We cannot move on from our dark past without reflection from all

It is important that we remember the sacrifices older generations have made for South Africa, but in order to truly heal we need to recognise and acknowledge the pain we all feel and the burden we carry from our past. 

Every blow and shock that Pan African Congress (PAC) Chairman Phillip Dhlamini experienced in detention during apartheid is still raw for 65-year-old. He talks about it like it happened a few years ago, although it has been more than 40 years now. The physical and mental pain he felt is written all over his face. But what broke him most, he says, is the pain his family felt for him.

Dhlamini came to the offices of the Wits Justice Project for an interview which forms part of a larger project aimed at analysing the prevalence of torture during apartheid and post-apartheid.  

Dhlamini was born in Soweto, Johannesburg where he grew up. He was a member of the PAC since the tender age of 11 and only later became involved in its military wing, The Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA). He took part in many mass movements, such as the Soweto Youth Uprising of June 1976, and lead various Public Utility Transport Corporation (PUTCO) strikes, one of which saw at least 12 000 workers take part. He is currently the National Chairperson of the PAC.

During apartheid, Dhlamini was detained four times between 1977 and 1980. During his first detention, he was charged with sabotage which carried a maximum sentence of death, but due to international pressure the charges were reduced and fell under the Terrorism Act. This meant that the sentence carried a minimum of five years.  However, the purpose of the act was to detain suspects without trial for an indefinite period for interrogation.

The first time he was interrogated by the Security Branch, he was detained at John Vorster Square where he says, “I was tortured”. He was electro shocked and suffocated with a money bag. During those day banks would give out bags made of cloth with a drawstring to close it. In detention these bags would pulled over the suspects’ head and tightened around the neck so that air flow was restricted. “They put the bag in water and put it over your head. You are cuffed from behind so that you are completely defenceless. They put it [around your neck] and punch you on your stomach”.

This method is still used today. Ruth Hopkins, in her 2014 article for the Saturday Star writes about a man named Noor Hoossen who was arrested by the police in Sophiatown for allegedly breaking into one of the officer’s home a year earlier. The police assaulted Hoossen and took him to the police station. There he was put in a cell with another man who was already handcuffed. “They pushed the other to the floor and pulled his handcuffed arms up behind his back, then they kicked him in the lower back. A plastic bag was pulled over his head, which they tightened with a seatbelt” Hopkins writes.

Many of the torture methods used during apartheid are still used today in prisons and police stations, despite the promulgation of the Prevention of Combating and Torture of Persons Act in 2013. For example, the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) listed 15 complaints of torture, 810 complaints about assault from warders, 364 about inhuman treatment in their most recent annual report. Meanwhile, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) lists two convictions for torture committed by a police officer, with a R500, respectively R 12000 fine imposed as a sentence.

In 1981, Dhlamini was acquitted and released, but a few months later he was arrested again. “The first two weeks were really brutal” Dhlamini said. Again he was subjected to suffocation with money bags, electric shocks - this time on his entire body- and the infamous ‘helicopter’ method.

This method entailed tying the suspect’s hands and feet, and then hanging them hung upside down from a pole suspended above the ground. Suspects would be tortured in various ways while hanging upside down.

Although Dhlamini still has scars from the electric shocks on his legs, he spoke to us about his torture with some ease. It was only when he spoke about his family and the harassment his family experienced from the police at the time of his detention, that tears came to his eyes.

“When you are being detained and you are brought home with the leg irons, your mother is the first one to feel the biggest pain… For me it was worse, because I was sickly, so you would understand how a family is tortured by seeing this.”

Like Dhlamini, many South Africans are still traumatised by the atrocities that were committed under the apartheid government, especially black people who are still subjected to inequalities today.

Ruth Hopkins in her article for the Daily Vox, writes about the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) which challenges racial and economic injustices in America. Hopkins visited the places where black people were lynched in the South of America, as part of a project by EJI “to address the lack of commemoration of the legacy of racial terror, the EJI has documented how many lynchings have taken place in the southern states.” Hopkins writes. This report was released in 2015.

The report, Hopkins writes, “provides proof of more than 4, 000 lynchings that took place in 12 states in the South”.

Hopkins examines how true healing can only happen through the active reflection on the past by both sides. She quotes an extract from the EJI report which rings true for South Africa: “Public acknowledgment of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization”.

It is important that we remember the sacrifices older generations have made for South Africa, but in order to truly heal we need to recognise and acknowledge the pain we all feel and the burden we carry from our past.

Last week the Wits Justice Project (WJP) attended the opening of the Ahmed Timol inquest. Dhlamini was also there, “The Timol case is healing to many people whose loved ones had allegedly committed suicide in detention” he said. The judge presiding over the case, Judge Billy Mothle, has subpoenaed the officials involved in Timol’s death to testify at the end of the month. This could provide an opportunity for all South Africans to reflect.

It should provide us an insight into the minds of interrogators during apartheid, who actively upheld the apartheid regime. It could also provide them an opportunity to reflect on their own actions and work through their own emotions that they might have towards the incident.

It is an opportunity for “public acknowledgement” as the EJI wrote, an opportunity for all South Africans to remember the past from both the victim’s and perpetrator’s perspective, and for all to move one step further in the healing process

-Azarrah Karrim

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