From the Archive | 117 Days

In Ruth First’s account of her confinement and interrogation under the apartheid 90-day detention law, she recounts the cruelty of her captors while being held in isolation. 

As an anti-apartheid activist, Ruth First, who was married to long-time leader of the South African Communist Party Joe Slovo, was a defendent in the Treason Trials of 1956 to 1961. In 1963, agents of the apartheid government caught and imprisoned her. She was held in isolation without charge for 117 days under the 90-day detention law. Craig Williamson assassinated First by parcel bomb on 17 August 1982 in Mozambique. 

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Ruth First’s 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African 90-Day Detention Law (1965, Penguin). 

No place for you

When the visit was over a few seconds later I was taken back to the women’s section and was about to go into my cell when the wardress said that as I had not yet had my exercise time I might as well take it right then. I sat on the ground, my back against the wall, and tried to stop myself shaking. If B was talking, that put an end to my prospects of release. He knew so much about me: what I had gone to Rivonia for, who I had met there, some of the meetings – one in particular – that I had attended there, the people I was in touch with in the underground, the work they and I did together. Why had he broken down? How had he broken down? He had always struck me as controlled and confidently self-contained, unimaginative even, but that was all to the good in detention situations. Could he be reached at all? How could I possibly find out if among his revelations to the Security Branch he had included me? My pulse was beating fast and I found it difficult to think in sequence. I felt as though I had been posed on a high diving board above a stretch of water, timing my take-off, when someone had suddenly pushed me. And in the hurtle downwards the water below had dried up.

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I was trying to control my panic at such unexpected betrayal when the wardress appeared to call me out again. Above all else I needed to be left alone to think and regain calm. That morning there was a plot against my privacy, connived at by the wardress who kept calling me away from my thoughts, and, unwittingly, by my own friends, on our side. When I got to the waiting room Nel was waiting to see me. He had not come for a week, since Viktor’s appearance.

“I’ve come to tell you to pack your things, Mrs Slovo, I’m releasing you!”

The seconds ticked by.

“I don’t believe you,” I burst out. “You’re going to rearrest me.” “I mean what I say,” Nel said. “I’ve come to release you this morning.” “Don’t bluff me,” I shouted. “Don’t tell me one thing and do another. Don’t make a farce of this thing. Don’t talk of release if you mean something else.” “I’ve come to release you, Mrs Slovo,” he said insistently. The wardress had been hovering in the background. “Don’t be like that, Mrs Slovo,” she butted in and took me by the elbow. “Here is your chance to go home. Come, I’ll help you pack.” 

Doubtfully I followed her into the cell but then I was consumed with the excitement of pushing my possessions into the suitcase and getting the lid to close, gathering the basket of dishes and thermos flask, changing out of slacks into my navy frock and coat, giving the wardress the box of dried fruit that had recently been sent into me. Laden with suitcase, basket and flask I staggered through the heavy door leading into the lock-up section, which opened smoothly at the twist of the key by the cell warder, and then into the charge office. The sergeant at the desk had been alerted; he had the book open and was already writing out the liberation warrant. He looked pleased; I had decided that the better warders on the Marshall Square staff didn’t really like this 90-Day detention. They were used to locking people up, but according to the old rules of the game, and to some of these men 48 hours without a charge was long enough, never mind what kind of prisoner you were. The sergeant did not ask for any details: he didn’t need many for filling in the form. He looked to see that the carbon was working, then stamped the top sheets and the one underneath, ripped out the copy, and handed it to me.

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In my hand was a certificate of release.

Nel was still there. “You might have told me 20 minutes earlier,” I reproved him. “I could have gone home with my family, and now where do I find a car? I don’t think I even have a tickey to telephone.” I asked if I could use the charge office telephone and the sergeant said no, but there was a public telephone box outside on the pavement. I fumbled in my purse (which had been handed to me together with other possessions kept in a prisoner’s property bag). A man standing next to Nel, who must have been Security Branch but whom I did not remember having seen before, came up and peered over my shoulder. “Look,” he said, pointing to the corner of the purse, “there’s a tickey.” He seemed as pleased as I was to find it. I fished out the coin and made a beeline for the telephone box outside. I was only halfway there when two men, whom I did not know as Security Branch detectives, walked up to me. 

“Just a minute, Mrs Slovo,” the spokesman said. “What do you want now?” I demanded, and my mind and hearing were alerted to hear … “a charge under the Suppression of Communism Act for possession of illegal literature … “, or something which would hint at that, but he said: “ … another period of 90 days.”

The second detective grinned hugely from ear to ear. In the charge office, I was sickly silent and tight-lipped. Not till later in the month did I confront Nel with, “I thought you said you were releasing me?” to hear his Jesuitical prevarication. “I did release you. I didn’t rearrest you. I left the suitcase, the basket, and the thermos flask standing in the middle of the charge office floor, and stood at the door leading into the cells, waiting for it to be opened. The two detectives who had done the rearrest were right behind me. They did not leave me when we reached the women’s cells, not even when I stood in the courtyard and waited for the wardress to take over. They motioned to her to open the cell door and said, “Come inside, Mrs Slovo,” then themselves clanged the door closed, more loudly than I had ever heard it, and snapped the padlock into place.

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