13 December 2011

Executed political prisoners to be honoured during the month of December 2011

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) will this month unveil a memorial honouring political prisoners who were executed at the gallows in Pretoria Central Prison between 1961 and 1989.

This initiative, as explained by the department's minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was necessary so as to recognise and acknowledge their contribution to the liberation struggle. To remind the nation of their sacrifices, which cost them the ultimate price - having their lives taken.

The Pretoria Central Prison was the official site of capital punishment in our country during the apartheid years. Condemned prisoners were apparently held in a special section called the "pot", presumably because of its condition or type of punishment administered to prisoners incarcerated therein.

As seen on the list, many prisoners were executed at this site, and as reported, the prison gallows could hang up to seven people at a time, allowing for a mass execution.

John Harris, who is in the list, was the only white person to be executed for his involvement in anti-apartheid activism. He was a member of the Armed Resistance Movement which opposed the apartheid regime, and also an active member of the Liberal Party where he was elected to the National Committee.

A teacher by profession, Harris also chaired the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC). While heading this organization, he travelled to Switzerland in February 1963 to testify at the International Olympic Committee that South Africa (SA) should be excluded in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics because of its racially discriminatory sports policies.

SA was indeed banned from the games, a first step in isolating it from world sports, a significant step which contributed to the abolishment of apartheid. Upon his return, his passport was seized and he later received banning orders.

During this time, Harris was subjected to all kinds of threats and harassment. In July 1964, he planted a bomb on the ‘whites only' side of the Johannesburg Railway Station as part of exerting pressure on the government to abandon its repugnant apartheid policies. The bomb killed an elderly white woman and injured 23 people.

This is the incident that led to his arrest, conviction and his subsequent execution on the 1st of April 1965. In 1994, on the day he was elected as state president, Nelson Mandela acknowledged and honoured Harris's selfless sacrifice to the struggle against apartheid.
Scroll down for details of the SAHA collection on Harris.

Another notable name on the list is that of Andrew Zondo, a young African National Congress (ANC) firebrand, born and bred in KwaMashu, a township north of Durban. Zondo was an active member of UMkhonto weSizwe (popularly known as the MK), a former military wing of the ANC, and he was a member of the ANC Youth League - a kindergarten of the ANC.

In 1985, at age 19, Zondo planted a bomb at a Shopping Centre in Amanzimtoti, a suburb south of Durban. During the street-renaming process in South Africa, a broad initiative, partly adopted to honour "unsung" heroes/heroines of the struggle for justice, the main street (Kingsway Street) in Amanzimtoti was renamed after Zondo last year (2010), sparking an outcry from those who believe Zondo's actions were reckless and amounted to murder.

Civil society organisations, members of the local community and opposition parties marched to oppose the name change and lay wreaths at the shopping centre in memory of those who perished in the bomb blast, and to demonstrate their objection. These parties hung up signs that read "Murder Street" on top of the new street sign, implying that Zondo is a murderer in their view.
Zondo was arrested, convicted and later executed on the 9th of September 1986.

The 132 names of these struggle heroes to be memoralised are furnished on the DCS website and their families are invited to come forward in order to participate in the process.

SAHA is in possession of material relating to one of the heroes to be honoured, John Harris (mentioned above), in the following collection:

AL3273 : The John Harris Collection

For the full list of names to be honoured, visit the Department of Correctional Services website here (the list of names).