Black Wednesday: A Prison Diary by Terrence Tryon (The Con), 19 October 2016
On 19 October 1977 the apartheid government banned 18 organisations, including:
Black People’s Convention
South African Students Movement
Union of Black Journalists
Black Women’s Federation
South African Students Organisation
Soweto Teachers Action Committee
The Christian Institute
Soweto Students Representative Council
The government also banned two newspapers, The World and Weekend World, as well as the Christian journal, Pro Veritas. Donald Woods, the editor of the Daily Dispatch and Beyers Naude of the Christian Institute were also banned on this day.
Approximately 80 activists were arrested and detained under Section 10 of the Internal Security Act, which allowed the government to arrest, detain or ban whoever it felt had become a “threat”.
I cannot recall where I was arrested that fateful morning in Durban. The reason being that the Security Police and I had been constant adversaries for a couple of years already. I had been an office-bearer of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) for over three years. I was often arrested, for a couple of hours, a day or two, or as in 1976, when I spent three months in solitary confinement under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, for much longer.
On arrest, the fear and terror hits you in the pit of your stomach. A group of between five-ten armed policemen arrived, at the crack of dawn, with one instruction: “Take some clothes.”
My previous stint in solitary confinement had taught me that your greatest enemy is the fear and terror that takes hold of you. Your immediate objective is to try to control this vile emotion.
We arrived at Fisher Street, the Security Police offices in Durban. Several of our comrades had already been arrested and were waiting there. There was an enormous sense of relief that we were not headed for Section Six and solitary confinement. Section Six invariably came with torture, long periods of confinement and, often, death.
We were a group of about ten activists, and we were herded into a waiting Kwela–Kwela, a large police van. We were joined by the Reverand BNB Ngidi. I felt for the Reverend, a wonderful, dignified and kind man, our senior in years. He had pleaded with the arresting officers to be allowed to bring along his tablets for his high blood pressure and diabetes — to no avail.
We were taken to Modder B Prison in Benoni, 600 kilometres from Durban. On arrival at Modder B, we received a notice signed by the Minister of Justice that we will be detained there for a year. Or for as long as the Minister deemed fit.
We were kept in communal cells, apart from the prison population, with an hour a day for walking/running in a courtyard, and an hour per week in a larger courtyard where a game of soccer could be played.
I felt enormously privileged to be in such distinguished company. From school teacher and activist Curtis Nkondo I learnt some English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare. Percy Qoboza, editor of The World, taught me about life. Dr Nthato Motlana talked about the ANC Youth League, about Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, as well as the importance of exercise.
Legau Mathabatha, Fanyana Mazibuko, a teacher, and the editor Aggrey Klaaste inspired me with their dignity and humility. The Black Consciousness Movement’s Sadique Variava talked passionately about the removal of his community from Fietas to Lenasia and was inspired when conversation moved to the cinema.
Ngwenduna Vanda talked about the Xhosa circumcision rituals and Norman Dubazana demanded discipline in his Karate classes. Jairus Kgokong was planning the establishment of a new organisation to replace the Black People’s Convention whilst Sedupe Ramakgopa insisted that knowledge of some mathematics was important in the bigger scheme of things.
Kanakana Matsena, who was neither a very good musician nor poet, decided, for no apparent reason, to be the resident philosopher. The Black Students’ Society’s Hanif Vally, who later became the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s national legal officer, had illusions of becoming a soccer star.
After about five months in detention there was some progress. The cells were opened and detainees counted in the morning ritual. This time there was a difference. About three people’s names were called out and they are told to pack their bags. I imagine they only realised when they were at the train station that they were being released.
Pine Pienaar, the warder, sometimes thought he was very funny. He would walk into the cell, call out your name, tell you to pack your bags and would then return twenty minutes later to say it was all a little joke.
On the speaker system in the cells we listened to the music of Jacob “Mpharanyana” Radebe and the Cannibals. He did a Pedi version of the hit single Substitute.
About eight months into detention, all detainees were called individually to a private office. A group of security police were offering employment with them in exchange for an early release. This unsettled the group momentarily.
At the end of September 1978, we received letters of renewal. Our cases have been reviewed and we would be detained for a further year.
It took a week or two to recover, but recover we must.
At the end of November, my name is called with that of Diliza Mji. We were driven handcuffed to each other to Durban. We were separated in Durban and I was taken to my parental home in Esperanza.
I was handed a 15-page document describing a five year banning order, restricting me to the magisterial district of Umzinto and disallowing me from being in the company of more than two people at any given time. I was to report to the local police station every Monday morning before 10 am, et cetera.
I received a monthly stipend from Amnesty International. I requested permission from my local magistrate to attend my local Catholic Church for Sunday service. Permission denied.
My family is overjoyed. I am back home.
After 39 years, I wish to thank my comrades from Modder B. The most enduring memory I have of the detainees at Modder B, is the dignity in their bearing. Prison is a most undignified place. Yet the dignity of my fellow detainees is indelibly etched in my mind’s eye. These were free men. We enslave ourselves when we relinquish our responsibility for our actions as individuals or as a collective, to the actions of others.
Terrence Tryon is the former secretary-general of the South African Student Organisation