Excerpt from Inside Apartheid’s Prison on JB (Jail Bird) and I


I was first arrested in June 1975 and released in May 1983. In 1985 I was forced to go underground in order to avoid arrest. After that “short emergency” I resurfaced partly but I was re-detained when they declared a fresh emergency on 12 June 1986. My second period in prison comprised 27 months of which 18 were in solitary confinement. What follows are excerpts from the text of Inside Apartheid’s Prison and some letters written from prison, after obtaining Jail Bird.  (The new edition of Inside Apartheid’s Prison, published by Jacana Media, will be published at the end of May, being in South African bookshops in first week of June.  It is advertised on Amazon.co.uk and likely to be available through other overseas outlets later)

As the months went on and on, solitary gradually wore me down. Very many letters people wrote to me never arrived. There was hardly anything getting through the prison walls. Near the end of my period in detention, the prison officials started to worry about my psychological condition. They were not concerned about my health, but worried that they might land in trouble if anything happened to me. I took advantage of the situation to apply to have a pet, confident it would succeed. I had seen how sentenced prisoners were allowed pet birds and I successfully applied to have a pet lovebird/parakeet.

One day, Sergeant Joubert, a warder who was always very kind to me, arrived with this beautiful little red-cheeked parakeet in a shoebox. GF (a gangster who asked to be called ‘The Godfather’, abbreviated to GF, with whom I had unofficial but regular contact, while I was in Diepkloof Prison) explained how to clip the wings so the bird could not fly away. It was then a question of training it. I held the bird and it bit me. I let it carry on biting, even though my hand was very sore, just to get it used to me. After a few days, it relaxed, and spent most of its time under my tracksuit or on my shoulder. It was wonderful having this beautiful little live creature with me. Its head smelt like a baby and it had no one else in the world besides me. I called him Jail Bird or ‘JB.’

We bought a cage. When I put the bird inside, it would pace up and down, much like prisoners did in their cells. When it was time to sleep, I would put a towel over the cage and JB would sleep.

We were inseparable. The bird would eat out of my mouth. I used to buy granola bars and the moment the bird heard me open the packet it would stick its beak into my mouth. When I exercised, the bird would sit on my shoulder. If it was angry with me, it would retreat into my tracksuit, and sit there. If I tried to touch it, JB would bite me.

From letters written after July 1988:

This bird is great. In the first few hours, he resisted my attempts to hold him and bit me very painfully. After a while, he got used to me and liked resting under one of my tracksuits (and excreting very regularly on the other). He is a lot like a baby and even smells like one. He is lying right now, with his beak against my chest. I let him fly around the cell (his wings have been partially plucked) but feel anxious about him hurting himself, upsetting my things or falling into the milk. He is now very relaxed with me and I take him with me when I go down to the bottom yard or to the prison hospital and it is easy to get him back when I let him run around.

Most of the time, he just sits on me. For example, he sits on my back while I ride the exercise bike. He is very naughty – if I try to get a pen from my tracksuit pocket, he’ll take a very quick nip at my finger. I also irritate him if I pull him out to stroke or kiss him. He sometimes marches straight back inside.


Right now, he is under my tracksuit, parked on my chest. When I first got him, he resisted all attempts to hold him and bit like mad. I held him tightly for a while and he began nestling up to me, under the tracksuit. I suppose it is the warmest place around here. If I walk around this place – down to the prison hospital or to the yard downstairs, where there is some grass – he sits on my shoulder.

I went to ‘the gen’ [Johannesburg General Hospital] today to see the therapist and took this guy along and he was quite a hit there. [The black political prisoners held at a different part of the prison also took time out to see the therapist]. He smells just like a baby and I feel a bit like a mother/father towards him, being quite careful to ensure that he does not harm himself in some way. I am also his jailer, in the sense that there is a cage. When he is locked in it, he paces up and down like a prisoner and sometimes climbs the walls. I only put him there when we are both going to sleep. I show him when it is time to sleep by putting a towel round his ‘cell.’

I do not know how tame he actually is, though he seems to relate to me fairly well. He sometimes gets very impatient and bites me. Yesterday, a couple of extra wings were clipped and this made him furious and every time I tried to stroke him, he would bite me and march past my hands and into the tracksuit. This evening, he is also a bit irritable. (I just performed a test – and tried to take him out. But he clung to my shirt with his beak and would accept nothing less than total capitulation from me. Now he is back, resting face downwards. If I so much as look at him under the tracksuit, he tries to bite my fingers.)


The bird remains great. During this cold weather, he just spends most of the day against my chest under the tracksuit. He is fairly tame, but still bites me. I am trying to prevent this but I think he knows that he has me beat if he gets in a very savage bite.

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