Taking a tour around the Old Fort in Johannesburg is a stark reminder of how political prisoners were treated during apartheid. A political prisoner was kept in confinement for 23 hours a day. The one hour of daylight was a different type of war zone from the over-populated prison cells as gang violence and abuse from warders was rife.
Human dignity was a distant ideal in an era where fighting for survival was the order of the day, every day even to eat or shower.
In apartheid South Africa, Number Four Prison at the Old Fort was considered the worst prison due to the old and unliveable infrastructure. This prison housed political prisoners and pass law offenders who were awaiting trial.
After admission prisoners to the Old Fort would walk stark naked to receive their prison uniforms. This habitual physical strip-down was not only humiliating but eroded the prisoner’s sense of self. The uniform was unwashed and often carried disease.
For older men there was a tangible sense of shame when they were forced to be naked in the presence of young men, collectively, in a practice called the Tausa.
On the wall in the prison a warder describes the practice. Martin “Panyaza” Shabangu, prison warder, 1973-80 said : “Some of these people grew up with me and as a warder I did not like to make them open their anus. Sometimes it was an old man in his 50s, a respectable somebody. White warders wouldn’t have done it to their own people. But it was a duty that we were forced to do … The prisoners were cleverer than us. When they came from court or work, they were carrying things like blades and money which they could hide up their anus.”
Petal Thring, CEO of Constitution Hill which houses the Old Fort, said the severity of the human rights violations left scarred psyches in the prisoners.
Living in darkness for 23 hours, with access to two buckets – one for sanitation and another for water – shared among many individuals bargaining for survival under threat of violence every day, reduced many black people to animals.
Men squatted over what was called a long-drop toilet with other men immediately squatting opposite them because they were forced to eat in that position.
Death was common due to gang violence and apathy a way of life, even when the prisoners were just awaiting trial. Nothing was considered sacred.
Thring said Constitution Hill is a “site of hope to a lot of people”. She said “in order to understand where we are, we need to be sensitive to where we have been”. Thring said we should not forget our history even if it carries so much heaviness.
Human rights today are protected by the South African constitution, Thring said. The Constitutional Court is the guardian of our constitution which enshrines the values of equality, freedom and human dignity.
Constitution Hill is involved in a number of projects to drive human rights in communities. Notably, they have a programme for children that is aimed at helping them develop numeracy and literacy skills as well as helping them develop a culture of human rights by using the arts.
This helps young people recognise violations of human rights such as homophobia, xenophobia, racism and rape.
Ciaran Heywood, a Grade 11 pupil from Sacred Heart said: “Human rights are something that all humans deserve because without it, it leaves room for inequality and oppression to come back.”