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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: Detention & Torture

This [hearing on torture] is probably the most important hearing in a sense after the victim/survivor hearings. You see, in dealing with human rights violations, you are really concerned with justice, law, order, the disposition of power and authority and how these are regulated within conventional parameters so that they are not abused.

Violations happened within a specific social, political and economic context and law is quite central to how society is ordered and determines the quality, the texture of the society and whether it promotes an environment which is equitable and just, compassionate and caring where persons count or not; whether it is conducive or hostile to possibilities of gross violation of human rights.

Without laws societal existence is virtually impossible for everything degenerates to the chaos of everyone being a law unto himself. In an ideal world the law will approximate as closely as possible to true justice, goodness, virtue, equity, the attributes of the well-ordered society that good law seeks to promote.

Good law thus obliges obedience and the good citizen tautologically would be the law abiding citizen.

Virtually every encounter with the law for Blacks in the old dispensation was one calculated to develop in us a contempt, indeed a hatred for the law because every such encounter was virtually designed to demean, to humiliate to dehumanize the Black person since by definition a law you had had no part in its making was not likely to be favorable towards you.

The legislatures in such a situation would have had to be extraordinary paragons of virtue to care too much about the reaction and experience of those to whom they were not accountable. The ultimate sanction of voting them out of office was not available to us and so the laws they passed did not need to be sensitive to Black concerns and feelings.

I grew up in Ventersdorp, perish the thought, my father often sent me to buy the Rand Daily Mail in town and on some of these occasions I would frequently see location urchins and that is where we lived, you know, a location. Township was the politically correct speak of a little later. These urchins were scavenging in the rubbish bins of the white primary schools. They would come up with delicious apples and sandwiches that the white children had thrown away because they preferred the packed lunches their mummy's had prepared for them. Those who could afford to feed themselves were on the government school feeding schemes while those who could not afford it had no such feeding schemes.

It was the worst logic of the grossly unjust political system buttressed by unjust law and of course there was no nonsense about separate but equal. The government spent about ten times as much on a white child for education per annum as it did for a Black child. It was blatantly unashamedly separate and unequal.

When later we moved to the Witwatersrand, I witnessed frequently how my father, a school principal, was humiliated to produce his pass. He in fact had something called an exemption, but he had to produce it to prove it. I saw Black men everyday handcuffed together because of contravening the Pass Laws and as school boys we ran the gauntlet of zealous policemen in their pick-ups on their pass raids.

It didn't matter whether you were in school uniform or not, you were in for the high jump if you didn't have the darn paper on you and many of us didn't know we could run so fast as we tried to elude the police and all of this happened to us because we were Black, it didn't happen to white boys, it didn't happen to Indian boys, it didn't happen to coloured boys and we were expected go grow up revering the law, to grow up into law abiding persons when we had had such negative experiences of the law.

Later when I became Dean of Johannesburg, I had first to go to the Pass office to be influxed into the area and my wife's pass as stamped saying she was allowed in the Johannesburg area as long as she was married to me. It was exquisite, this demeaning of Blacks. The official residence of the Dean was in town because all my predecessors had been white. Lea and I decided we would live in Soweto rather than be dehumanized into honorary whites by asking for permission to live in the white town. It was all legal and yet was so utterly iniquitous and how could we be expected to develop respect for laws that were so patently unjust and designed to trample the dignity of people so comprehensively underfoot.

The Honorable Deputy President of the Constitutional Court, Judge Pius Langa, has made a personal submission and I want to quote from this because it is quite intriguing that he and I separately thought to describe a little bit of our experiences. He says.

"My first real encounter with the legal system was as a young work seeker in Durban, a status which lasted the entire twelve months of 1956. It was during that period that I experienced the frustration, indignity and humiliation of being subject to certain of the provisions of the Population Registration Act No. 30 of 1950's and natives of an Area's Consolidation Act No. 25 of 1945 as well as other discriminatory legislation of that time. I was affected directly and adversely by these laws and regulations.

I was at the same time witness to their operation on other Black people who were similarly placed. The immediate impact on me was severe disillusionment at the unfairness and injustice of it all. I could never understand why race should have been the determinant of where I should live and where I could work. I was never able to understand why, while still a teenager, I was expected to live at a man's hostel and needed a permit to stay with my parents in the township. I was too naive to understand how it was that I could not look upon the legal system for fairness and justice, I was of course an impressionable youth, fresh from college and full of idealism, I had believed that my modest education would at least be a platform to build a reasonable life and career.

In that flash of youth I had thought I could do anything, aspire to anything and that nothing could stop me. I was wrong. My dreams came up against the harsh apartheid realities. The insensitive demeaning and often hostile environment it had created around me, proved to have been crafted too well, it was designed to discourage and humiliate those who like me sought to improve their circumstances and those of their communities.

Those early years for me and for thousands of others in the Black community, the legal system failed, not only to protect but also to create a space for the exercise of the freedom to give a lot of our potential to the fullest."

That closes the quotation.

I have not myself suffered as much as others of my Black fellow South Africans but I have calculated that I have experienced some of the rigours of forced population removals. I lived in Roodepoort Location. This was raised to the ground to make way for Horizons, which was for white people.

My mother worked at a Zenzaleni, an institute for blind Blacks. Zenzaleni became a casualty of the removal legislation. I lived in Sophiatown and Sophiatown gave way to Triomf another white suburb. Mercifully now renamed Sophiatown again and also in what was then called Western Native Township, which after we were moved out became Western Coloured Township in apartheid's obsession with race separation.

The church we were married in was demolished. Munsieville was reprieved only because of the intervention of Leon Wessels. My wife's teacher training college, St. Thomas in Village Main, is no more; it too was the casualty of the Group Areas Act. I trained as a priest at St. Peter's in Rosettenville; it had to close down because of the Group Areas Act.

White South African's often got angry when we said unjust laws don't oblige obedience, they made the mistake of thinking that legal and moral right were synonymous. We had laws that made it a crime for a man to sleep with his wife if he was a migrant worker living in a single room and decidedly at odds with God's law that the creed that what God had joined together no one should put asunder.

I once asked lawyers in Pretoria who were foolhardy enough to invite me to address them, how they could operate within a patently unjust legal system which was collaborating with an evil political dispensation that it subverted the rule of law through discarding the habeas corpus and also by putting the onus on the defendant to prove she was innocent when the hallowed legal cannon was the accused is presumed innocent until the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that she is guilty.

Why didn't they boycott court sessions, since the world was being misled into thinking that South Africa respected due process? I posed this question to a judge who spoke movingly on how he had agonised with the moral dilemma and I wish he had agreed to appear before the Commission to describe this wrestling with such ethical problems. It would have given us a useful insight and I am deeply distressed that no judge has seen fit to appear before the Commission. They have considered that it is not intrinsically in principle wrong to give an account before the Commission since they have done that in making submissions and many of them splendid submissions, in deep powerful testimonies.

I believe Prof. John Dugard once spoke of how judges were called on to make choices, how they would operate, they have in my view been faced with another important choice and I submit they have made the wrong choice. In this regard they have shown they have not yet changed a mindset that properly belongs to the old dispensation which most of them have castigated so sharply in their submission.

You can understand why we never regarded the police as our friends. When I was Bishop of Johannesburg, we were stopped at a roadblock near New Canada on our way to Soweto and they wanted to strip-search my wife and daughter by the roadside. I protested at this indignity and so they took them to the nearby police station. I thought to myself in my livid anger, if they treated me in this fashion, what were they not doing to so-called ordinary Black people.

The police were never regarded as our friends, as being there to protect us; and that applied as well to the judicial system. The States of Emergency were experienced by us as periods when Security forces were given a licence to treat us like dirt, as of no account, they were indemnified against legal action. In all the delegations I accompanied to seek government, whenever we said anything critical of the police, then the immediate reaction was that we were maligning them, that if indeed what we complained had happened it was really the action of a few mavericks, the bad eggs.

Dr. Mgojo on one occasion retorted that for Blacks it was precisely the opposite. There might just be a few good police officers. Our experience was that by and large they were mostly rotten apples and these were the people who had detainees at their tender mercy, who interrogated them and now it is clear that they could use methods following the Queensbury Rule. No holds were barred.

They extracted confessions through these brutal third degree methods. It is clear from amnesty applications that they perjured themselves frequently as a matter of course.

For most of us it was all a travesty of justice and brought the law into considerable disrepute and it is going to take quite a while to rehabilitate the law, for one of the strategies was to disobey unjust laws and a culture of non-cooperation, non-compliance has developed.

Most of the judges in our view were political appointments because they were believed to be broadly or fundamentally in sympathy with the then government and would hardly call in question.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Chairperson Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Hearings on the Judiciary

Between 1960 and 1990 there was a systematic and extensive use of detention without trial. The TRC's 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 was 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.

Evidence before the Commission shows that torture was used systematically by the Security Branch, both as a means of obtaining information and of terrorizing 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, and the CID and, to some extent, by the military intelligence unit of the SADF.

Getting a handle on the extent of torture during apartheid is difficult. Many former detainees who experienced torture were unwilling to step forward to make statements to the TRC, one reason being the deep shame and humiliation often associated with the experience of torture -- something the security police well understood and exploited.

Torture diminishes resistance. But in addition a detainee who was tortured feels bad about himself because he was being treated like a child, because torture induces helplessness. Torture is an extreme invasion of the self. You destroy the detainee's sense of self-worth, inculcate shame and guilt, often leaving the person who was tortured with a low sense of self worth, without anyone to talk to, to confide, to understand the enormous physic damage that has been inflicted.

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. Detainees found this painfully degrading; they were disgusting to themselves. Some individuals gave in under the duress of torture and gave evidence against their own comrades.

Often these detainees would remain silent after they were released because of feelings of intense remorse and guilt and their belief that when their beliefs were tested they were found wanting. They felt completely humiliated and worthless because they had betrayed everything they believed in, had been too weak to withstand the pressure of their interrogators. Some never overcame these feelings, not uncommon among people who had "given in" in some way after being exposed to torture.

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.

And even if they had somehow evaded their interrogators line of questioning by providing plausible explanations for events that would lead to dead ends, the question they would torture themselves with was whether somewhere in the cleverly concocted responses they had given interrogators a lead that would uncover the activities or whereabouts of a comrade.

Often interrogators would threaten to harm members of detainees' families and while detainees were prepared to die if necessary without revealing a thing, the thought that the repercussions of their unwillingness to cooperate might fall on people they loved a son, daughter, wife or husband -- was in itself enough to induce them to talk.

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: "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."

The 'silence of vulnerability' was the greater when sexual forms of torture were used. Detainees were often to talk quite freely about the torture they underwent, but when the question of sexual torture arose, they clamped up. The issue was too private; to inquire about it was itself an invasion of privacy.

The experience of custody, detention and interrogation, involving torture or not, was a threatening one. Different detainees responded in different ways. Those who in "normal" life often appeared to be the epitome of strength and endurance sometimes were the first to break; and sometimes those who appeared to be timid and vulnerable in "normal" life never broke. For those who thought of themselves as being "strong" or who appeared to others to be so, there was additional shame if they broke, the shame that others who had always extolled them for their strength, would learn how weak they were and wonder how they could have been so wrong in their judgment of "character."

The international definition of torture is: "the intentional infliction of severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, on a person for the purpose of obtaining from that or another person information or a confession; or punishing him for an act that he or a third person committed or is suspected of having committed; or intimidating him or a third person; or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind."

Beatings were the most commonly used form of torture, whether of detainees in custody or the routine practice of beating and assaulting detainees at the point of arrest. The latter had a specific purpose: to instill fear and to 'soften people up' before questioning. It was widely, routinely, and very successfully used.

But more sophisticated forms of torture were used either to extract information or as a means of recruitment of informers. Suffocation as a form of torture increased significantly from 1975 to 1990, when it became the third most common form of torture. A favorite suffocation technique involved the use of a cloth bag that would be submerged in water until it was completely wet. The detainee would be forced to lie down on the ground on his stomach with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The interrogator would take up a position in the small of the detainee's back, put his feet through between his arms to maintain his balance and then pull the bag over the person's head and twist it closed around the neck, cutting off the air supply to the detainee who would often loose consciousness. At which point the bag was released. All the while questions would be fired. According to proud interrogators detainees would talk within 30 minutes.

Electric shock torture didn't become standard part of the "inventory" mix until 1964, although it was used in 1960 on detainees arrested during the Pondoland uprising. Indeed, even decidedly 'low tech' electric torture could be extremely effective, inducing trauma and scalding pain. A shock device was easily available: one interrogator described: "They were available from anyone at Telkom (SA telecommunication service). The device I used was an old crank telephone. You'd take two wires or better still use two keys just normal keys with a hole in the top. Tie a key to each wire. The guy's got a hood over his head. Dangle them so that they touch the palms of his hands. When the first shock goes through his hands close and he can't open them again. While you keep cranking the handle, he can't let go of it." Simple, but extraordinarily effective.

And then, of course, you had the forced posture or body position routines, like forcing the detainee to stand on a piece of foolscap paper for hours, sometimes days, on end; forcing the detainee to balance on a brick or two bricks or to sit in an imaginary chair for hours on end; forcing the detainee to hold an object above her/his head.

Other techniques were imposed by force. These included the 'helicopter' technique which involved manacling detainees' hands above their heads and hanging them upside down for lengthy periods, or handcuffing detainees across an iron bar that was ten feet off the ground and allowing them to dangle for up to 60 hours or more or until they broke. And a variation: the detainee's feet were handcuffed together round the ankles and his hands were handcuffed behind his back, then he was placed on his stomach with his feet in the air and a broom stick or quite a strong plank of wood was put between his ankles and then through his legs coming out the top. Then he was picked up and hung between two desks. The result was similar to crucifixion.

Sexual torture included forcing detainees (both male and female) to undress; the deliberate targeting of genitals or breasts during torture; the threat of and, in some instances, actual rape of detainees (male and female); the insertion of objects such as batons or pistols into bodily orifices and placing detainees overnight in cells with common-law prisoners known to rape newcomers.

Solitary confinement was its own torture, especially when detainees were held in isolation in a small cell for an extended period without access to anyone and without any idea for long how they would be held. Demands to see someone in the prison administration went unheeded. No one it appeared was in charge, merely a system that ran on a prerecorded set of instructions it was incapable of deviating from. Here the torture was psychological: "I was damaged, a part of my soul was eaten away as if by maggots ... and I will never get it back again."

A battery of security legislation provided for detention.1

Torture of political detainees was reported from the early 1960s. It was a relatively new phenomenon. In an interview Joe Slovo observed that: "However firm the old type of policemen were, they were not torturers. In a sense, up to about 1960/ 1961, the underground struggle was fought on a gentlemanly terrain. There was still a rule of law. You had a fair trial in their courts. Nobody could be kept in isolation. Up to 1963, I know of no incident of any political prisoner being tortured." Mandela echoed Slovo's statement in Long Walk to Freedom.

The change came about when the state began to send security force members who showed an aptitude for this kind of thing to France during the first half of the 1960s. The French had developed a taste for devising high yielding torture techniques in Indo-China and had perfected them in Algeria.

In 1964 a new method of interrogation was introduced. Now teams working in relays used sleep deprivation and non-physical means such as standing on one spot or the 'hard/soft cop' routine, almost certainly the fruit of the French exercise.

The French provided further training in interrogation and counter-interrogation techniques around 1968.2 Officers known to have attended this course include: TJ 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel, Major JJ 'Blackie' de Swardt, Hans Gloy, Roelf van Rensberg and Dries Verwey.

Best evidence suggests that in the early 1980s, joint co-operation agreements between South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Taiwan led to further training opportunities and an exchange of ideas and experience. Close links with Argentina existed even before this. For example, Alfredo Astiz, a notorious torturer, was one of four torture experts attached to the Argentinian Embassy in Pretoria in 1979. During his stay, there were several "seminars" at which South African security police and the Argentineans exchanged ideas regarding methods of interrogation. Slide presentations, no doubt, added a little freshness to what monotonous speakers from the podium or on panels these after all were no different in either form or procedure than a conference, say, on the use of fertilizer nutrient supplements to enhance soil productivity.

Military Intelligence (MI) operatives received training in interrogation techniques in Italy. According to one MI operative, such training tended to focus on non-aggressive methods of interrogation as the use of torture was seen to result in false confessions or information.

Finally, the training grounds par excellence were Rhodesia and South West Africa where South African police developed hands-on experience in fighting a counter-insurgency war.

Following the general failure of the Security Branch to conclude investigations in sabotage cases in the early 1960s, a tougher approach was adopted and a group of police was drawn in from outside the ranks of the Security Branch to constitute a special 'sabotage squad'. This was part of a more extensive restructuring of legal provisions relating to detentions and police structures introduced by the new Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons, Mr. BJ Vorster.

Officers who had links with this squad were now Major TJ 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel, a Major Coetzee, and a Captain or Major JJ van der Merwe, Captain JJ Viktor, Lieutenant Erasmus and Lieutenant and/or Captain van Rensberg.3 They were a new breed. For them torture was a profession; they kept in touch with new developments in their field, attended seminars and conferences, consulted psychiatrists and behavioral scientists, were eager to claim being the best in the field a field in which they faced stiff competition. By being able to distance themselves from the actual torture they inflicted, by attaching some pseudo- professionalism to their work they could perceive themselves in a different light, one that gave some relief from the daily routines that were their workload.

2

Theunis 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel's name crops up again and again in interviews with activists who were detained at one time or another. By all accounts he was a pathological sadist, but a very calculating one, who would boast openly to others of his ability to get even the most recalcitrant detainee to crack. He regarded each detainee under his jurisdiction as a challenge; he studied each one individually, looking for the psychological weak points, the character flaws not on display, which detainees themselves may not have been unaware of. He probed for that one point of vulnerability, the inner fault line. He adhered to the theory that everyone feared something to an extent that he would rather die than confront it. Swanepoel wanted to isolate that "something" for each detainee; he was prepared to wait; the correct "diagnosis" would yield a flood of information. Swanepoel did not want his detainees to die. Dead men could not provide information. In prison, prisoners swapped stories about him. Swanepoel was feared; he knew it and used that knowledge to allow detainees who knew that he would be part of their interrogation teams to sit in solitary confinement and think about what they had coming. They were already being tortured psychologically because sometimes our imaginations do more damage to us than the realities, terrible as they are, we will face. Indeed, the expectation of things to happen created havoc in the mind. Being left alone for days on end after bouts of severe torture, when in an odd way you were the center of everyone's attention, albeit brutal, to being summarily ignored for long periods left you, after a respite, to wonder what you had done to deserve the inattention. Footsteps approaching left you hoping they belonged to someone coming to see you and at the same time dread that it might be someone coming for you. Your emotions were in constant flux, contradictory, confusing, arousing strange and inaccessible feelings.

Who was "Rooi Rus"? His name crops up in the TRC Report in sporadic places. He was the SB's man for all seasons, adaptable for the task at hand, always earning kudos, always getting his promotions. At one point he is referred to as "Lieutenant,' then as 'Major,' and finally as Lieutenant Colonel. At some point he received counter insurgency training in France. After his stint in Johannesburg Central, he was put in charge of the first SAP security police camp in the Caprivi Strip in northern South West Africa that was responsible for monitoring SWAPO activity. Less than a year later, Colonel Tennis 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel, veteran of the sabotage squad and Ongulumbashe, was drafted into Soweto on 16 June 1976 to command a riot unit, which was responsible for a high number of civilian casualties. Interviewed in the 1980s about the operations of his unit in Soweto, he stated that he regretted only not using more force. "You can only stop violence by using a greater amount of violence".4 And later we find him responding to questions regarding the increasing frequency with which detainees seemed to be committing suicide with the observation that: "It is a communist plot. If they commit suicide, they can cast doubts on the security forces."5

And then we lose track of him.

"Suicide" appeared to be a not uncommon practice among detainees who, apparently, had a propensity to jump from open windows or hang themselves in their cells. The security police suggested that detainees had received instructions from the ANC to commit suicide rather than talk. Some claimed that they committed suicide in order to malign the Security Branch.

Arrests of people suspected of being involved in sabotage campaigns increased markedly in 1963 and the TRC concluded that almost every detainee interrogated by members of this team were tortured. Reports exposed the widespread use of beating, electric shock and terror tactics.

With the introduction of the ninety-day detention clause in 1963 torture became far more prevalent. The law now authorized any commissioned officer to detain without a warrant any person suspected of political activities and to hold them in solitary confinement, without access to a lawyer, for ninety days. In practice, people were often released after ninety days only to be re-detained on the same day for a further ninety-day period. The Minister of Justice said the intention was to detain uncooperative persons "until this side of eternity." Helen Suzman was the only MP to vote against the amendment enabling these powers.

The ninety-day law came into effect on 1 May 1963 and the first detentions took place eight days later. Between 1 May 1963 and 10 January 1965, when it was withdrawn and replaced with a 180-day detention law, it was used to detain 1 095 people, of whom 575 were charged and 272 convicted.

In the course of these detentions, torture went far beyond a routine level of physical assault; carefully honed techniques were put to use, designed primarily to extract information. But even while detainees imprisoned under draconian inhumane and psychologically damaging detention laws, South Africa still wound itself in the trappings of the Westminster democracy. Thus, in January 1964, Vorster in response to a Parliamentary Question conceded that forty-nine complaints had been received concerning ill treatment and torture, including twenty-eight allegations of assault and twenty of electric shock. He reported that thirty-two had been investigated and found to be of no substance. Nevertheless, accounts of torture from this period, according to the TRC - across region, rank and organization - bear a remarkable consistency.

Other methods of torture used included being dangled from the window -- detainees were suspended by their feet outside windows of buildings of several storeys, sometimes they were accidentally dropped and sometimes they were simply dropped or thrown, becoming in either case a "suicide". Psychological torture, which had the advantage of leaving no physical mark, was often the preferred choice. A range of psychological threats and, particularly from 1964, a combination of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and forced standing, often for days on end were often as effective as severe electric shock treatment. To "warm up" detainees for the real thing, teams of interrogators would work them over. They received the "rugby" treatment: were beaten up, tossed from one interrogator to another, flung across the cell, drop-kicked, used as a scrimmage ball and all the while the question kept coming until a detainee would become completely disoriented and pulp-beaten. Then the guys with the electric shock gadgetry, the suffocation bags and other paraphernalia of "real" torture took over.

The Security Branch worked in teams, ensuring that they were always fresh and clean, in sharp contrast to the exhausted detainees. Teams would also frequently alternate between apparently sympathetic police and those who displayed extreme aggression. Such methods, which left no mark, proved devastatingly effective in extracting confessions.

In 1965 new legislation provided for 180-day detention and re-detention thereafter. Detainees could be held in solitary confinement but, unlike the ninety-day provision, interrogation was not specified as part of the detention.6 But contrary to the law, the 180-day provision was used for interrogation.

But this, too, was deemed insufficient. In 1967 still harsher legislation was introduced authorizing indefinite detention without trial on the authority of a policeman of or above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The definition of terrorism was very broad. No time limit was specified for detention, which could be continued until detainees had satisfactorily replied to all questions.7 This, if taken literally, could mean detention for life with no charges preferred, no legal recourse, no trial, no anything.

Detentions under the new act were generally for the purposes of extracting information and the practice of routine 'purposive torture' appears to have accompanied most interrogations: lengthy interrogations accompanied by assault and torture involving forced posture such as being forced to sit in an imaginary chair. And, when necessary, electric shocks were administered.

In the late sixties and seventies torture was used expressly to extract information and admissions, and interrogation was in some instances followed by a trial. Detainees, 'broken' by torture, were frequently used as state witnesses. In some instances, despite the presence of perpetrators in court, such witnesses withdrew their statements, alleging that they had been made under duress. Court cases were increasingly characterised by 'trials within trials' to test the admissibility of such statements. Few judges ruled in favour of detainees. In many cases, however, detainees were eventually released after lengthy spells in detention without having been charged.

During the 1976 unrest, the government amended the Internal Security Act in order to provide for what was euphemistically termed 'preventive detention'. Theoretically, the detention was not meant to exceed twelve months. The Internal Security Act (1982) attempted to consolidate security legislation into one act. Detentions were covered by the following clauses: Section 28: Indefinite preventive detention; Section 29: Indefinite detention for interrogation, with detainees held in solitary confinement; Section 29(2): No court could challenge the validity of a detention order; Section 31: Detention of potential witnesses for not longer than six months or for the duration of a trial; Section 50: A low-ranking police officer could detain a person deemed to be threatening public safety for fourteen days' preventive detention. For the detention to be extended, the permission of a magistrate was needed.

Detainees held under section 28 were sometimes questioned, but were primarily detained in order to keep them out of circulation. Section 29 was used chiefly for detention of those suspected of links with the underground and particularly military structures. Detainees held under this clause were subjected to torture. In the mid-1980s, the Internal Security Act continued to be used for specific cases of suspected terrorism and for intensive interrogation. However, detention happened far more widely under the state of emergency provisions.

State of emergency regulations gave police powers to detain individuals for an initial period of fourteen days on little more than a suspicion that they might be a "threat to the safety and security of the state". The period of detention could be extended almost indefinitely. Thousands of people, mostly Africans, were incarcerated under these provisions during the states of emergency in the mid- to late 1980s. The wide-ranging powers given to the police, including extensive indemnity provision, and the lack of any censure for excesses, reinforced their understanding that they enjoyed impunity for extensive abuses committed in the interests of state security. And, of course, the more they tortured, the more immune the police were to what they were doing, and whatever doubts they had regarding the legality of their actions dissipated. As the aggregate of torture increased, torture became perfunctory, a normal part of the day's routine.

But some did commit suicide when they felt they were on the point of breaking. Some, like Mac tried to take their own lives as a way of outwitting their interrogators a "good" interrogator who lost a 'charge' to suicide was open to the accusation of having been careless, not to have been sufficiently attentive to the tell tale signs that would be suicides exhibit, a carelessness that cost the state the information it was looking for, not something that looked good on one's record.

But whether these suicides were real or the result of zealous or careless security personnel having over stepped the mark during interrogations, the TRC had few qualms concluding that, given the extensive evidence of physical as well as psychological torture, suicides under conditions of detention were 'induced' suicide for which the security forces and the former government were responsible.

The irony, however, is that while the TRC received thousands of statements alleging torture, few amnesty applications were forthcoming from members of the security police or others who perpetrated the torture and none has been prosecuted.

In the 1980s, when the townships erupted there were an increasing number of cases where suspected activists or persons thought to be ANC sympathizers were tortured outside of official custody. Abduction or 'unofficial' detention was increasingly used. In most instances, those so detained were subjected to extreme torture and were either coerced into becoming askaris or killed.

The SAP and the former government have conceded that torture occurred, but have claimed that it represented "the actions of a few renegade policemen." But Leon Wessels, the former Deputy Minister of Police, takes exception. It was not possible, he says, to deny knowledge of torture: "everybody in this country knew people were tortured."

The National Party in its submission to the TRC admitted knowledge of some "retail" torture, tried to distance itself from the "wholesale" torture. The really "bad" stuff was "the work of a few renegades," whose activities the party would never sanction, condone, or ever had knowledge of.

But the thousands of detainees who were trundled into the Grey's building in Marshall Square in Johannesburg, the most feared headquarters of the Security Branch, morning after morning, knew better. In matters of torture there are no "few renegades,' just ordinary men and women doing what they are told to do. Sometimes it simply came with the job description.

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.