John R. Schlapobersky, When They Came for Me: The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2021)

IN John Schlapobersky’s case they came on Friday 13 June 1969 in the middle of a lecture at Wits University. He was to spend 55 days in detention under section 6 of the Terrorism Act, which was the foundation of South Africa’s police state and often described as the gateway to hell. During those days he kept a diary on toilet paper and in his bible with a purloined police pen. Fifty years later after a distinguished career as a group psychotherapist for the traumatised victims of torture and political violence he has written up his experiences.

Perhaps the most shocking part of his tale is that Schlapobersky was simply a very active student with liberal views engaged in various youth and arts projects. Neither he nor his family had ever been involved in any notably illegal or overtly political activity. They were a left-leaning Jewish family that lived in Swaziland to escape the stifling grip of apartheid and mixed with black friends. Indeed, the State’s eventual dilemma was what to do with Schlapobersky because the most serious offence with which he could be charged was possession of banned books.

Within a few hours Schlapobersky was removed from normal life, effectively disappeared, into days of interrogation and sleep deprivation at Compol in Pretoria during which he was forced to stand on a brick. He was interrogated by three teams of two, often with an audience of amused police spectators. Talking to the brick was a way of maintaining his sanity.

One team comprised the notorious T.J. (Rooi Rus) Swanepoel later known in June 1976 as the butcher of Soweto and his sidekick J.B. Richter. A second was more mannered and interested in intellectual matters while the third was from Durban and seemingly more easy-going. It was the classic bad cop, good cop interrogation technique refined by training by the French in psychological torture. Swanepoel frequently appears in detainees’ accounts from the 1960s and 1970s and Schlapobersky gives a particularly vivid account of this odious, truly evil man. He admits to harbouring murderous feelings towards these men; unsurprising since simply reading about them half a century later and knowing that they escaped justice evokes intense anger.  

All detainees faced the problem of how much information to give and when. But equally challenging was the situation in which there was genuinely none to give. This was highly suspicious to the minds of the police security branch which functioned along pre-determined lines. In Schlapobersky’s case a project in which he was involved in Swaziland was regarded as suspect together with black friends he had made. Eventually the police decided he was no communist, nor a dangerous underground operative, but mad. By the end of his experience of their hospitality he was certainly psychotic.

He was 21 years old and in the grip of a system that placed him at the total mercy of the security branch. Lawyers and the courts were beyond his reach and for two weeks no one had any news of him. He had two slight advantages over the system. His interrogators believed misguidedly that he could not understand Afrikaans which they used among themselves. And then he had his stolen pen. But exhaustion after five days with no rest produced the inevitable collapse which included walking into walls which the police apparently found amusing. Two doctors who examined him behaved in ways that should have had them struck off.

The rest of his detention was spent in the cells at Pretoria Local in solitary, another form of torment. His toilet paper diary was discovered but he continued writing as a way to cope with the security police. Singing was also a consolation and featured, appropriately enough, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ He came to believe he would be killed in prison; the apparent signal being razor blades left in the bathroom. He did, however, have one other advantage: resourceful parents who were able to exploit the fact that the police had made a massive mistake and that their son had nothing of use to them. Swanepoel was particularly impressed by Schlapoberksy’s mother whose first language was Afrikaans.

His British citizenship, acquired in Swaziland, was deemed irrelevant because of his South African birth, but the Israeli authorities showed an interest in helping and he was eventually removed from prison and immediately put on the weekly flight to Tel Aviv on Wednesday 6 August 1969. He almost missed it because the police had failed to complete the paperwork for his release from prison. Unconditional exile in Israel was preferable to staying in custody to prevent him communicating with anyone involved in what was to become known as the trial of the twenty-two among them Winnie Mandela; or being pressured to testify in it. And the police were glad to be rid of a reminder of an embarrassing mistake

But before his exit there was a further stage of interrogation supervised by Johan Coetzee, known as two-tone because of his different coloured eyes, who was to become head of the security branch. A very controlled personality in contrast to the rages of Swanepoel, he was just as intimidating and was responsible for writing up the earlier interrogation notes into a statement to be signed by Schlapobersky. Coetzee believed all left-wingers to be maladjusted and told Schlapobersky that courtesy of the pass laws South Africa was not Algeria and that ‘we have everything under control here’ (p. 108). It would take only a few years for this belief to be proved a total delusion.

Schlapobersky appears to express surprise that archival files needed for the writing of his book were either empty or missing. Inquest proceedings into deaths in detention had long since shown the security police to be serial liars and fabricators. And a system that disappeared people would have no second thoughts about filleting official files. In the early 1990s it was well known that tons of official records were sent to furnaces. Police states need to cover their tracks. For example, there is no trace of his signed statement. However, the deplorable overall state of archives in a democratic South Africa cannot be entirely ignored.

Accounts of detention without trial have become a sub-genre of South African struggle literature. Each example provides an individual perspective on largely common experience. And they underline the basic futility of the police state. For all its law, bureaucracy and enabled brutality Coetzee’s confidence was illusion. Not only was history against the supporters of apartheid, but capability was lacking. Schlapobersky’s detention was a total waste of time, the product of misplaced assumptions and fears of conspiracy where there was none. There are many such examples of supposed trails that led nowhere significant coupled with the ineptness symbolised by the administrative glitch on the day of Schlapobersky’s release. This made the apartheid state all the more dangerous.

Albie Sachs is the author of the book’s foreword and Schlapobersky reflects on his concept of soft vengeance. One method is very simple: naming the perpetrators of state terror and making sure they survive in infamy. This is particularly apt since once Schlapobersky talked to the British press in early 1970 the South African authorities branded him a liar and claimed he had not been harmed. But history is an unforgiving judge with a long memory. A society that condones legislation giving the police power to detain without warrant in unknown places beyond the reach of the rule of law deserves nothing but opprobrium; as do those who took the opportunity to torture people and shatter lives.