the later attack on Joyce Dipale in Botswana.
They later returned to Vlakplaas and he cannot say what happened to Moabi Dipale thereafter. He does not know whether he was detained or released. The Committee is satisfied that the requirements for amnesty have been met and amnesty is GRANTED to Nofomela in respect of all offences and delicts flowing directly from the kidnapping and assault on Moabi Dipale during or about October 1981."
"I think the ‘warders' were under strict instructions, so they were passive, cold and very minimal. All they would do is to pass through the food.
There was no eye contact and for them I think they found it strange that a white woman was a ‘terrorist’, because a lot of them were Afrikaans white women, so I probably didn’t fit their stereotype and profile of a terrorist."
"The only thing that makes you survive is because we were on high moral ground. We were fighting for freedom, democracy and it was a good cause and then you say to yourself, 'Whatever happens to me, at least it was a good cause.' I think that was the saving grace, that above everything else."
STANZA BOPAPE - died 5 June 1988
After being subject to repeated electric shocks, activist Stanza Bopape died “unexpectedly” of a heart attack. Concerned that another death in detention would reflect badly on the police, it is claimed that Bopape had actually escaped from custody.
However, during the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the police finally admitted that Bopape had died in detention, and that his body had been dumped into the Nkomati River on the border with Mozambique.
Stanza Bopape's body has never been found.
30 January 1990 - CLAYTON SITHOLE dies in detention
Only 2 days before Nelson Mandela was released from jail, Clayton Sithole, 20 years old at the time, was found hanged in his cell.
Prior to his suicide, Sithole had allegedly provided damning evidence of criminal conduct against Winnie Mandela and her daughter Zinzi. Sithole was, in fact, the father of one of Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren.
Following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, widespread changes were made to the security laws in the country.
Detention without trial was removed from the statute books. In 1991, the Security Branch was essentially disbanded, merging with the Criminal Investigation Division into a unit known as "Crime Combating and Investigation", and in 1995, the South African Police Service was launched.
Seventy-five deaths in detention were officially recorded in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report. Despite clear evidence that the police were torturing detainees, not a single policeman was found responsible for the death of a person in detention.
"Those people who were involved in those things at that stage who’ve now been dumped with the guilt and the responsibility and the public profile – they start turning to their ex-detainees for support because the ex-detainees are the only people who really understand what it’s about.
It’s very interesting stuff, where the perpetrator looks to their victim for recognition of what it was about. I think the detainees were clearer than the people outside about what was going on. It was a battle and that was the sharp edge of it…"
In 1997, the bronze bust of B.J. Vorster was removed from the foyer of the notorious John Vorster Square.
It was renamed Johannesburg Central Police Station and now functions to fight crime in Johannesburg.
Despite these changes, the bleak interior and dank smell remain the same. The ghosts of its former occupants are far from banished.
"... that’s the memory of the revolution and if it goes, there’s no point in telling anybody what the place looked like... because those things are exhibits of what they did to harm us, because most people have been harmed by this system, and if you take things like those away you lose a big part of the story..."
Curator — Catherine Kennedy (SAHA)
Archivist — Debora Matthews (SAHA)
Photographs — Craig Matthew (Doxa Productions)
Archival video footage — South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
Background — This exhibit is based on the interactive DVD, 'Between life and death: stories from John Vorster Square', developed by Doxa Productions on behalf of SAHA in 2007, as part of the SAHA / Sunday Times Heritage Project, funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies. Please see DVD for full research and image credits. For more information about the SAHA / Sunday Times Heritage Project, please visit sthp.saha.org.za