About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Torture and Death in Custody

91. The period 1960 to 1994 saw the systematic and extensive use of detention without trial in South Africa. Such detention was frequently conducive to the commission of gross abuses of human rights. The Human Rights Committee estimated the number of detentions between 1960 and 1990 at approximately 80 000, of which about 10 000 were women and 15 000 children and youths under the age of 18. Detention without trial represented the first line of defence of the security forces. It was only when this strategy began to fail that the killing of political opponents increased.

92. Allegations of torture of detainees form a large percentage of all violations reported to the Commission. Most people who told the Commission they had been detained said also that they had been subjected to some form of assault or torture associated with detention.

93. Evidence before the Commission shows that torture was used systematically by the Security Branch, both as a means of obtaining information and of terrorising detainees and activists. Torture was not confined to particular police stations, particular regions or particular individual police officers - although certain individuals' names came up repeatedly. Torture was used by the security police and by other elements of the security forces, including the Reaction Unit, the Municipal Police, the CID and, to some extent, by the military intelligence unit of the SADF.

94. Many former detainees who experienced torture did not come forward to make statements to the Commission. At least one of the reasons for this was the deep shame and humiliation often associated with the experience of torture, something the security police understood well and exploited. Describing how he sjambokked (whipped) Mr Mkhuseli Jack [EC0006/96PLZ], former Security Branch member Gideon Nieuwoudt [AM3920/96] said during his amnesty hearing that torture "was one way to diminish his resistance and it also would have been very bad for him, because I was treating him like a child. I was giving him a hiding."

95. The more severe the torture, the more vulnerable the detainee and the greater the silence. Extreme torture such as electric shocks or suffocation frequently resulted in loss of bladder or bowel control that detainees found painfully degrading. Some individuals gave in under pressure of torture and gave evidence against their former comrades. Often such detainees remained silent because of feelings of intense guilt.

96. Ms Zubeida Jaffer [CT00776/HEL] described her guilt and shame after she revealed a single piece of information:

They said "Zubeida, if you don't co-operate with us and give us the answers, then we are going to detain your father". I thought that they were just trying to trick me again, but they called me to the phone and it was my father on the phone. They had detained him in Cape Town. And so after they put the phone down, I signed the statement and I told them the name of the journalist who had done the story.

It completely humiliated me. It completely made me feel like I was worthless, that I had gone against everything that I stood for, that I believed in, and that I'd been too weak to withstand the pressure of this. I was never able to overcome it for many, many years.

97. Similarly, Ms Zahrah Narkedien [JB04418/99OVE] (formerly Greta Apelgren), detained in connection with the Magoo's Bar bomb, testified:

They tortured me for those seven days and the only thing that really made me break in the end was when they threatened to ... kidnap my four-year-old nephew, Christopher, bring him to the 13th floor and drop him out the window ... I felt I could risk my life and I could let my body just be handed over to these men to do what they liked, but I couldn't hand over someone else's body so at that point I co-operated.

98. Even where detainees did not give information, the mere fact of having broken down and screamed or pleaded for mercy left many unable to speak of their experiences. Mr Laloo Chiba [JB00667/01GTSOW], who withstood two bouts of interrogation without answering questions, described his feelings thus:

I had screamed out in pain. I had pleaded for mercy from ... a people's enemy ... I had given them the pleasure of listening to my screams and it is something that haunts me up till today.

99. The 'silence of vulnerability' was the greater when sexual forms of torture were used. The Commission is aware of individual deponents who made statements about other forms of torture but were unable to discuss their experience of sexual torture.

100. Moreover, the example held up by individual activists and in organisations that a 'good comrade' never broke exacerbated the sense of shame and vulnerability of those who had agreed to give the information their interrogators were seeking. The experience of custody, detention and interrogation, involving torture or not, was a threatening one. Different detainees responded in different ways.

101. The Commission believes that the harsh judgments meted out to those who may have given information in the past is inhumane and recommends that those who have been cruelly cut off by failing to meet up to such exacting standards be reintegrated into society.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.