Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the 491 days in solitary confinement

08 April 2018 - 00:01 By SHANTHINI NAIDOO

The most horrific part of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's incarceration were the 491 days she spent in solitary confinement behind the red brick walls of a historic prison at the corner of Wimbledon and Klawer streets in Salvokop, Pretoria.
All that remains of the original building, which dated from 1906, is one wall and a turret, preserved as a heritage structure. Surrounded by green lawns and near the warders' tennis court and swimming pool, you might not guess it was part of what is now Kgosi Mampuru II prison.
At the time of Madikizela-Mandela's detention it was the notorious Pretoria Central, whose gallows were equipped to hang seven people at once. The building, which has been completely renovated and restyled several times since Madikizela-Mandela's detention - from the winter of 1969 through to the spring of 1970 - was so inhospitable that she became gravely ill from the conditions.
Death chamber
Fellow detainees Shanthie Naidoo, Barbara Hogan and Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin said it would be difficult to work out exactly which of the cells Madikizela-Mandela might have been in, because they were not allowed outside for more than a few minutes at a time and it was disorienting.
But Sikhakhane-Rankin believes it was near the gallows because matrons would threaten detainees with the death chambers when they walked past to meet their lawyers. Madikizela-Mandela's movement was so restricted in the building that after 18-odd months, she knew little of the prison itself.
This week, describing what she could see from her high window, one of the prison's directors, Rudie Koekemoer, said the building now houses day-parole and medium-security male prisoners. It has bigger windows, linoleum floors, a TV lounge and cells with cupboards in them."We tried to find the warders who might have been here when she was here, but many have died or retired," Koekemoer said.
Secret journal
The details of her detention were recorded by Madikizela-Mandela in a secret journal. The Department of Correctional Services has no details of her stay because she was a detainee, not an inmate convicted of a crime or a prisoner who had been charged and was awaiting trial.
"From what she described from her window, her cell would have been on the east side, but the entire building [apart from the heritage wall] was renovated and redesigned," said Koekemoer.
It is certainly not plush, but there are yellow walls, rather than the grey blood-stained ones she described.
"The cells she described as 4.5m x 1.5m would have been the standard minimum rules of the UN at that time, totally different from now, as the diet is also different. Matrons didn't wear uniforms in those days."
And although there are single cells, solitary confinement no longer exists.“I am next to the assault chamber. As long as I live I shall never forget the nightmares I have suffered as a result of the daily prisoners’ piercing screams as the brutal corporal punishment is inflicted on them. As the cane lashes at them, sometimes a hose pipe, you feel it tearing at your own flesh mercilessly. It’s hard to imagine women inflicting so much punishment. I have shed tears . . . unconsciously and often forget even to wipe them off.
"These hysterical screams pierce through my heart and injure my dignity so much. The hero of these assaults is barely 23 years old, very often the screaming voice appealing for mercy is that of a mother twice her age but of course she is white, a matron [at] that, this qualifies her for everything. The prisoner is at her mercy, life and all. She even bangs their heads against my cell wall in her fury. As the blood spurts from the gaping wounds she hits harder.”
— From 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Picador Africa)

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