Walking in the footsteps of Solomon Mahlangu at Pretoria Central Prison
The gallows chamber where Solomon Mahlangu was executed 40 years ago still strikes a chill into the heart
It must have been dark and cold on the morning of April 6 1979 as young Solomon Mahlangu was led to the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison.
It was cold and dark when his surviving family members marked the anniversary of his execution by gathering at the prison to re-enact his final walk at 6am, the exact time he was hanged.
Media and government representatives arrive early for the commemoration, which has become an annual ritual. His uncles and cousins are there. His mother, Martha, died in 2014. In the apartheid years, she was constantly harassed by security police. The mood is sombre and morbid.
Now named Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, the imposing building on the outskirts of Pretoria's central business district is where many political prisoners, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were kept among murderers and thieves.
The grimmest part of the prison was death row, which was often mentioned during interrogations of political prisoners. Mahlangu, just 22, would have spent the final weeks of his life on death row, contemplating his fate.
The gallows are sinister and eerie. The last walk is designed to be as cruel as possible. The entrance is through the mortuary, where condemned prisoners passed the cold, steel autopsy table on which their bodies would soon lie.
Mahlangu would have walked through this area on the lower level, past a rectangular hollow cut into the cement floor to accommodate the dangling feet of the doomed after they fell through the trapdoor above, nooses round their necks. The final 52 steps to a mezzanine level are at the far end of the room.
The steps are wide enough for a person in leg irons to be able to climb them. The prisoners might have been out of breath after the climb. A phone that could signal a last-minute stay of execution from a magistrate might as well have been an ornament, as it didn't ring often.
The hanging apparatus is a trapdoor, with sand bags suspended underneath as weights to pull it open; ropes and pulleys suspended above carry out their simple function - to break a neck. A pistol was at hand, in case something went wrong.
Today there are plaques telling of fallen comrades, political prisoners whose blood fuelled the struggle against the apartheid regime, among them several sons of the same family.
Loss of life is always tragic, all the more so in the case of someone as young as Mahlangu. He joined the ANC only three years before his execution, after the June 16 uprisings in 1976.
He spent a few months in Mozambique but apparently did not receive the training he was looking for. He travelled to Angola, where he received a short course of guerrilla training with Umkhonto weSizwe. He returned to Johannesburg in 1977 as a "soldier".
On June 13 that year, Mahlangu and his companions, Mondy Johannes Motloung and George "Lucky" Mahlangu, were accosted in Goch Street by police who thought they were acting suspiciously.
The men were armed with Russian-made weapons and a hand-grenade and a gunfight ensued. "Lucky" Mahlangu escaped. Two bystanders, Rupert Kessner and Kenneth Wolfendale, were shot and killed.These two killings were attributed to Motloung, who could not stand trial because he suffered brain damage during his arrest.Mahlangu stood trial in November 1977 and was found to have formed common cause with Motloung, so he was found guilty on two counts of murder and three charges of terrorism.He was sentenced to death on March 2 1978.His final words were: "My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight."Mahlangu would have been 63 in July this year.