23 August 2010

Remembering a darker time: John Vorster Square

John Vorster Square was officially opened on 23 August 1968, during the height of racial segregation and political oppression in apartheid South Africa. It was named after John Vorster, whose notoriety as an apartheid leader was preserved through the grim memory invoked by the prison. Between 1968 and 1997, the austere blue, cement building in downtown Johannesburg became the site of innumerable human rights violations, involving interrogations, innumerable counts of torture, and the death of eight detainees. According to Jessie Duarte, the police station was a ‘true embodiment of the violence of the apartheid system.'

The ninth and tenth floors of the prison gained particular infamy, in that it was not possible to take the lift that far up. Once prisoners reached the ninth floor, they were walked up the final flight of stairs to the dreaded quarters of the Security Branch. Here, many opponents of apartheid were held without trial for days, weeks and months, with no sense of when they would be released.

The first account of death in detention was that of Ahmed Timol in October, 1971. At the time, Security Police argued that he had jumped to his death from the tenth floor of the building, but conflicting accounts reveal that he probably fell to his death while being dangled out of the window by his legs as part of severe torture methods meted out to detainees.Cover of Between Life and Death: Stories from John Vorster Square

Political prisoners held in John Vorster Square were detained without trial. The South African state had introduced this measure in 1963, which enabled police to hold detainees for up to ninety days with no contact with family, doctors or legal representation. By 1965, this was extended to one hundred and eighty days, and in 1967, allowance for indefinite detention was made through Section Six of the Terrorism Act. In September 1997, John Vorster Square was renamed Johannesburg Central Prison, and the bust of John Vorster was removed, carrying with it the legacy of apartheid-era police brutality.

Between Life and Death: stories from John Vorster Square

Commissioned by SAHA as part of the Sunday Times Heritage Project and filmed by Craig Matthews of Doxa Productions, the DVD features interviews with former detainees and security police as well as photographs, press clippings, drawing and other archival materials. Copies of the DVD are distributed to schools, educational and heritage organisations at various events and workshop. Contact SAHA to order a copy.

Sunday Times Heritage Project website: Death in Detention

Despite its murky contents, the story of John Vorster Square plays a vital role in remembering the role of apartheid, especially the human rights abuses made possible by unjust apartheid-era legislation. The suffering of those held in detention without trial has been memorialized through the Sunday Times Heritage Project, with an artwork commissioned by artist Kagiso Pat Mautloa, situated at the Johannesburg Central Prison on the corner of Henry Nxumalo and Loveday Streets in downtown Johannesburg.

Visit the STHP memorial to Death in Detention.

AL3282 :: Sunday Times Heritage Project Collection

The Sunday Times Heritage Project (STHP) collection includes a wide range of material collected toward the Sunday Times newspaper’s Heritage Project. The STHP was completed in collaboration with the South African History Archives, and released during the newspaper’s centenary celebrations. It set out to commemorate remarkable people and events selected from different arenas of South Africa’s past, including considerable research into the history of John Vorster Square.