18 March 2019

Death in detention: a Human Rights Month Reflection

Death In Detention poster al2446_139024.

Do you know

what love is



You took me

whilst my baby slept.

And she’s as beautiful as yours

loves as yours

but you took me,

took love

when you had yours.



Do you know

What love is?


When I saw them,

My Phello and Gakearesepe sleeping

the day when your released me,

White man, dear God,

You owe me for life

Ten months of love to my daughters,


And also

You have taught me

to hate.

By Molefe Pheto – poetry for the struggle. c.1977

Southern Africa Collective, (1977) Southern Africa, Vol 10. No 10, pp.1-21.

Death In Detention poster al2446_1712

Often as historians we get bogged down by the facts and numbers that one forgets about the emotional toll that is felt by those who were incarcerated and the effects on their families. This poem was in a publication that was accessioned as part of The Netherlands Institute of Southern Africa (NiZA) Collection (AL3293) by the SAHA archival team.  The poem illustrates the anguish and pain in a way that no history book can.

Within this periodical there was also included a list of deaths in detention in the preceding two years. The period 1960 to 1994 saw the systematic and extensive use of detention without trial for political activists in South Africa. Such detention was frequently accompanied by gross human rights abuses, including death.

The Human Rights Committee of the TRC estimated the number of detentions between 1960 and 1990 at approximately 80 000, of which about 10 000 were women and 15 000 children and youths under the age of 18. Detention without trial represented the first line of defence of the security forces. It was only when this strategy began to fail that the killing of political opponents increased.

Given the focus on death in detention and the reopening of cases by families such as the Timol Inquest in 2017 and currently the Neil Aggett case, we hoped to find a complete list of such deaths in detention and the alleged reasons. This search was conducted with some difficulty as sources are varied and contested. SAHA has in recent months also received requests of whether such a list exists. Although a clear singular list of this magnitude does not appear to exist, SAHA has compiled a table which includes how deaths in detention occurred. The alleged cause of death reported and names and dates. This list is compiled from several sources which are cited below. These sources also seem to have inconsistencies between them.

March is Human Rights Month in South Africa and thankfully we have moved beyond the time that politically motivated incarceration and deaths due to torture are occurring to our citizens. However this does not mean that death in detention has stopped. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reported that in 2015/16 there were 216 deaths in detention and that allegations of torture continue. These may no longer be politically motivated however the right to life should be respected no matter who you are. 21 March is Human Rights Day, commemorating the Sharpeville massacre, and on this day we ask that you think of all those who have died in order for our democracy to become a reality. More importantly, it also asks us to think on how far we have come and how far we still have to go in achieving access to basic human rights for all our citizens.