A blue birthday for torture HQ John Vorster Square
This week marks 50 years since the opening of John Vorster Square. Today, its reincarnation as the Johannesburg Central police station is a slap in the face to all who suffered there
On August 23 1968, things were going pretty well for white Johannesburgers. The economy was enjoying a period of relative health, and the "natives" were less restless than they had been, following the banning of organisations like the ANC, PAC and the SACP; the arrest and sentencing of "troublemaker leaders" like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu a few years before; and the introduction of laws that gave the police greater powers to crack down on opponents of the state's racist apartheid policies.
The man many credited with making white life peaceful again could be seen solemnly walking through the gates of the 10-storey building at No 1 Commissioner Street, ahead of a police marching band, towards a podium set up in the courtyard. There, a group of invited dignitaries sat eagerly waiting for him to address them and to declare the building - celebrated by the South African Police as the first building to house all its various branches under one roof, and described in newspaper reports as offering the "last word in security" - officially open.
That man, with his narrow-cut, fashionable '60s suit, thick black-rimmed spectacles and distinctive owl-like eyebrows, was the prime minister of the Republic of South Africa, and the building would be named in his honour. Buildings traditionally were not named for living heads of state, but for a shining jewel in the republic's crown an exception could be made.
After all, who had done more to ensure the safety, security and seemingly eternal existence of apartheid South Africa than the prime minister and former minister of justice, police and prisons, Balthazar Johannes Vorster?
A NAME SYNONYMOUS WITH TORTURE AND DEATH
In 1968, the rest of the world seemed to be going to hell, with young people taking to the streets and rebelling against the upstanding, wholesome values of their parents. But Johannesburgers could rest assured that, as Vorster emphatically declared: "The breakdown of law and order [would] not be tolerated under any circumstances."
This building, with its special architectural allowances catering to the need for the security police to do their work in service of the protection of the regime behind closed doors, was to become not only the physical embodiment of Vorster's promise on that windy August afternoon but also synonymous with detention without trial, torture and death.Long after Vorster died in 1983, and even in the wake of its post-apartheid renaming in 1997 as the Johannesburg Central police station, the modernist compound with its distinctive blue façade at the edge of the origin site of the city remains embedded in the psyche of a generation of South Africans as John Vorster Square.
Between 1968 and 1990, seven men died there. Another man died after being hospitalised following injuries sustained during interrogation. Hundreds of anti-apartheid protestors would be interrogated by security policemen on the building's infamous ninth and 10th floors; thousands would spend time in its cell block.
And yet, in spite of this terrible history, this Thursday, 50 years after its inauguration, the building remains standing.
The once-glistening blue façade that earned it the blackly comic nickname The Blue Hotel is a little the worse for wear. Its ninth and 10th floors are no longer only accessible to the members of the now-defunct security branch police, and it has changed from being a centre for surveillance and terror to one dedicated to community service and protection.However, the question is whether superficial changes - such as a renaming, a repositioning of policing in the post-apartheid era, a depressingly neglected memorial erected across the road in honour of those who died there, and the national adoption of a "let's not dwell on the past and work towards the building of the future" mindset - are enough to erase the horrors of what happened there. The answer is no.
LOVED ONES STILL WAIT FOR CLOSURE
The first person to die in detention in Johannesburg was Suliman "Babla" Saloojee, who fell from the seventh floor of the Grays Building - the previous headquarters of the security branch, located on the corner of Von Wielligh and Main streets - in 1964.
Across the country, more than 70 people would die while held in detention by police between 1963 and 1990. Their deaths were explained away with blatant and unapologetic lies: they had slipped on bars of soap, committed suicide, fallen from windows while trying to escape, fallen down staircases.
When Roodepoort teacher Ahmed Timol fell to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square on the afternoon of October 27 1971, an official inquest ruled his death a suicide and found that "no one was to blame" for his death. That finding was overruled last year after the reopening of the inquest into Timol's death, in which judge Billy Mothle found that Timol had "died as a result of [his] having been pushed to fall, an act which was committed by members of the security branch with dolus eventualis as a form of intent, and prima facie amounting to murder".
Last month 79-year-old former security branch sergeant Joao Rodrigues, the only surviving person who was in the room where Timol died, was charged with murder and defeating the ends of justice after Mothle found him guilty of participating in a cover-up to conceal the truth about what had happened to Timol.
Timol is the only person who died in detention whose family have seen some sort of justice in the post-apartheid era and it is hoped that other families will be able to seek closure thanks to Mothle's findings.
For now, the building where Timol, Wellington Tshazibane, Elmon Malele, Matthews Mojo Mabelane, Neil Aggett, Ernest Moabi Dipale, Maisha "Stanza" Bopape and Clayton Sizwe Sithole met their deaths remains defiantly and insultingly free of proper recognition as the country's "pinnacle of torture chambers".THE BRUTALITY OF FORGETTING
The lack of proper acknowledgement of the building and its environs is a slap in the face to those who survived interrogation and torture at the hands of brutal security branch members and a symbol of the disdain with which thousands of South Africans seeking justice for those who were killed by them have been treated, both by the previous regime and its successors.
In other countries that endured periods of torture and murder by brutal regimes and had their own places like John Vorster Square, attitudes towards what to do with such places in the democratic era have varied.
In Buenos Aires, the Argentine military junta's former torture chambers at the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada are now a museum. The Estadio Nacional in Chile, where Augusto Pinochet's regime maimed its opponents, is still a functional stadium in spite of its horrific past. Castlereagh in Northern Ireland, where British forces interrogated opponents during the Troubles, was closed and demolished in 1994. And in Berlin, the Hohenschönhausen, which housed the offices of the Stasi in former East Germany, is today a museum.
If you go down to the bottom of Commissioner Street this Thursday, you'll see nothing more than the usual comings and goings at the city's biggest police station.
Half a century ago, Vorster marched into its courtyard and gave his name to a place that still represents his notorious and enduring legacy.
It is the legacy of a man who unleashed what former detainee Barbara Hogan described as the reign of the "mad forces", who operated without restriction or consequences and caused often-irreparable damage to thousands in their quest to maintain the power of his fascist regime.