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.


Are we unnecessarily obsessed with “state capture” and the Guptas? (Polity video interview, 19 May 2017)

Collapse of ethics in public life: how do we rebuild? (Polity, 15 May 2017, reprinted in Daily Maverick and enca.com)



Many writers have remarked on the qualities possessed by Brian Molefe, that he had gained experience in the Treasury and other institutions or organisations that would have fitted him for a range of high ranking jobs, nationally and internationally. He chose instead to put his skills at the service of the Guptas and in fact prostrate himself at their feet and that of Jacob Zuma and do whatever they required, much of this being of doubtful legality.

In saying that Molefe has various qualities this is not to accept all the evaluations of what Molefe achieved for there are questions around whether or not his time at ESKOM was a success, as documented in Carol Paton’s 2016 analysis (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2016-12-15-eskom-faces-future-laden-with-high-risk/)

What is important to recognise is that the readiness of Brian Molefe to play fast and loose with legality is not at all exceptional in these times, for there are very many people who have traded their integrity in exchange for financial gain or some or other position acquired through serving powerful individuals. In some ways more shocking, there are many who were once very brave who have exchanged their sense of personal pride and dignity in order to hold one or other position. They have been prepared to defend Jacob Zuma over a range of issues where he was clearly misusing his office and taxpayers funds –some deploying great ingenuity to make a case, for what would later be found to be demonstrably false and in conflict with the constitution.

In the political context in which we presently exist speaking of integrity is not simply whether or not someone speaks the truth or can be trusted with funds, whether he or she will steal or falsify the books of a branch or region of an organisation in order to siphon off funds for private use. That is an element of what we identify as a lack of integrity. But what is specific to this period and by no means peculiar to South Africa is that the route to this dishonesty and acts that constitute a breach of trust happen within a context that embodies a patron-client relationship.

For patronage to emerge there must be individuals who hope to acquire the power (and need supporters) or do command the power to allocate positions or resources to others in exchange for their loyalty or support. That means that such potentially or already powerful individuals must be located or plan to be placed in a position to access resources. These may be resources of an organisation or Foundations or Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the state, a State owned enterprise (SOE), a private company etc etc.

This is not a new phenomenon. It was also the case in exile when some individuals could secure better training or schooling or university opportunities than others, by virtue of their proximity to certain leaders. There were a range of other situations where some individuals or networks were placed in a way that enabled them to derive benefits that others did not receive or even do so at the expense of such individuals. The scale of these benefits was obviously of a much lower level than today though it was –perhaps- a form of tutelage for what we now see.

It was also the case, inside the country during the 1980s when some individuals accessed funds locally or from overseas and through these funds were able to secure the loyalty of other individuals. These individuals were often encouraged to form organisations with a particular orientation and those who possessed funds were able to determine whether or not organisations rose or fell, whether they had funding for hiring venues or paying transportation or could supply the food needed for delegates at one or other meeting or to print T shirts and influenced various other factors that determined whether or not an organisation survived on a sustainable basis.

The Thabo Mbeki presidency was characterised by patronage, though it generally did not converge with criminality or illegality to anything like the extent that is found today. It played itself out in appointments as well as the way some people were “in the know” of what the president wanted and others were not, those within the circle of influence being better prepared for or being part of decisions that were made.

At the time of the dismissal of Zuma as Deputy State President in 2005, leading to an upsurge of support for Zuma (culminating in his election victory at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference), some individuals who had linked their future with Thabo Mbeki decided either to continue with that relationship and in most cases these people lost or resigned from positions of power. Alternatively, there were many who saw the writing on the wall for Mbeki and decided to throw their lot in with the rising Jacob Zuma. Many of these individuals had appeared to be very close to Mbeki but they recognised that they could no longer benefit from that relationship and chose their own more or less lucrative survival.

Some others, like the leadership of the SACP and COSATU also disagreed with features of the Mbeki period, notably the Growth Economic and Redistribution macroeconomic policy (GEAR), referred to as the “1996 class project” and claimed to support the rise of Zuma on an ideological basis, as a way of remedying this conservative macroeconomic policy.

In contrast to Mbeki, SACP and COSATU leaders depicted Zuma as a person who was sympathetic to the poor and less secretive than they depicted Mbeki as being.

Many of these individuals knew very well that the basis on which they were advancing the candidacy of Zuma was false; that Zuma had withdrawn from the SACP in 1990, when -unlike in the period of exile- being in the leadership of the Communist Party was no longer prestigious or advantageous. There was no consistent pro-working class or people-centred orientation attaching to Zuma. In fact, until shortly before his dismissal by Mbeki their political and socio-economic orientations had been more or less similar. One of Zuma’s biographers Jeremy Gordin refers to Zuma and Mbeki being so close in their thinking that they were more or less “joined at the hip; they operated as a team and had for a long time”. (Zuma: a biography, 2008, p 56).

The SACP knew this better than most. What they did was use their then considerable ideological and moral powers to project Zuma as being what they knew he was not; so eager were they to get rid of Mbeki. This is what is known as fraudulent misrepresentation in the law of contract, that you sell a product on the basis of qualities that you know it does not possess.

It may also have been that some of the SACP and COSATU leaders understood the inauguration of a Zuma period as bringing benefits for themselves and indeed SACP and COSATU leaders have become ministers and deputy ministers in this period.

In visiting Zuma on us, these leaders endorsed or were complicit in Zuma’s hyper patriarchal and aggressive conduct in his rape trial and the militarism associated with his rule – the singing of Umshini Wam, a song of war as his “trademark song”, endorsing his ethnic chauvinism (100% Zulu) and numerous other features that ran counter to the very basis for forming the ANC (that is, eschewing “tribalism”) and in the case of the SACP, gender policies that had become an important part of its identity under Chris Hani.

The SACP leadership now calls for the resignation of Zuma and says it was wrong in supporting him in 2007. But it is not clear that it has articulated all the reasons why it was wrong –not simply that he has turned out to be corrupt. Unless there is full awareness of the violent, hyperpatriarchal and dishonest character of this period we do not learn all the lessons.

Rebuilding the ethical qualities of South African public life will take time. It is both an intellectual question, deciding what is and is not ethical and a psychological one, deciding whether or not one will act out what we understand to be correct. We have to recognise and choose whether or not to act ethically. Let us hope that likeminded people can drive a process whereby ethical conduct is revived as a desirable and necessary basis for conducting our social and political life. It may be that if the proposed “national dialogues” take off and involve people from all sections of our society, in a meaningful way, that they can play a role.






FROM Inside Apartheid’s Prison: Handling the courts with pride




INSIDE APARTHEID PRISON COVER FRONT.jpgThere is a legal saying to the effect that every person has his or her day in court. If convicted, a criminal usually presents a plea in mitigation and tries to explain why the crime has been committed and to plead for leniency.

There were some cases in which political prisoners had followed this course of action – in line with conventional legal cases – possibly, to obtain a lower sentence, or because they were motivated by bitterness towards their comrades. …

In general, however, or in most cases, political prisoners avoided the mode of legal defence used in conventional cases. Their court appearances were part of a wider ideological battle. And by standing up against the state, the political fighter was ranged against the authorities in a way that was quite different from an individual offender, who had simply fallen foul of laws that are generally accepted as being in the interests of society.

The individual offender tried to escape punishment in terms of the existing norms of society. Unlike the political prisoner, he or she is not challenging the wider social order or the norms upon which it is based.

Different judges might cast varying glosses on the law, but in their oath of office had undertaken to administer justice according to the law. But the actions of political prisoners were directed against that very law – or, at least, those parts of it that we regarded as unjust and could not accept for wider moral reasons.

Thus, it was not surprising that judges and magistrates did not embrace our concept of justice. Instead, they described our actions as ones that no civilised state or authority could tolerate – equating our challenge to, and disregard of, the apartheid laws with a challenge to the very idea of law.

A politically motivated defence tended to be prejudicial to the personal interests of the accused. It made it harder to get out of jail and may have increased the length of our sentences. It tended to make certain types of legal defence impossible. In some cases, in order to safeguard our organisations or security, we had to conceal some of what might have freed us from jail.

There were some things I just could not say, even if they reduced my sentence, because they may have reflected negatively on the liberation movement. I first experienced this while an accused person; and then again in the 1980s, when applying for release from detention during the state of emergency. To some extent, we sometimes aided the process of legal conviction because we were unable to advance arguments to free us.

Appearing in court as a representative of the liberation movement meant we had a duty to engage the courts and challenge the system under which we were tried. That meant attempting to get the lowest possible sentence, or to be released. But the courtroom was also a place where we could be heard, albeit to a limited degree – a place where we could make a public statement in defence of the liberation struggle.

Therefore, I could not align myself with the liberation movement to just a limited degree, and dissociate myself from ‘less tasteful’ policies, such as the use of force.

Some people, in the loneliness of their prison cells, might have found this course attractive – and selectively rejected liberation movement policies that were harder to explain in court.

When you do have your day in court, you want people to at least understand why you acted as you did.

This meant, in the case of people involved with the South African liberation movement, rejecting the labels that the regime wanted to attach to us – such as ‘terrorists,’ and so on. We also wanted the fact of torture to be acknowledged, and that we had experienced various other losses, while undertaking political activities that had brought us no gain.

In many cases, people went to jail without the truth ever emerging. Deploying a maze of legalisms and moralising, courts often de-legitimised what freedom fighters had done.

We knew we had broken the law, but many judges denied the reasoning behind our actions, and thus allied themselves with the reasoning of the apartheid regime.