Alternating from prison to fort to prison to museum, the Old Fort in Johannesburg has served a variety of unique purposes since its creation in 1893. In an ironic way, it echoed its inhabitants during apartheid. Just as they were dragged from their jobs, families, and lives, and pushed into the role of activists by the abhorrent policies of their government, the prison too evolved to accommodate these new political prisoners. While previously populated with common criminals, jailed activists began filling the cells in greater numbers as more women joined the fight against apartheid. The Women’s Jail, segregated and oppressive, both exemplified and undercut apartheid. Despite apartheid efforts to segregate the treatment of prisoners via access to food, clothing and jobs, all skin colors shared in the poor conditions they suffered under and their common political goals. While the Fort served as yet another way to marginalize and oppress those fighting apartheid, its inhabitants also demonstrated how they would eventually topple that system through shared hope and comradery. Time in prison became commonplace for activists during the movement as the South African government sought to silence those speaking out; to understand life behind the bars is to understand the sacrifice made by these activists, in particular women. We hear about Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, but how often do we hear of Fatima Meer or Deborah Matshoba? Knowledge of these women’s experiences aids our understanding of the full scope and truth of the struggle in which they participated even when history seems to have forgotten them.
The Old Fort was created in 1893 under the direction of Boer Republic of Transvaal President Paul Kruger. Initially, the Fort was known as the Johannesburg Jail; it housed criminals from the developing mining town. However, in 1896, the prison was repurposed to create the city’s first military fort, designed to protect Johannesburg from British military invasion, giving it the name it holds today. However, during the South African War, the British took control of the Fort and by 1902 the Fort had resumed its prior role as a prison. By 1904, authorities added Section Number Four to hold Africans, as the Fort housed only whites. Number Four would later hold leading activists, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress. Nelson Mandela, considered too influential to be housed with black prisoners, would be jailed at the Fort with white prisoners. In 1910, the Women’s Jail was built to hold women of all races, although with segregation present. The prison held both common law and political prisoners. Many women found themselves imprisoned here after protests against pass laws in 1958 or the declaration of the State of Emergency in 1960. In 1976, following the Soweto Uprising, women were held at the jail without trial under “indefinite preventative detention.” As resistance against apartheid grew during the 20th century, the number of political prisoners housed at the Fort grew with it.
During apartheid, the prison typically held those in indefinite detention or activists awaiting trials who would later serve their sentences in other long-term prisons. The prison complex practiced abuse and mistreatment, from food being rationed by racial group to disease-ridden, crammed quarters. In 1959, a typhoid outbreak exposed the gross conditions prisoners suffered under. However, conditions would not improve from this event, but worsen. By 1983, the prison had become derelict and inadequate; with the creation of a new prison, the Fort was closed in 1983, a century after its creation. In 2004, a decade after South Africa became a democracy, the site became the Constitutional Court for the new government. Previously known as the “Robben Island of Johannesburg,” Judge Albie Sachs asserted that the prison now “dramatized the transformation of South Africa from a racist, authoritarian society to a constitutional democracy. A more South African center of repression and hope could not have been found.” While the Fort was demolished to become the court, the Women’s Jail became a museum honoring the women who suffered behind its walls.
Women’s prisons, like the men’s, were absent of dignity and health. However, in addition to typical problems like inadequate food or mistreatment, women often experienced gender-based violence. Frequently, women were jailed with their children or ripped away from them and barred from contact. While they shared many common problems with their men counterparts, their unique status as women created a unique plight for those in prison.
Being a woman opened one up to unique abuses and indignities. Sexual violence became prevalent among female prisoners. Following the end of apartheid, the new South African government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which sought to allow victims of human rights violations to describe their experiences. At one of these hearings, Dr. Sheila Meintjies spoke on women’s experiences, describing horrific examples of sexual violence and torture in the jails against women and girls as young as fourteen. She spoke of widespread torture such as “assault, electric shocks on pregnant women, inadequate care leading to miscarriages, … teargassing, of solitary confinement, of body searches and vaginal examinations, we talk of rape and forced intercourse with other prisoners, foreign objects, including rats, being pushed into women’s vaginas.” Rape and other forms of sexual torture served as ways for those in power to assert their dominance over these women. This fact is demonstrated explicitly through the story of Jenny Schreiner, who was slammed against a wall by security police while in detention for not obeying instructions. She said about her experience, “He was saying, I am in control of this, I am bigger than you, I am more aggressive than you, and I have no respect for you.”
This dangerous atmosphere in South African prisons kept women in a constant state of fear – fear of rape, fear of bodily harm, fear of endangerment to one’s children. Prison guards would tell women their children were ill, dying, or had died to add to their terror. Worse, the jails would often harm pregnant women by refusing to provide needed medical care, such as when Winnie Mandela was withheld midwives and medical supplies when a miscarriage was feared. Nomvula Mokonyane testified at the TRC that the prison had forcefully terminated her pregnancy while in jail. The warders told her a fallopian tube was blocked, despite all involved knowing she was actually pregnant and not experiencing issues. However, refusal to participate in the “unblocking” procedure ensured torture that would bring the same result.
Shame and embarrassment often accompanied this omnipresent fear. Many women described being forced to strip naked before warders or guards in order to shame them. Because basic feminine care was inadequate, those undergoing menstruation would perform this horrific act with blood dripping down their legs and be forced to answer questions. Men also faced problems of humiliation, as seen by the Tausa dance practiced at the Fort and elsewhere, which forced prisoners to jump and clap in a way that warders could “inspect their anuses for hidden items.” However, prisons took the woman’s body and its vulnerabilities to debase and ridicule its prisoners in ways they could not with men.
Due to the Women’s Jail’s role as a kind of way station where women either spent time in detention without trial or initial detentions prior to trials, opportunities for abuse were more limited compared to jails holding long-term prisoners. However, life was far from pleasant. Conditions were squalid; waste buckets and water sources sat directly beside one another. Life inside the prison echoed the segregation outside the walls. One received a mat if black and mattress if white. Food, clothing, rooms, work opportunities – all of these things and more were dictated by one’s race. Even warders were segregated; black wardresses were referred to as “Vakashe,” meaning visitor. Within Johannesburg, a city in their own nation, these black wardresses were considered visitors. They wore different uniforms and had to obey all orders from white wardresses. It proved impossible to escape apartheid’s reach, no matter one’s level of power.
Some basic rights were simply absent at the Fort. In 1976, Deborah Matshoba and other political prisoners discovered that common-law black prisoners were barred from wearing panties. Horrified at this indignity, they demanded this right be given to the women; finally, they received “the full regalia every woman needs.” Menstruation became a traumatic event at the Women’s Jail. Those unlucky enough to be on their cycle at the time of their arrest would be forced to remove their clothing upon arrival, including their underwear. Women had to hold their sanitary pads between their legs or be hit by a wardress; veterans instructed new prisoners to use shoelaces from supply closets to tie the pads around themselves to prevent them from falling. Children also became an issue as more women were ripped from their homes in the night and detained without reason; either children would be abandoned or brought to jails with their mothers. Humane treatment was a luxury one could only dream of at the Fort.
Regardless of horrendous living conditions and treatment, women remained true to their beliefs and one another behind bars; in a place where compassion was nonexistent, they created humanity through friendship and comradery. Following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, eleven women were imprisoned at the Women’s Jail under the Internal Security Act at the Fort as part of the banned Black Women’s Federation. This group included iconic leaders such as Fatima Meer, Winnie Mandela, Deborah Matshoba, Cecile Palmer, and others. Despite all in the group undergoing solitary confinement, the activists demonstrated how women supported one another behind the walls of the Fort. Using materials meant “only for drawing flowers,” Fatima Meer created paintings of ordinary life in prison; women braided one another’s hair, played cards, and read bits of newspaper together. Meer hid the paintings in her underwear, passing them to her lawyer to smuggle out; today, they offer the best record of the jail and the humanity created within its walls.
Prisoners bonded and developed friendships through these experiences. Meer herself remarked on this juxtaposition of separation and union within the prison in her memoir, saying “We were all women, but so classified and separated that we could not be women together… We had misunderstandings and differences of opinion, but we were sustained by our solidarity and sense of mission.” They would use their “prayer time” to foster political education and discussion in the yards between their blocks. The group of eleven in particular saw their prison time not as punishment, but instead viewed the jail as an important part of their struggle against apartheid; this sense of purpose bolstered and empowered the group. Meer would frequently encourage the others, telling them “women, remember why we are there” through the walls of their solitary cells. This solidarity provided them with strength that carried them through the squalid conditions and inhumane treatment.
However, this groups’ power as prominent activists offered opportunity as well. While their roles as important activists brought solitary confinement, it also allowed them to demand rights from the prison without risking the same harm as other prisoners. They used this influence to obtain panties for all women and remove the children from the prison. Nonetheless, these women were but one example of women in the prison working to help one another. In 1960, Hilda Bernstein recorded the futile efforts of her and other European prisoners in obtaining better food and mattresses for the black co-detainees. Despite their divide, Bernstein and the other prisoners attempted to aid those she was segregated from. She, too, emphasized the ability of women to overcome, writing, “We are not allowed to sing, whistle, talk to other detainees, do this or that… But we manage to find something to laugh about, all the same!” Despite the inhumane conditions and strictures of life within the Women’s Jail, prisoners fought for their humanity and one another. They carried the same resolve and dedication from their efforts against apartheid into the prisons, fighting against its effects behind bars. They showed their power and great sacrifice to the movement with every new jail sentence.
Today, the Women’s Jail stands as a museum, educating future generations about the experiences of the women there. Fatima Meer’s artwork hangs on the walls, supplying visitors not only visuals of the historical remains of the museum, but a glimpse into daily life during the prison’s worst time. The paintings humanize the cold brick and metal exteriors with the color of these women’s sorrows, friendships, and struggles. The Women’s Jail now acts as a testament not only to the women who suffered under the force of apartheid in this one prison, but for all women who endured seemingly unendurable hardships fighting for freedom in prisons across South Africa. Despite efforts to isolate these activists in prison, they maintained their solidarity and commitment with poise and strength. The Fort and its stories remind us of their oft-forgotten contribution to the struggle, their sacrifices, and their humanity. They help us remember these women and understand just how much they gave for the freedom of South Africa.
This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project
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