In Pretoria things had changed at court. Our van drove through the gates of the old synagogue. We heard shouts of greeting as we were driven in and knew that friends were gathered outside. We were offloaded in a yard sealed off from the public, because we were now detainees held completely incommunicado.
Here we found Nelson, Robert and others who had been held at Newlands police station in Johannesburg. At Marshall Square station, where we had been held, it seemed there were only whites, coloureds, Indians and African women. African men had been held in the Newlands police cells. We also found at court ten innocents among the accused who had brought themselves to court the previous day, surprised to find the rest of us missing. They had come free but they left in police custody, all except one, Wilton Mkwayi, who had actually been pushed aside by the police and told to get out. He did ”” right out of South Africa ”” for a time. But he did return and now serves his life sentence in a maximum-security prison with the Rivonia accused.
We heard with amusement of the court scene the previous day, with only ten of the accused present and no witness. The judges had not been informed and the court officials and prosecution knew nothing. It must have been a hilarious scene. The court dignity was affronted and the judges felt insulted, demanding information and the presence of all the accused and the witness. Chief Luthuli. A placatory prosecution team apologised and undertook to remedy the matter. The defence counsel and the judges, too, remained unmoved and the court had to be adjourned ”” for lack of accused. We laughed at this but we did not laugh at Nelson's account of the treatment in the Newlands police station. To think of naked power, of man's brutality to man, is always horrifying. To hear of its exercise against your friends, is worse, to know that you yourself have been saved from it by your white skin, is the worst of all.
In the Newlands cells, fifty detainees had been locked up for the rest of the night, after their arrest at one o'clock in the morning, in a yard open to the sky and lit by one electric bulb. It was so small they could only stand and were given neither food nor blankets. In the morning they were taken to a cell, about eighteen feet square, with sanitation only from a drainage hole in the floor, flushed at the whim of the policeman in charge. Food, even drinking water, came only at three o'clock in the afternoon, twelve hours after the men had been brought to the cells. It was soft, thin, sour mealie porridge ”” to be eaten with hands that had not been washed all day. But to the hungry men it was food and it was eaten. At 6 p.m. it came again with some dirty blankets, considered good enough for any arrested black man.
At 8 p.m. they, like us, went through the farce of release and re-arrest, one by one and then back to the filth and stench of the cell. They came to court next morning, still unwashed, packed like sardines in a police truck, to their trial in a formal court of law.
The court battle was still going on. The judges ruled that the trial should be adjourned until 19 April, nearly three weeks ahead. We climbed back into the prison van and were driven to the Pretoria local gaol, where Leon and all the black men got out. Lilian and I were taken a little further to a large stone building, which we learnt was the Pretoria Central gaol.
We felt terribly alone, the two of us, rattling around in that huge van; we knew we should be separated, white from black, but apart from that we did not know what our conditions would be for the next nineteen days. As we climbed out, Lilian burst out bitterly, "You are better off with your pink skin!" It was true. Her words have remained with me and there was nothing I could say or do.
Yet we were not entirely separated after all. Our cells were on the same row, high up under the roof but open to the rafters, except for wire netting stretched across the top of each cell. There were some other black prisoners in these punishment cells and we quickly learnt how sometimes to shout to each other across the tops of our cell walls.
It was as Lilian had said: my pink skin brought me a bed, sheets, blankets. The mattress was revolting, urine stained, but Lilian slept on a mat on the floor with only blankets. My food was better. I had a sanitary bucket with a lid. She had an open bucket covered with a cloth. I learnt to hate my pink skin but I could not change it nor expiate it.
The nineteen days dragged past. The highlights were the occasional books from the prison library, the escorted walk down the stairs to the ablution block for a tepid bath, watched by a wardress, and an occasional half hour in the exercise yard, round and round a huge palm tree which reminded me of the one in my Norwood garden. Sometimes this helped, sometimes it didn't.
Evenings brought the singing of the other women in these punishment cells. I heard their voices during the day as they called to each other, but they were nameless, disembodied. Sometimes I thought I heard Lilian, as she called to them in her own language. The songs they sang at night were not freedom songs, only once did I hear them sing "Nkosi Sikelele''. They mostly sang hymns, very beautifully in harmony, and when their voices died away, all would become very quiet.
After about ten days they left these cells and Lilian was moved away too. I did not know where she was. I was alone then, up in the rafters, except for the wardress bringing my food, putting it on the floor and then kicking it into the cell. Only one of them did that, however: the others were fairly kind but uncomprehending.
I learnt that there was another white detainee there. It was Hannah Stanton, a Christian missionary. It was difficult to imagine what she could have done to bring about her detention without trial, but she had important British connections, which brought relief to me as well. After two weeks we were actually allowed to exercise together, even to talk to one another! Daily we asked to share a cell, but at this time, with no success.
The treason accused returned to court on 19 April, excited to meet again and exchange our prison experiences. As whites, Leon and I had of course by far the best treatment, except that we were isolated and the others shared cells. Robert's account of the Africans' gaol conditions was as horrifying as Nelson's had been of the police cells, and it had gone on much longer.
The detainees had been put five in a cell, no larger than mine in the women's gaol. Their only sanitation was the same as Lilian's, a cloth-covered bucket, but for five people, not one, and standing next to the bucket of drinking water. As in Newlands, they had no toilet paper and only dirty blankets. Their food was the standard black prisoners' food, mealie pap and only occasionally some gristly meat and beans on top. For the first ten days they had no exercise at all and were not even let out for showers. Only in the last few days, after prolonged battles with their gaolers, was there any improvement.
Exchanging scraps of news amongst us, we learnt that nearly 2,000 people were now detained, including a good number of whites, but we did not know where they all were. Some appeared to be held in the Johannesburg Fort. We went into court for argument about whether the trial should continue during the Emergency.
The prosecution had offered to approach the Minister of Justice for assurances that any witnesses whom we might wish to call would not be victimised under the Emergency regulations, but our counsel had replied that he did not think we should accept such assurances as we obviously could not accept the minister's bona fides.
We learnt with sadness that on 8 April the ANC and the PAC had finally been declared illegal. It was also my birthday and Hannah, even before we were allowed to talk to each other, had sent a little mug of marigolds for my cell. I had not known then that it was the day of the banning of the ANC and with it the ANC Women's League. This was going to create a serious problem for the Federation, for the Women's League provided the greater portion of our affiliated membership.
Lilian told me that she was now with another black detainee, though no longer in my row of cells under the roof. Conditions were still very bad for her. We were now supposed to have visits from relatives, but her daughter Edith had come all the way from Soweto on two or three occasions, yet only once had they been allowed to see each other.
I had no family, but had had a visit from a friend, who undertook to let my Norwood cottage for me. It would be better than leaving it empty and there was no telling when I would get back to it again.
The trial adjourned for another week. To my surprise I found that even the forbidding gaol gate had lost its horror for me, as had the lonely cell, for I should see Hannah every day. During the week that followed we were at last allowed to share a cell and I moved in with my few possesions ”” a couple of library books, a pair of pyjamas, my toilet things and a tin of biscuits.
Even in those earlier weeks of isolation I had not thought of spiritual comfort nor reached out for it. I had listened to the African women singing their hymns at night, but I could not understand the words. I envied them a little because they seemed to find comfort in their singing, but I did not think very much about it. In Hannah I found a dedicated Christian who had involved herself in the suffering of others and was now paying a heavy price for it. I could see for myself how much her faith meant to her. She accepted me, as I was, devoid of all meaningful Christian faith, but night and morning she knelt in prayer, drawing my respect, even my envy. Hannah had so much that I did not have, for she was very close to the God I had not dared to deny but had rejected for over thirty years. I knew it was more than neglect; it was rejection of a faith, which I had discarded ”” for what? I could find no answer except my own superficial life values. Yet I could not talk to Hannah about it, for this faintly disturbed feeling was not yet at any level of articulate words. It was barely at thought level. I watched her twice a day, watched and wondered.
Only once did we speak of my lack of faith and I do not recall how it arose except that it related to what I saw as the church's failure to involve itself in the struggle for liberation. I remember speaking bitterly. I think I said that there would be no room for me in a church that could not stand up to be counted. That was all and I suppose it was really nothing but a rationalisation of my own deeper guilt feeling that made me blame the church.
On 26 April, we came to court again to learn that some sort of indemnity for witnesses had been authorised, but neither we, nor our counsel, had been impressed. Advocate Maisels informed the court that his clients felt they could not properly present their case in the Emergency but that if the Court ordered the trial to continue, they must do so.
The court did order the trial to continue and then Duma Nokwe, one of the accused and himself an advocate, addressed the court on our behalf. He first presented our doubts and concerns and then stated bluntly that we had instructed our counsel to withdraw from the case because it would be "profitless to continue spending public money in conducting and defending this case".
We had discussed this in the court interval and had agreed unanimously on this step. We knew what it would entail but we felt that we had to make this stand, no matter what the outcome would be for us personally. It was a bold decision, boldly announced. Maisels followed with: "We have no further mandate and will consequently not trouble your lordships any further." He led his defence team out of the court and out of our lives for the next few months.
I know that I. for one, felt desperately alone, vulnerable, for a few moments. Then I looked at their lordships, for the court had been deeply affronted. I do not know whether they had expected this move but they betrayed nothing of their feelings. Judge Rumpff sat as though carved in stone, watching our counsel leave the court. Then the trial continued as though nothing had happened, except for the empty defence counsel table.
Chief Luthuli was brought to the witness box. This was the first time we had seen him since the detentions and we looked anxiously at him as we had heard that he, our chief, had actually been assaulted by the police when he was arrested. He had apparently been hit across the face and on the head. It was hard to believe that this had been done to this dignified, elderly man, the President General of the ANC, but it was true. His evidence in chief had been completed just before the arrests and he was now to be cross-examined by Advocate Trengove for the prosecution.
In our last discussions with our defence counsel, a strategy had been planned for the period of the Emergency, until we felt that we could call our counsel back. When Chiefs cross-examination was finished, some of us were to follow him into the witness box. We must first give our evidence and then our fellow accused would have the right to cross-examine us before the prosecution took over.
It was decided that I should follow Chief and that Farid Adams, of the Indian Congress, should lead me in my evidence in chief. My task would be to set out our policy and to deny the allegations in the Crown's opening address, as Farid took me through the points, one by one. It would take time, but in the present circumstances, time did not matter. It was an enormous responsibility for me, but I saw it as a very great honour.
Nelson took over the battle of gaol conditions, demanding proper consultation facilities, which now ought to include Leon, Lilian and me, and should no longer be held in a dingy cell with no toilet facilities available. The court was requested to see that proper arrangements were made for us for the preparation of our defence.
We went back to gaol that day, uplifted by our defiance and the impact we had made, not only on the court, but on the authorities and on South Africa, yet also sobered by the implications of what we had taken on. I carried a copy of the Crown's opening address under my arm when I returned to the women's gaol and through the routine search of my person. Then I joined Hannah in our cell where she was waiting for me to tell her the events of the day. Even though I went only to court, I was Hannah's link with the outside world.
Our trial limped on again as Advocate Trengove returned to his cross-examination of Chief Luthuli. On the way back to the gaol, and coming down in the mornings, we sat together in the cab of the prison van. Because I was a white woman, I was not allowed to sit with the black accused, although we all sat together in court. We had insisted that Chief must also ride in front and not in the bumpy back of the van. His health was still precarious after his long illness and history of heart disease.
At first I was shy of talking to him, especially in the presence of the police driver, but gradually we were able to relax. Those brief moments became for me precious moments and then cherished memories, even though we could not talk of the things that were important to us.
We heard that the other white detainees still held in the Johannesburg gaol might soon be coming to join us in Pretoria. Hannah and I became aware of much bustling and gaol preparation. Two very large interleading dormitories were being prepared for all the women, one for sleeping, with twenty-two beds, and the other for communal living, with a stove, a sink, tables and chairs, even table tennis for our entertainment. There was also a triple-seated loo with only half doors.
Hannah and I were taken to view the new accommodation. Even the mattresses, bedding and pillows were new. We had become accustomed to our shabby existence in the death cell (for that was what we had discovered it to be), with Horace, the black gaol cat, lent to us every night to protect us from rat visitations. We wondered how we should fit in with so many other women. I was sure they would love Hannah ”” who could help it? ”” but I wasn't so sure about myself. However, the grapevine assured me that I should find some friends amongst the newcomers.
They came, these women detainees, excited, high-powered and triumphant over their defiant stand against being moved from Johannesburg. Almost all of them had to leave young children when they were arrested and in Pretoria they would be further from their families. They had physically refused to move and had been carried or dragged to the waiting prison transport. I don't think they were handled very gently, but surprisingly they were not charged with failure to obey prison orders. Hannah and I felt apologetic that we had never thought of defiance.
I had a warm and loving reunion with several friends. We sorted ourselves out and chose our beds, Hannah and I in a corner, she because she wanted a quiet spot for her prayers and I because I wanted to be near her.
Our privileged position as whites, even in gaol, was brought home to me more than ever by these amazing arrangements for our living quarters during detention. I knew that nothing like this would be provided for black detainees. It had to be accepted because there was no way to reject it. It was yet another example of the unjust racial disparity, which was to haunt me throughout my life, especially when it touched me as personally as it did then. I had to go to court every day to meet my friends, my fellow accused, knowing that my conditions in gaol were so much better than theirs. Lilian had indeed spelt it out ”” I was better off with my pink skin.
It became a strange life for me because I was away from the gaol every day at court, then again in the evenings for consultation and briefing with the other accused in preparation for my rapidly approaching entry into the witness box. Chief's cross-examination ordeal would not go on much longer. It had been a very harsh experience for him even though he was now limited to two hours a day on medical grounds. I sat with him only on the morning journey but I could see that he was physically exhausted; conserving what was left of his strength for the strain of Trengove's relentless cross-examination. I was becoming more and more nervous at what I might have to face: I tried desperately to give enough time to preparing my evidence, which was going to cover so much Congress history.
Our briefing sessions were extraordinary, totally against normal prison routine and regulations. After the four o'clock lock-up time, a gaol is completely locked up and there is no coming or going of any sort. The section keys are locked away for the night and I doubted whether even fire would bring them out again before morning. Yet here was I. being taken right out of the women's gaol at half past five and driven down to the men's gaol, accompanied by a security branch detective of course. I was escorted into what would normally have been the visitors' side of the prison visiting room. There, on the other side of the bars and the wire grill, would be Farid Adams with his typewriter, and Nelson, and Walter Sisulu, possibly Duma Nokwe as well, with Leon on my side. They would go through my evidence as I had prepared it the night before, sentence by sentence. They helped me clarify things and although they often suggested variations in the emphasis, they always left the final decision to me for it had to be my own statement. It was a unique, bizarre way to learn political history, but who ever had such illustrious tutors? They were the very Congress leaders themselves. They knew that the value of my evidence would lie largely in its sincerity.
Farid was to lead me in my evidence and his questions, too, were carefully prepared so as to draw out from me the substance of our liberation struggle. The struggle must speak for itself and I must be ready to deal with all the smears and allegations in Pirow's opening address and also with whatever was going to arise in cross-examination. It must all be from my own knowledge, because I would not be allowed to consult my notes.
Much of Congress history had already been presented to the court in our documents and through our speeches ”” on the rare occasions when they were intelligently reported. During these weeks of preparation I lived with the trial record and the opening address, working until late at night, even after I returned from the briefing sessions with the men.
In view of all this it was not surprising that I did not really become a part of the community of women detainees in which I was living. I had little time with them and was absorbed in studying for my evidence. Hannah, however, was totally accepted and loved, as I had been sure she would be. She was a gracious, pretty woman, somehow preserving her simple elegance, even in gaol. Tall, slender, short, curling silver hair above a smiling face too young for that silver, Hannah was then only in her early forties. She lived her faith and had no need to impose it on anyone else. She knelt in prayer at her bedside night and morning, while these dynamic women prisoners, atheists and communists all, gave her peace and quiet, accepting her completely. She had not only won their love but also their respect for her as a Christian.
While they were still in Johannesburg gaol, the women and the white men too, with whom they had established some sort of clandestine contact, decided that their detention was intolerable and they must protest. They must demand their release and the return to their children. In gaol there is only one way to protest and that is by a hunger strike. When they arrived in Pretoria the plan was already well under way, but they wanted the approval and co-operation of the other detainees, especially the black detainees.
Because I had contact with Lilian and the men on the trial, it was my task to carry messages, report on the discussions and the opinions of the congresses. I also had to ascertain whether the ANC and the Indian Congress would bring the other detainees out on hunger strike at the same time, as well as the treason accused.
The women were confident of support but the ANC was not sympathetic to the idea, maintaining that a hunger strike in these incommunicado conditions would achieve nothing, as there would be no publicity. Moreover, this form of protest was alien to African tradition and culture and would be difficult to sustain, especially as the poor gaol food had already weakened the African detainees physically.
Nevertheless, for the sake of unity, since the white men and women in gaol were determined to carry out their hunger strike protest, the ANC and the Indian Congress agreed to go along with them for three days in a token hunger strike. I brought back the unpopular reply and it isolated me from my fellow prisoners. I conveyed the decision as best I could and the women then took a vote on the issue. Obedient to Congress discipline, I voted against the proposal for an indefinite hunger strike. Everyone else voted in favour of it.
The women's hunger strike was heroic and impressive. It was broken in the end after eight full days, by the sudden decision of the prison authorities to separate the women and send half of them to another gaol some distance away. The women then wisely decided that it would be too great a strain on their shockingly weakened physical condition to continue their hunger strike unless they could all be together.
Hannah and I had only joined the hunger strike for a couple of days. We knew that she was to be deported back to England at any moment and we wanted her to be fit enough to make forceful public statements about Sharpeville, the Emergency and detentions. I had been limited by the ANC because I would be going into the witness box soon.
My fellow detainees were all in favour of my drawing attention to the hunger strike by fainting in the witness box but my fellow accused would have none of this and limited me to two days. I did not have hunger pains ”” I hadn't continued long enough for that but my mind did feel cloudy and I was certainly very sick after the first cup of tea, for which I had longed so much. The worst aspect of it all for Hannah and me was that we crept into comers to eat because we couldn't bear the other women to see us when they were so hungry. We tried to expiate our guilt by carrying cups of water to the strikers, watching them grow weaker and weaker.
Just as the strike ended, Hannah was deported and left for England. We realised just what she had meant to all of us and missed her enormously. I went into the witness box at last, in a state of absolute fright. I remember sitting during the lunch break, miserably reading the notes, which I could not use. Then Nelson came over to me, took them out of my hand and ordered me into the yard to play scrabble. I relaxed then and became conscious of the warm support and affection of my fellow accused. I knew that I belonged with them; they trusted me and I must speak for them. I must not fail them.