Raymond Suttner: My arrest 40 years ago, one year before Soweto uprising in 1975

My arrest 40 years ago today, one year before Soweto uprising in 1975

On 17 June 1975 I was first arrested. Below is a description of that arrest in 1975, taken from my book Inside Apartheid’s Prison, published in 2001 (available on the internet from some book outlets. The overseas publisher was Ocean press, who still market it but local co-publisher UKZN press stopped distributing it some years ago, although it is still in print).
In Police Hands

IT WAS what every political activist dreaded, and it happened to me at about 10pm on June 17, 1975. The police had blocked the driveway of my home — and momentarily I did not realize who they were. I took out a cosh to protect myself, but after the police surrounded me and identified themselves, I threw it in the back of the car. They wanted my car in the garage, but would not let me switch on the ignition. I sat at the wheel as they pushed it into the garage.

There were about 30 of them, and they immediately set to work searching through my private belongings.
For some hours, I had been posting illegal political pamphlets in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. I was thoroughly exhausted. I just wanted to get to bed and rest — I had just been pleasantly anticipating a bath and the sleep I needed so badly.

The preceding months had been very stressful. I had been preparing a special edition of 10,000 copies of the underground pamphlet Vukani!/Awake!, including a translation of the Freedom Charter into Zulu. Each copy of the newspaper had to be painstakingly produced then inserted into an envelope. And each of these had to be stamped and secretly posted.

My routine had been to give my lectures at Natal University, Durban and then drive home to sit at the typewriter, operate my duplicating machine or prepare envelopes and put them in suitcases. I would get to sleep very late and repeat the same routine the next day.

Now, I was in police hands. This intrusion into my privacy was to become characteristic of my life as a political prisoner for the long years to follow. From the moment I was arrested, there was nothing about me that the state did not want to know or have access to. There was nothing I could shut away from the police and say this is “not your business.” The law now gave them unfettered access to every corner of my life.
One of the police present was Major Stadtler, later to become a supposed expert on “terrorism.” He seemed fairly affable and tried to engage me in discussion about my clandestine activities while the others searched.
The police clearly savored their victory. They had spent many nights tracking down the irritant who had been issuing illegal pamphlets. Now they had me. I remember they made me ask permission to go to the toilet. Even there, I was constantly under their gaze.

South Africa had laws against assault, but they provided no protection for someone in my situation. I knew I could be held for long periods without scrutiny, without access to lawyers or other people from “outside.” Numerous court cases, at every level of the judiciary, had confirmed exclusive access of the police to detainees, even where assaults were alleged. And, as I expected, and soon found out for myself, they did abuse their powers.

The events of that night marked a crucial turning point. From that moment on, I passed from being an independent person and fell under direct control of the South African Apartheid State. In the years that followed, which saw me in and out of jail and detention, I would not be free of police intrusions. Even now — when this chapter in our history is over — I have habits that persist from this period of constant surveillance.

After they searched my house for some hours, the police took me to Security Police Headquarters, then in Fisher Street, Durban. The offices and rooms were bare — because they were used almost exclusively for interrogation.
I had never been in these headquarters before — although I had seen similarly furnished offices at the so-called Commissioners of “Bantu Administration” in Durban, where baldly numbered desks were marked with government stamps.

The Commissioners of Bantu Administration were presiding officers in courts which decided cases between Africans (then called “Bantu” by the government) concerning customary law. They also implemented the notorious pass laws that made the free movement of Africans subject to severe restrictions and criminal penalties.
Everything in these functional rooms was meant to move things along as quickly as possible — with a swift conversion of accused persons into convicted offenders. The furnishings were as bare as the summary justice dispensed here. No one spent much time in these rooms.

Long before my own arrest, I had read and heard about various people being tortured by South African police, particularly after the banning of the ANC in 1960. When I became involved in illegal activities, I knew I faced the prospect of being assaulted, or even killed, in detention. In preparing for my life as an underground activist, I had met several people who had been brutally tortured.

An array of legislation had been developed by the apartheid regime that shielded the police from public scrutiny, and it became routine practice to try to extract information and confessions through various forms of assault. Generally, courts accepted these confessions and refused to give credence to allegations of torture.
In the period before my own deployment, I tried to prepare myself as much as possible for coping with solitary confinement and physical torture. All of this was of some assistance when I found myself in the hands of the South African Security Police. Terrifying as it was, I was nevertheless on familiar ground. I had been warned, trained, prepared. It was terrible, but nothing my torturers said or did was surprising.

Perhaps I am underestimating the impact that torture has had on me; that in “coping” with it, I do not fully appreciate its damaging effects. But what concerned me back then, apart from getting by, was avoiding the betrayal of my comrades and the liberation movement. To be successful, I had to have some capacity to determine events — even in a situation that was so singularly weighted against me. Although I was a lone captive, having some idea of what to expect — and knowing something of my fate — gave me a fighting chance, however slight.
On the other hand, there was nothing in my own life experience to prepare me for the ordeal of falling into the hands of a group of single-minded sadists who, in the final analysis, felt no glimmer of sympathy for me as a fellow human being.

Indeed, I had grown up in a family where violence had no place. And I had never personally experienced violence. But I was now in an environment that was based on, and sustained by, violence.

In 1975 I was a young, very idealistic revolutionary, and I was prepared to die for my beliefs. I felt a strong connection with all those who had gone before me, and with all those who had faced similar tortures; and I felt a responsibility to the traditions of our liberation movement. That is what gave me strength. That is what made my resistance possible. And that is why I did not simply succumb to torture or lapse into despair.

Writing this now, 24 years after my arrest, I don’t seem as single-minded as I was back then. I now tend to see myself as having been rather naïve. All the same, it remains true that single-mindedness was the weapon that got me through.

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