FAMILIAR faces vanished – people went on the run, kept their heads down, or disappeared into detention under the Public Safety Act. The winter of 1986 in Pietermaritzburg was grey and menacing, courtesy of weather and the security police.

During the early 1980s local people were detained for brief periods under security legislation, activists periodically went into hiding and there was a police presence everywhere. Phones were tapped, threatening calls were made in the dead of night, and meetings and demonstrations were spied upon. Soweto and Freedom Charter Day meetings were prohibited in 1986, but church services were planned instead. Rumours of martial law, an Emergency and mass arrests flew thick and fast. But few people were ready for the night of Thursday 12 June, or the three and a quarter years of emergency rule that followed. Ordinary Pietermaritzburg people were caught up in extraordinary events.

‘They picked me up in town on the Friday morning. The first voice I heard at New Prison was Peter Kerchhoff’s. I thought, hey, if they’ve got the liberal Christians here, it can’t be too bad.’ Lyov Hassim worked for the South African Council on Higher Education and had been an activist in the socialist Forward Youth. ‘Then when I discovered that A.S. Chetty, Vasu Chetty, Frans Ngcamu and Dr Motala, the anti-apartheid leadership of Pietermaritzburg, were there it got even better.’

‘I did have ambiguous feelings because both my parents had been political prisoners, and my father had a case going against the government, but overall I felt exhilaration, a sense of purpose and belonging to something historic bigger than all of us.’ Interrogation over several days involved pressure from Drugs Squad members drafted in because of security police shortages. ‘They were particularly interested in a chicken project mentioned in our group minutes and thought details about feed and cleaning out the run were some sort of revolutionary code.’

‘Detention wasn’t a dark cloud, but a positive experience of which I was proud,’ he continues. But for Hassim the identity created out of the struggle was soon overshadowed by the setbacks suffered by international socialism in the late 1980s. ‘It brought a new sort of freedom, but meant I gradually drifted out of active involvement and into a complex personal journey.’

In the mid-1990s Hassim returned to university to undertake legal studies. He subsequently practised as an attorney and lectured part-time in human rights law at University of KwaZulu-Natal. His particular interests were freedom of expression; and corporal and capital punishment, to which he is totally opposed.

Dennis Dickson, then a teacher at Haythorne High and local deputy chairperson of the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA), was detained at home in the early hours. ‘It was especially worrying with a 3-year-old at home and the police didn’t seem to know what to do with me. From Loop Street police station we went to Thornville and then I was put in with common criminals at Plessislaer.’

‘Station Commander Joshua Gwala realised I was a political prisoner and transferred me to a single cell.’ But conditions were really primitive and ‘sleeping on the floor in the cold gave me permanent back problems. I occupied myself cleaning out the place. Pat Stilwell arranged for my wife Nalini to deliver some bare essentials, but only 15 minutes a day were allowed for a wash and a bit of sun.’

There was of course a Bible available: ‘the Psalms became incredibly meaningful and kept me sane,’ Dickson recalls. Then he was joined by Charles Shelembe from Sobantu and ‘we developed a comradeship and shared our few possessions.’ Several sessions of questioning at Alexandra Road police station centred on NEUSA affairs. When for the last few days of detention Dickson was transferred to New Prison, ‘it felt like a hotel – hot water, good company …’

Was it all worth it? ‘Yes, I emerged stronger and more determined.’ Dickson continued his involvement with anti-apartheid organisations and social justice initiatives of the Roman Catholic Church. He qualified as a teacher, obtained his MA and now works for the provincial Department of Education on inter-governmental affairs. And he believes the sacrifice and commitment that led people into detention twenty years ago can be rekindled to address present-day problems.

‘Detention for a white was very different from the black experience,’ emphasises Sandy Jocelyn, also detained at home in the middle of the night. She was projects officer of the Pietermaritzburg university campus Students Representative Council and in the last year of her BSc.

‘As a woman I had protection – the authorities were wary of the possible reaction of white society to my treatment.’ She played on this to gain a feeling of control: ‘I was privileged and had the psychological and physical security that went with it. I was conscious this was in direct contradiction to black people. Their daily lives were more traumatic than my detention experience; and in detention they faced the constant threat of harm.’

There was no trauma. ‘Having been arrested and not knowing what was going to happen was scary in places. But it was only two weeks and came at a time when I needed a good rest, so I slept a lot.’ Jocelyn was with two other women and all of them were treated well. They were interrogated separately, but ‘quite politely and we coped by laughing our way through it to lighten things up.’

Throughout her detention she knew it was complete over-reaction by the State. ‘I have always been able to put things in perspective if I understand why something is happening. So I didn’t feel persecuted or let myself be intimidated. Detention had no lasting effect on my life, apart from a feeling that I contributed more to the struggle than I would have otherwise. My life had more to do with personal matters and being part of the struggle against apartheid, rather than detention. To pretend otherwise would be making too much of it’. Jocelyn now works for the Department of Corrections in Auckland, New Zealand as a clinical psychologist.

Detention without trial allowed the police to hold anyone without charge virtually indefinitely in a prison or police station. Pietermaritzburg had 268 cases during the 1986–1987 Emergency. Over half the detainees were students, educationalists, church workers and community activists, most associated with the United Democratic Front. But the Azanian Peoples Organisation, various NGOs such as the Association for Rural Advancement and even the Progressive Federal Party had members detained.

A few detainees were held for nearly a year. On release some were deported, harassed by the police and vigilantes or subjected to various restrictions. At least two were killed by vigilantes and, in another case, by Azanian Student Movement members. The situation was to get much worse before the State of Emergency in Natal was lifted in October 1990. By then over 2 000 people had been held in the Natal Midlands out of an estimated national total of 25 000 detainees.

This article was first published in The Witness on 12 June 2008 and entitled ‘A time of extraordinary events’.

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THE winter of 1986 was particularly cold and for Pietermaritzburg’s anti-apartheid activists there was an added political chill. They were well used to threatening telephone calls in the early hours of the morning. But on Thursday, June 12, the callers, orchestrated by the police security branch (SB) from behind their bomb-proof partition on the top floor of Loop Street police station, arrived in person. Another State of Emergency was about to be declared.

For Joan and Peter Kerchhoff the bang on the front door came at 12.30 am. Three police officers searched the house and garden (even the drains) for over two hours and then detained Peter under the Internal Security Act. When Joan tried to phone friends, she discovered the line had been cut. That day a suspiciously large number of post office vans were observed on the streets.

Teacher Dennis Dickson was detained at home at 3.00 am and after an anxious journey via Thornville ended up at Plessislaer in a cell with criminals. Station Commander Joshua Gwala, recognising him as a political prisoner, moved him into his own cell. He slept on the floor, but had a Bible and read the psalms, which ‘became very meaningful and kept me sane.’ The late Lyov Hassim, a student with the socialist Forward Youth, was picked up on Friday morning. Arriving at New Prison, he heard the voice of Peter Kerchhoff, who shouted out the names of other detainees: A.S. Chetty, Vasu Chetty, Frans Ngcamu, Vis Naidoo and Chota Motala …

Yusuf Bhamjee, then a university researcher, says that 12 June was always etched in his thoughts as it was his late wife Sabera’s birthday. She was working in Durban and was puzzled why her husband had not phoned ‘as we were very punctual about our special days’. Neither she nor Yusuf’s extended family could find any trace of him, so she rushed back to Pietermaritzburg and established in the late afternoon that ‘I was in solitary at Alexandra Road police station’.

Lecturer Mike Hart was woken by police climbing over his gate. He hoped his old bull terrier would ‘spook the spooks, but the bloody dog slept through the whole performance’. The police found Marx for Beginners, but not some banned literature ‘hidden under the cushion of the couch they were sitting on’. In the house they discovered three young refugees from Imbali, one of whom had some ANC literature, ‘which excited the SB enormously’. Hart recalls speculation about why some police raids were carried out unusually late: ‘The joke went around that they had raided Yunus Carrim early and that he had kept them talking’.

By late that Thursday morning it was known that about 40 detainees were held at the New and Women’s prisons and police stations. They included a number of university staff and students, and after a massively attended protest meeting a group of St Joseph’s Scholasticate seminarians decided to march to town in support of detainee Theo Kneifel (later deported.) They were arrested at Woodburn. No one was quite sure how many there were, but the answer came at supper time: Howick police station phoned for twenty sets of cutlery. Bizarrely, three lecturers waving to the detained students through a window were also arrested.

The worst fear of all anti-apartheid activists was disappearance. Yusuf Bhamjee said on release that one consolation was the knowledge that this was Pietermaritzburg and his whereabouts would be carefully monitored. Information was protection. The police knew full well that a database of detainee details was quickly compiled at the university (this would be communicated regularly via telex to Amnesty International in London for the next four years.) What they did not know was that there was a second, abbreviated database on another computer. The main information gatherers were the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness, Radley Keys of the Progressive Federal Party, and John Aitchison and Vaughn John at the Centre for Adult Education. Most members of the Detainees Support Committee found themselves guests of the State, undergoing a spot of involuntary fieldwork.

The dirty tricks department of the SB soon sprang into action. On the Thursday night a bogus pamphlet on a fake UDF letterhead urging Congress of South African Trade Union members to join a Soweto Day stayaway and collect their pay at five private addresses was distributed in Sobantu. Young comrades, suspicious of unknown men distributing leaflets at night, collected as many as possible and destroyed them. But the following day bundles were thrown out of a car in the city centre. MP for Pietermaritzburg North, Graham McIntosh, was a few days later to read out the five names on the pamphlet and many others under parliamentary privilege in order to get detainees’ details into the public domain.

Over the weekend, Joan Kerchhoff was told that a Sergeant Naudé had phoned to say that her husband had suffered a heart attack. She rushed to Grey’s Hospital where ICU had no knowledge of the patient, who was perfectly healthy and in his cell. The family of Joe Vawda had a similar experience. Other, possibly apocryphal, stories did the rounds: a domestic worker was detained after exuberantly announcing in a Scottsville street that she had been given a holiday on Soweto Day. Another rumoured detainee was someone who had placed an advertisement in the Natal Witness challenging President P.W. Botha to free political prisoners. The advert is real enough.

As Colin Gardner pointed out at the time, South Africa was one big prison. It was a stressful period, whether inside or outside formal prison walls: eating, sleeping and concentration all suffered. Ironically, detainees at New Prison held a commemorative meeting on Soweto Day, something that was banned outside. The pattern of detentions was erratic, adding to the tension. The SB had been ordered to clear up their backyards and applied personal prejudice and outdated information. The military police added to the confusion, pulling in members of the End Conscription Campaign. Most of the high-profile detainees of 12 June were out within fourteen days, but Peter Kerchhoff and A.S. Chetty were held for 96 days and other detainees were released only in May 1987.

Mary Kleinenberg vividly remembers the visible and intimidating presence of the police: ‘Freedom from this tyranny seemed very far off, possibly not in my lifetime.’ It was hard for anyone to believe otherwise. But as Colin Gardner remarks, ‘in retrospect, it is quite clear that the State of Emergency was the desperate act of a regime that had begun to sense it was on the way out’.

  • South Africa was already a police state, so why was a State of Emergency in mid-1986 necessary? Most importantly, all members of the security forces were granted detention powers that allowed mass arrests and officials were indemnified from any repercussions. The government would have preferred to declare unrest areas, but the Public Safety Amendment Bill was temporarily held up by the Indian and coloured Houses of Delegates and Representatives of the tri-cameral parliament. Under the Public Safety Act of 1953, four sets of emergency regulations were issued covering security, prisons, media and educational institutions. They would remain in force until June 1990.

This article was first published in a fuller version in The Witness on 13 June 2011 and entitled ‘The day the Emergency was declared’.