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South Africa’s death factory

Death row is like a factory… a factory which produces corpses. You know, you go in alive and come out dead… The whole place is serviced. They provide food. They make gardens. They give notice of executions. They hang. And they bury.” — Brian Currin, Lawyers for Human Rights.

The night before prisoners are hanged, the South African Prison Services give each one a whole chicken for supper and four rand to buy something tasty from the prison tuckshop.

The next morning, at six o’ clock, the prison chaplain pays his last visit. He prays with the prisoner for about half an hour until a warder comes and says it is time to go.

The prisoners are taken to the execution chamber. They climb the steps to the gallows. The hangman is ready — he has taken the prisoners’ measurements a few days earlier.

Thickness of neck, height and weight are all important when working out how long a rope must be to kill a person.

A doctor and a policeman are present. The policeman to take fingerprints to make sure the right person is hanged. The doctor to make sure that the person is dead after the job is done.

The prisoners are lined up — Pretoria’s gallows can hang seven at one time. Their wrists are tied behind their backs. A rope is put around each neck, with the knot next to the ear. A hood is placed over each head.

The hangman pulls a lever. A trap door opens — and “doef!” — the prisoner drops. The spinal cord breaks at the point where it enters the skull.

Life is over for the body that hangs from the rope. But the body cannot keep still. It does a last wild dance, with legs and arms flapping out of control. The face is twisted and out of shape, with popped-out eyes and dangling tongue. The bladder and bowels will often empty themselves to soil the legs and drip onto the floor below.

After 10 minutes or so, the doctor steps forward to check for a heartbeat. If the pulse is there — and often it is — the doctor will wait, perhaps for another 10 minutes.

When the doctor decides that the prisoner is dead, the body is taken down and put into a coffin. The coffin is shut, never to be opened again.

Meanwhile, a prison chaplain waits with the prisoner’s family outside the prison walls. At about 7.30 am, they are called into the prison chapel for a short service, led by the same chap­lains who gave comfort to the hanged.

Later in the day, a black vehicle from a funeral company, followed by a police car, takes the coffins to freshly dug graves. Even at this time, apartheid rears its ugly head — whites are buried in Pretoria’s cemetery, Africans are buried at Atteridgeville or Mamelodi and ‘coloureds’ at Eersterus.

Without any prayer or ceremony, the coffins are lowered into the ground. It is said that bulldozers are sometimes used to fill the graves.

The prisoner’s family are not allowed to attend the burial. They will later be given a grave number — and a parcel of the dead prisoner’s personal belongings.


What you have just read about hanging may have upset you. We’re sorry if this is so — but it is all true. The information comes from a new report brought out by the Black Sash last month.

The report, “Inside South Africa’s Death Factory,” is one of the most hard-hitting and best written studies of the death penalty ever to come out in South Africa.

The report says that South Africa is “a world leader in hanging.” Between 1980 and 1988, 1070 people were hanged. In 1987 alone, 164 people were hanged. These figures do not count the many hangings that took place in the ‘independent’ homelands of Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana and Venda.

The report argues strongly against hanging — for all prisoners, both political and criminal. It says that all prisoners on death row can be seen as victims of apartheid. Most of the prisoners on death row are black — and nearly all come from poor families and overcrowded townships.

The report is full of chilling facts. Such as:

  1. There is big difference in the number of black people and white people who are hanged. Between 1910 and 1975, 2740 people were hanged. Of these, less than 100 were whites. Only six of these white people were hanged for the murder of blacks. Up to the present day, a white man has not been hanged for the rape of a black woman. Over 90 black men have been hanged for the rape of white women.

  2. The report looked at the cases of 26 prisoners on death row — and found that nearly a third of the prisoners were not able to afford a lawyer. They had to use ‘pro deo’ counsel. This is an advocate appointed by the state. There are many problems with the ‘pro deo’ system. The state pays the advocate R100 a day, far less than the going rate. So ‘pro deo’ advocates are mostly those with little experience, and are often not very good at their job.

The state does not pay for an attorney to help the ‘pro deo’ advocate — and there is no money to prepare for the case properly, like finding witnesses or doing research that will help the defence in the case. So often, cases with ‘pro deo’ counsel are very short. Some cases last only one day — and that includes judgement and sen­tencing. Others last a bit longer, but not much more than three or four days.

There is another problem with ‘pro deo’ lawyers — they are often not trusted by the accused. These lawyers are seen as part and parcel of the police and prosecution system.

  1. For people who are charged with murder or other crimes that carry the death sentence, it is often a matter of life or death which judge hears the case. There are ‘hanging judges’ — and there are some judges who don’t like to hang people.

As retired Judge Leon says: “I know judges who impose the death sentence… and I know one judge who has been on the bench for some years who has never passed the death penalty. Should a man’s life depend on the judge before whom he appears?”

There is also another problem with judges — there are no black judges in South Africa.

As Judge Leon says: “It is not easy for a white judge to put himself in the shoes of a black accused.”

It is not hard to understand why many black people believe that many judges are out and out racists who believe that a black life is not worth the same as a white life. Take, for example, Judge J J Strydom who last year gave a farmer a suspended sentence and a fine for murdering one of his workers — by tying him to a tree for two days and slowly kicking and beating him to death.


The death penalty is a painful and hated thing for the majority of South Africans — but it hurts most when people are hanged for taking part in the freedom struggle.

The first ANC soldier to be hanged was Solomon Mahlangu, who was exe­cuted in April 1979. The government treated Mahlangu, and all the other MK fighters who followed him, as common murderers. The ANC says their fighters are soldiers and that they should be treated as prisoners of war.

Advocate Mathole Motshekga is the Transvaal President of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel). He says that in 1977 governments from different countries made an agreement in Geneva, Switzerland. This agreement is called the Geneva Protocol of 1977.

“This document says all members of liberation movements who are strug­gling against colonialism and racism — such as the ANC — must be respected as soldiers.” says Motshekga. “They are not terrorists. So if they are arrested, they should be given Prisoner-of-War status. This means that international law does not allow the South African government to charge ANC soldiers in a civilian court of law.

“The world sees apartheid as a crime against humanity and a threat to world peace. So ANC soldiers must be seen as defending their people against the world’s enemy.”

Ishmael Ebrahim, a senior ANC member who was last year jailed for 20 years, said from the dock: “As an oppressed nation, we (black South Africans) can never regard our courts as places of justice… We cannot divorce the courts from the apartheid structures.”

At his trial, Ebrahim gave a warning — he said he believed that if ANC fighters were charged as common criminals, they would soon turn their backs on the courts and refuse to plead. He was proved right. In February this year, at the ‘Delmas 2 Trial’, the ANC’s Jabu Masina, Neo Potsane, Frans Masango and Joseph Makhura refused to take part in the court proceedings.

As Masina said to the court: “We, as members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, are involved in a war of national liberation… we, as soldiers cannot and should not stand trial in a civilian court.”

On April 27 the court passed the death sentence on Masina, Potsane and Masango. Makhura was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Before the sentence the four told the judge: “We know that this court may sentence us to death. If this happens, so be it! We love life, but we love our people and our country even more. If we are hanged, our death will not be in vain.

“Those who come after us will undoub­tedly complete our mission in life; to create a just and democratic South Africa which belongs to all who live in it.”


Most people would agree that the death penalty will be with us for as long as there is an apartheid govern­ment. But the sad story of Pretoria’s death factory is not without hope — thanks to the hard work of many people and organisations, both inside and outside South Africa.

The struggle against the death penalty really got going when the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) started the ‘Save the 32’ campaign in 1987. After SAYCO was banned, trade unions, health and legal organisations came together to form the ‘Save the Patriots Campaign’ Committee.

This campaign covers not only political prisoners — but all death row prisoners. As committee member Buyisile Jonas says: “Our slogan is ‘Don’t let them hang!’. This means all death row prisoners must not be hanged. Those who are seen as thugs are the products of apartheid. They are what they are because of the conditions in which they live. Many of them cannot be employed. So sometimes they are forced to use evil means to make a living.”

Buyisile believes that if a person is guilty of a crime, the person should be punished — and then be given another chance. “You cannot put a price on a person’s life. The courts should give sentences that can give people time to be re-educated. You can’t teach a dead person a lesson.”

But the campaign against the death penalty really took off with the ‘Sharpeville Six’ case. These people were sentenced to death for killing a councillor in Sharpeville. None of the accused actually killed the councillor — but they were said to have a ‘common purpose.’

People and organisations in South Africa and overseas came together to fight for the lives of the ‘Sharpeville Six.’ Governments from other countries also came out in support. In the end, P W Botha decided that they should not hang — and they were given very long jail sentences instead.

Lawyers for Human Rights is another organisation that has done much in the struggle against the death penalty. They have started a campaign to make sure that every prisoner goes through every last legal step before they are hanged. Last year, they got a stay of execution for 20 prisoners just before they were hanged.

And earlier this year, another group was formed — the Family and Friends of Death Row. It is a support group for families that have members on death row. This group is also fighting to save all the prisoners who have been sen­tenced to death. As one of the founder members, Paula Leyden says: “We stand simply for the abolition of the death penalty. We are campaigning for everyone, not just politicals.”

The organisations fighting against the death penalty have a long way to go — but there have been some real gains. Since the all time high of 164 hangings in 1987, the number of hangings has dropped. Last year 117 people were hanged. But 1989 seems to be the year when all the different organi­sations will begin to see the fruit of all their hard work.

By the middle of April, “only” 10 people had been hanged — and P W Botha had spared the lives of 27 prisoners on death row. But if the battle against the death penalty is to be won, more and more people and organisations must join the fight. It is truly a terrible thing to be hanged by your neck until you are dead.

But perhaps there is something even worse — and that is waiting to be hanged. We give the last word to D M Moisi who writes of the despair of those waiting for the hangman. In his poem, “Message from the gallows”, he writes:

“Let my heart soon (stop) its beat Than die the inner death of waiting…”


“It is the policy of the S.A. Prison Service to approach executions and everything pertaining to it, with the utmost responsibility and respect. This attitude stems from a consideration and respect for the circumstances in which the person concerned finds himself and consequently, also the necessary regard for life and death.

The Prisons Service also has a very important responsibility to the family members of the prisoners. It will therefore be appreciated that the Prisons Service is not prepared to point any untoward effort to politicize an already sensitive matter.

NEW WORDS corpse — the body of a dead person is called a corpse execution — when the government kills somebody in prison as a punishment, it is called execution execution chamber — the room where prisoners are executed gallows — the place where prisoners are hanged death penalty — the death penalty is a sentence that some countries use to punish people who have committed a serious crime. The death penalty says that the person must die. death row — death row is the place in prison where prisoners wait before they are executed advocate — an advocate is a lawyer who defends people in the Supreme Court when the charge is murder or another serious crime attorney — an attorney is a lawyer patriot — a person who is a patriot loves their country stay of execution — when the date of execution is put off so that the prisoner has more time to appeal against the death sentence, we say there is a stay of execution abolition — put an end to something by law. For example, Britain has abolished the death sentence.


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