‘WE do not know how long comment in this or any other newspaper in South Africa will remain free.’ That was the grim opening to the main leader in the Natal Witness on 31 March 1960. The previous day, a State of Emergency had been imposed on parts of South Africa, including Pietermaritzburg. By 9 April, the liberation movements were banned and there was speculation that the Liberal Party would be next. That same weekend David Pratt tried to assassinate Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd in Johannesburg.

Pietermaritzburg was quiet. Protestors, including Rabia Motala and Hans Meidner, held placards outside the Indian Girls High School in support of a day of mourning , a week after the Sharpeville massacre; and the following day eleven Black Sash members (twelve would have been an illegal gathering) held a stand in the city centre calling for ‘Consultation not banning’. But at 2.00 am on Tuesday 29 March at least nineteen Pietermaritzburg residents were arrested. They included Chota Motala, A.S. Chetty, Archie Gumede, Vasu Chetty, D.C.O. Matiwane, Harry Gwala, Omar Essack, Peter Brown, Derick Marsh and Meidner. Legend has it that when the police came for him at least one police officer was floored by Meidner. He was a colourful character, an anti-Nazi activist who had fled Germany and fought in the South African army as an engineer. This would be his second spell of detention: the first time he was held by Greek communist partisans.

The three white detainees were free by 5.30 pm after a habeas corpus application. Colonel C.H. Kelly-Patterson, the Special Branch head, was unable to supply a copy of the Government Gazette proving declaration of the Emergency. Acting Judge Warner was unimpressed when police told him that arbitrary arrest would soon be within their powers. However, overnight a copy of the Gazette was flown up from Cape Town by military jet and the three were re-detained the following morning at 11.30 am. A group of Bergville detainees was also set free because the Emergency had not yet been proclaimed in their magisterial district. Brown later described these events as a ‘balls-up’.

The Natal Witness deplored the arrests, especially the manner and timing of ‘nocturnal descents on the houses of respectable citizens’. It noted ‘a system that grows more malodorous by the day’ and linked increasing authoritarianism with the republican campaign. A letter writer pointed out that the middle of the prime minister’s name spelled out ‘woe’.

Silence fell. Under the Emergency, publication of the names of detainees was prohibited unless they appeared in Hansard or a court record. Only the Liberal Party paper Contact defied this draconian ruling. Alan Paton called for courage at a dark time when a ‘subversive’ statement could earn a fine of £500 or five years in prison. A Pietermaritzburg Emergency Welfare Fund was set up and on 31 March an anti-republican rally attended by well over 1 000 people was held at the City Hall. The proceedings were broadcast to the street outside. But the chair, Senator P.W.J. Groenewald, refused to put a motion by D.J. Sutherland to the meeting that called for a joint council to combat ‘anti-democratic schemes’.

Detentions often appeared to be random. In some cases, detainees were involved in inter-racial politics, but other arrests appeared to be the result of bureaucratic whim. Brown reckoned the actions of the police were unconsidered and inept: they often visited out-of-date addresses.

Brown was to spend 91 days in detention, until 28 June. His step-father-in-law made representations via the opposition politician Harry Lawrence to Minister of Justice F.C. Erasmus and Brown was offered a conditional release, but he refused to accept this while others were still inside. When set free he was banned anyway, under conditions similar to those imposed by the Suppression of Communism Act, until the Emergency ended. He was kept in a cell with Marsh (the local chair of the Liberal Party who was released after two months) and Meidner.

For whites the daily regime at the Old Prison in Burger Street consisted of a cold shower in the morning and an hour’s exercise later in the day. Otherwise, time was spent in their joint cell. Books and papers were allowed and the cell’s occupants read, talked and played cards. Marsh drafted his doctoral thesis on Shakespeare’s Cymberline and in the book that followed acknowledged ‘the Minister of Justice … whose insistent hospitality gave me the time for which I had been vainly seeking.’ Brown tried his hand at short story writing. The warders were wary of political prisoners. One, trying to engage Meidner asked him to identify a flower in the corner of the exercise yard and Meidner, a botanist who would later become a world authority on stomata, refused to answer. It appears that Edgar Brookes somehow gained access to Brown, Meidner and Marsh and managed to communicate something about the situation outside by alluding to his university course on Roman history.

There was strict segregation and harsher treatment for the black detainees. A.S. Chetty remembered being thrown alone into an empty cell and shouted at for looking through the peephole. In his notes he describes the disorientating effect of solitary: ‘I just sat on the floor and wondered aimlessly. Everything seemed to be going round and round as if I was floating.’ It was only a couple of days later that he found out that he was not the only detainee. Interrogation was perfunctory and Kelly-Patterson, who had also served under Smuts, reportedly told Motala that he would happily carry on doing the same job under a black government. Liberal Party members Elliot Mngadi, Franklin Bhengu and others from Ladysmith and Bergville were also held, although it is not known if they were detained in Pietermaritzburg prison.

Compared with later emergencies, this was all rather low key. In May 1960, there were unsuccessful arson attempts on the Bantu administration building in Otto Street and the Matsheni beerhall. Pietermaritzburg’s violence had occurred the previous August with an attack on the Ohrtmann Road beerhall and rioting in Sobantu, which resulted in two deaths and a burned-out secondary school.

For the African population, repression had long been a fact of life. But the events of exactly 50 years ago were a defining moment when South Africa became a police state for everyone. Over the next quarter of a century, one repressive law followed another. And in June 1986 eerily similar events, but on a far larger scale, were to take place.

The State of Emergency, declared in terms of the Public Safety Act of 1953, affected the Natal coast and inland towns and followed the anti-pass law campaign and Sharpeville massacre. It was finally lifted after four months on 31 August 1960. Its provisions allowed the prohibition of gatherings, detention without trial, suppression of so-called subversive associations, and censorship. Significantly, the regulations prohibited the defacement of official documents: the previous week Chief Albert Luthuli had burned his dompas. The Emergency affected 122 magisterial districts (of 265 in South Africa) and 2 000 people were detained, most of them being released in July. But in the meantime, there had been widespread raids on black townships by police and the army and 18 000 people had been held under other laws. Under the Emergency, the State was indemnified from the consequences of its actions.

This article was first published in The Witness on 30 March 2010 and entitled ‘The beginning of the end’; acknowledging access at the Alan Paton Centre to Norman Bromberger’s interview with Peter Brown of 31 August, 1995 and the papers of A.S. Chetty, with thanks to Colin Gardner.