The Old Pietermaritzburg Prison was built and opened in 1862 with 25 cells at 4 Burger Street, and has been associated with several prominent prisoners during its active operation. Commissioned in 1862, with the E-block being the first building to be constructed on the site and now declared a national monument and is one of the oldest buildings in Pietermaritzburg.
Some of South Africa’s greats such as Langalibalele KaMtimkulu, King Dinizulu kaCetshwayo, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and his son Manilal were incarcerated at the prison.
In more recent times, local political figures and anti-apartheid activists were also held here, including Harry Gwala, Archie Gumede, Peter Brown, Hans Meiden, Derrick Marsh, Moses Mabhida and A.S. Chetty.
The cookhouse was constructed in 1872. A dining hall was never built. Instead, inmates experienced “open-air dining” in all weather in an area clearly marked with white lines between the chapel and the “white section”. Former prisoners remember this area as being a common spot for gang fights.
By 1907 the prison consisted of 158 cells. By all accounts, prison conditions were harsh, unhygienic and overcrowded, with frequent outbreaks of diseases such as leprosy, smallpox and enteric fever. Prisoners were also mixed together with minimal classification according to their crimes. Coperal punishment was commonplace, initially including the use of a whip wich was later replaced by a cane. The lack of scientific knowledge of crime causation and inadequate facilities meant there was no attempt at reform of the inmates.
The Pietermaritzburg Prison also served for a period as a temporary asylum. In the 1860’s the colonial government in Natal began to assume responsibility to provide facilities for the increasing number of designated ‘lunatics’ or mentally ill. Buildings at the prison were allocated as an asylum and it was already in use by 1868, when the ‘The Natal Custody of Lunatics Law’ was passed. The facilities initially considered to have a murderous or criminal disposition. Conditions were woefully inadequate , and the treatment of patients were generally mean. It might have been these terrible conditions that led former sheriff of Natal, Thomas Phipson, outspoken critic of the Colonial government and himself held here, to hang himself from the window bars of his cell in 1876.
The Execution Block was constructed in 1934 and had the sole purpose of hosting the gallows and high-security cells. Although there are no confirmed hangings there, records from the 1960s show that information regarding hangings was sent to Pretoria. The Execution Block also houses one of the torture rooms — a room that was so dark that you could barely see your hand in front of your face.
When the blocks in the prison were originally built, the cells were designed to house prisoners individually. However, as inmate numbers increased, it became common for each cell to accommodate between 10 and 12 prisoners, who slept on mats instead of beds. Each cell had two buckets — for water and “toilets”.
Today the cell walls were covered with graffiti of all kinds — names of friends, girlfriends and mothers, prayers, threats, lewd remarks, violent images and carefully drawn insignia. As one walk through the old cellblocks, you will see all manner of graffiti on the walls. It’s interesting to stop here and try to decipher the meaning of these scratches and scribbles: were they messages to each other, prison gang turf markings, a rude sketch or the desperate last prayer of a condemned man?
During apartheid the number of political detainees and awaiting-trial prisoners held here increased dramatically, having been arrested for actual or perceived actions against the apartheid government, with a number of them being leaders of liberation groups. They were housed in The Execution Block. They were segregated from prisoners serving non-political sentences, for fear that they would pass on “revolutionary ideas” and most were detained without being charged, under the 90-day detention law. This law allowed for political prisoners to be kept in solitary confinement for three months and then re-detained at the end of the period, all without being formally charged.
Prisoners were a mix of criminals and the politically defiant, and in later years the Pietermaritzburg Prison housed anti-apartheid freedom fighters. In 1989, however, the prison was over-crowded, in a run-down condition and subsequently closed. During the eighties however, a new prison was built and in 1989 the old prison was closed down when the New Prison in Napierville was opened.
The old building complex stood empty for several years until 1991 when the site was handed over to a group of churches in the city, working together under the name of Project Gateway.
On the 8th December 2016, Block-E was completely gutted by a fire that was possibly started by a lightning strike. The fire destroyed about 70% of prison cells in Block E, taking with it a large portion of the political graffiti. About 500 symbols and graffiti are still legible in block E and government and project gateway is now in the process of re-preserving what is left of the graffiti.
The following short paragraphs are reflections and memories from prisoners that were incarcerated at the old Pietermaritzburg Prison;
“It was the thick mat and a blanket, that’s it. Then your meals, whatever time they were taken, because I was in solitary confinement the meals were brought to you, but before going to the solitary confinement I used to go out there next to the gate. We squat there and then one by one we go to the kitchen, get your plate and then back in the queue again. You squat there, you eat, you finish and then the group gets taken back, you know, to the cells.”
Mr Crosby Mvundla was arrested in 1984/5 for political activities against the apartheid state. He was detained in solitary confinement in the Execution block, where most of the political activists were held at the time, to separate them from the ordinary criminal prisoners.”
“Yes, I was here in 1964, it was in connection with a motor car accident, so I came here. My brother came here to come and visit me. He said, my brother, there’s a policeman who’s in love with your wife. So I couldn’t cope to stay here, I tried to escape and then I did escape. When I came outside I packed a revolver. I shot the policeman. So, I run away to Durban. Everywhere there is my photo, the police are looking for me……”
Mr Zeph Kheswa, detained in 1964, made a daring escape from the Pietermaritzburg Prison. He was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting a policeman and served 27 years of a life sentence mostly in Barbaton Jail. On his release he returned to the Pietermaritzburg jail, but this time to join Project Gateway, where he still works.
“…. I can tell you it was bad. Our families did not even know where we are….and then they take us for interrogation. Hear the steps coming, hear them with that big key, you know, unlocking the cell and taking the person. So, my turn also …. It was in the morning around five o’clock. I was put onto the chair and my back was chained onto the chair… they will give you an A4 (paper) they will throw it to you and say, sing, sing. They are saying you must sing and the song that they want is for you to tell them where you came from, what happens what happens. So, you will write, and write, and write, and one of those people would just take the paper and look and read, read and take that paper and throw it away and say, that’s nonsense. And he’d throw another one to you to say, sing, tell us all.”
Mr Mophlane Peter Ntshoe, detained and held here in solitary confinement under the Internal Security Act in 1976.
“ In jail no work, nothing. Go inside, we were in one room, three ladies, one room, four ladies. Like that we lived. Next morning came the nurse, knock on the door: Go bath’. Took a bath, take your clothes in the bath, and go. Bath and come. After the food comes. Porridge and beans, sugar beans, it would be a little bit. Can’t eat it (a lawyer asked her) why you people came to jail? Why are you struggling like that, husband, children left at home? You all come here’. No, I came fighting my country, my country I want it, that’s why I came “
Ms Muniammah Naidoo was detained for a month in Pietermaritzburg Jail for taking part in an illegal passive resistance march in the 1950’s.
“ I sleep in the barracks there, cooking, everything, doing the washing. The prisoners they are coming to put coal, make the stove warm. Sometimes we are starting at twelve o’ clock. Six o’ clock the other ones, the white ones are coming to open, open…. The prisoners are eating, eating…. Half past seven or 7 o’ clock you must wake up then, because you are going that side….”
Mr Manana was a warder at the Pietermaritzburg Prison during the 1960’s. He remembers prisoners fighting in the open air dining room and that most of the fights were gang related. He recalls smuggling newspapers in for ANC leader, Harry Gwala, when he was detained here, and that political prisoners were treated differently to and separated from criminals prisoners, as the authorities were concerned about the spread of revolutionary ideas.
“….so I’m at the Magistrates court and then we have to get into a vehicle, but the back is full of black prisoners, so they can’t put white prisoners in there, so we squeezed in the front with the driver. When we got here (to the prison), about to drive though the main gates and suddenly a woman warder sort of yells, stop, stop. And, there’s a black prisoner lying. Sleeping in the entrance, we nearly ran over hi,… into the office and there was an abusive white warder who went through a whole series, you know, why was I here. I’d say I’m a banned person, I’d been arrested and charged and found guilty of breaking my banning order. He ways, so you’re a communist and you learnt that shit at university …. was I English? And I said, no, born in South Africa, born in Durban. No, but your parents must have been from England? When I admitted that my father had come from England, he said, oh that explains why you don’t understand the blacks. You know, only they understand the blacks. And final thing he said, go back to Russia….”
Professor John Aitchison, under banning orders for his political activities against the State, was imprisoned here in 1966 when he neglected to make his required “check in” at the police station.
No, no, no bed. A bed was what you talk about in a dream. A felt mat, and a blanket, two or three blankets, a blanket for the mat, and two blankets, you know. Ja, very basic. The food, you know, porridge in the morning, a cup of coffee, maybe a spoon of brown sugar or Ilovo syrup. At lunch time then there was discrimination, the black prisoners get mielies or samp, depending, the Asian, so called Asians in the prison, will get mielie rice with a little bit of vegetables. So, that;s it. And for dinner, they will get porridge again and we will get ‘katkop’ out a loaf of bread, a bit of lard smeared on the bread and about four times a week there was meat I think, two and a half ounces of meat. That was your basic food. And the meat is not just simply a fresh meat, it’s meat lying in the deep freeze for months and months and sometimes it’s cooked this blue/green colour. I mean you might think that it’s fiction but any prisoner will tell you the story.”
Mr Sonny Singh, detained here in 1963 for his political activities as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was subsequently tried in Natal sabotage trial and sentenced to ten years on Robben Island.
- Project Gateway documents and signage
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