Raymond Suttner: Survival against the odds

It was what every political activist dreaded, and it happened to me at about 10pm on June 17 1975. The police had blocked the driveway of my home – and momentarily I did not realise who they were.

I took out a cosh to protect myself, but after the police surrounded me and identified themselves, I threw it in the back of the car.

There were about 30 of them, and they immediately set to work searching through my private belongings. For some hours, I had been posting illegal political pamphlets in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

I was thoroughly exhausted. The preceding months had been very stressful.

I had been preparing a special edition of 10 000 copies of the underground pamphlet Vukani!/Awake!, including a translation of the Freedom Charter into Zulu.

Each copy of the newspaper had to be painstakingly produced then inserted into an envelope. And each of these had to be stamped and secretly posted.

My routine had been to give my lectures at Natal University, Durban, (as it was then called) and then drive home to sit at the typewriter, operate my duplicating machine or prepare envelopes and put them in suitcases.

I would get to sleep very late and repeat the same routine the next day.

Now, I was in police hands. This intrusion into my privacy was to become characteristic of my life as a political prisoner for the long years to follow.

From the moment I was arrested, there was nothing about me that the state did not want to know or have access to. The police clearly savoured their victory.

They had spent many nights tracking down the irritant who had been issuing illegal pamphlets. Now they had me. South Africa had laws against assault, but they provided no protection for someone in my situation.

I knew I could be held for long periods without scrutiny, without access to lawyers or other people from “outside”. The events of that night marked a crucial turning point.

From that moment on, I passed from being an independent person and fell under direct control of the South African apartheid state. In the years that followed, which saw me in and out of jail and detention, I would not be free of police intrusions.

After they searched my house for some hours, the police took me to security police headquarters.

Long before my own arrest, I had read and heard about various people being tortured by South African police, particularly after the banning of the ANC in 1960.

When I became involved in illegal activities, I knew I faced the prospect of being assaulted, or even killed, in detention. In preparing for my life as an underground activist, I had met several people who had been brutally tortured.

An array of legislation had been developed by the apartheid regime that shielded the police from public scrutiny, and it became routine practice to try to extract information and confessions through various forms of assault. Generally, courts accepted these confessions and refused to give credence to allegations of torture.

In the period before my own deployment, I tried to prepare myself as much as possible for coping with solitary confinement and physical torture.

All of this was of some assistance when I found myself in the hands of the South African security police. What concerned me back then, apart from getting by, was avoiding the betrayal of my comrades and the liberation movement.

To be successful, I had to have some capacity to determine events – even in a situation that was so singularly weighted against me.

Although I was a lone captive, having some idea of what to expect – and knowing something of my fate – gave me a fighting chance.

On the other hand, there was nothing in my own life experience to prepare me for the ordeal of falling into the hands of a group of sadists.

In 1975 I was a young, very idealistic revolutionary, and I was prepared to die for my beliefs. Writing this now, 42 years after my arrest, I don’t seem as single-minded as I was back then.

I now tend to see myself as having been rather naive. All the same, it remains true that single-mindedness was the weapon that got me through.

Raymond Suttner spent 11 years in prison or house arrest. This is an edited extract from Inside Apartheid’s Prison, first published in 2001 and re-published with a new introduction on “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media this month.

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