Tag Archives: University of Natal Press

For the Joy of Reading: Inside Apartheid’s Prison

Raymond Suttner is a remarkable, extraordinary man.   He will disagree with me completely about this, and will argue that my analysis is deeply flawed.   But I will stand by what I have said.   He is a white South African.   He could have chosen to live a privileged life.   He could have chosen to ignore the political situation developing around him.   He could have chosen profited from apartheid.   He could have followed the same path as millions of his countrymen, benefitting because of the accident of his birth and the colour of his skin.   He did not choose to do this.

Raymond Suttner will argue that he was one of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of white South Africans who took the decision to challenge apartheid.   He will argue that the day-to-day suffering of millions of black South Africans were worse than what he went through, because it was their daily experience.   He will argue that he followed the example of men like Denis Goldberg and Albie Sachs, the former spending 22 years in prison and the latter losing his right arm in an assassination attempt.   All this is true.   But it does not make any difference to one fundamental fact – he did not have to choose this path.   He did not have to do it.   He chose to do it.   That is what makes him an extraordinary, remarkable man.

This is a memoir.   It is an account of how he survived two terms in gaol, the first being a set term sentence and the second being detained without trial during the states of emergency in the 1980s.   During his first arrest, Raymond was physically tortured by the security police to get him to reveal information about his comrades.   He did not do this.   But he also deals with the mental torture of incarceration, especially during his second period of imprisonment, when there was no indication of a release date.

For those of us who have never had to endure such a thing, it is extremely instructive.   You simply do not think of the importance of going for a walk or a run, because this is something that you can choose to do at any time.   You do not think of the importance of socialising or choosing to be alone, because this is your choice.   You do not think that seeing a bird, or hearing birdsong, is important because you can hear it all the time.   you do not think that there is a problem in deciding what to have for lunch because, as an adult, it is your choice.   There is so much that you simply do not think about because it is normal.   There is nothing normal about being in prison.   And being a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa meant that your visits were restricted, your letters were censored, your access to news was limited and you had the warders’ taste in music and radio programmes inflicted on you.

I have heard many people talk about the experience of being a political prisoner in South Africa.   Raymond Suttner has made it very real because he deals with the minutiae of daily life in a very small, enclosed community.   And just because you were all political prisoners, it did not mean that you had to get on with each other.   This book makes that very clear without going into the petty details of any disputes between prisoners.

The most moving section is his account of his time in solitary confinement.   This was partly a deliberate decision by the apartheid authorities, and partly the result of his being the only white detainee in the prison.   There was apartheid even in the prisons in South Africa.   White prisoners and black prisoners were not held in the same sections of a prison, even if they did get to meet occasionally because of mistakes by or the laxness of the warders.

This is a remarkable account of the sacrifices that people made in the struggle against apartheid.   It gives you an idea of what the survivors of political imprisonment went though.   Reading it is a salutary experience.

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