By Vuyolwethu Mqaba
Vuyo Mqaba, a Black First Land First (BLF) member and one of the 26 BLF members who were arrested when the organisation protested at the offices of the public protector pens a detailed five-part series documenting their time at the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison. Part I is called: Arrest and court appearance.
Arrest and court appearance:
The day was the 20th of July 2016 and 26 members of a then relatively unknown political movement found themselves standing on the docks facing charges of trespassing, intimidation and public violence. Among us were top ranking members of the organisation. Andile Mngxitama, the president of the organisation, Yerushka Chetty, the then National Coordinator, Ncedisa Mpemnyama was the National Secretary for Political Education, and Lindsay Maasdorp, the National Spokesperson. The rest of us were provincial leaders, regional leaders and ordinary members. At the time, I was the Provincial Convener of Black First Land First (BLF) in the Eastern Cape and Olwethu Rasman was the Coordinator of the province.
The reason we had found ourselves in such a muddy situation was because of a report which was investigated by a British researcher who discovered that in the twilight years of the apartheid regime, billions were channelled out of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) and given to various white-owned companies, including Bankcorp (Absa). It was essentially a sophisticated heist used to fatten the pockets of white capital. As BLF leadership, we decided to stage a sit-in at the offices of then Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela. We wanted Madonsela to stop turning a blind eye to the super-corruption that was vigorously conducted by white monopoly capital (WMC). We were quickly arrested and taken to the Brooklyn police station in Pretoria. The following day we were sent straight to the Magistrate’s Court in Pretoria. While we were being transported to court we sang struggle songs, shared jokes and laughed the whole way to court. While we were having a jolly good time, I noticed Andile was glued to his phone constantly typing and making calls and responding to comrades now and then and singing along himself. Little did we know that the system had a grenade in store for us.
When we arrived in court we first went to a holding cell. In the holding cell, smartly dressed lawyers who professed themselves to be Pan-Africanists approached us and told us that they would be representing us. I was relieved to hear that, remember, I have never been arrested in my whole entire life and when it happens it is thousands of kilometres away from home in a distant province that I know little about. They started asking personal details like residential addresses, next of kins and their contact details. I could not remember my brother’s number and that almost plunged me into panic mode. I remembered my parent’s numbers, but I told myself it would be a cold day in hell before I allowed a situation where they receive the news of my incarceration from the system. For me, it was clear – my brother would have to be my keeper for these darkest hours of my life. The thing is, my brother has a deft hand when it comes to diplomacy, so I needed him to quickly liaise with our parents before the system brutally laid the whole ordeal of my arrest on their doorstep.
As the court appearance grew closer, we could not help but notice the technical response unit with berets looking well-militarized and with a constant, almost permanent grim-gaze they gave us. Comrades were complaining about the heavy presence of these police fellows. One of the comrades even jokingly said, “it’s like we have murdered someone here, even serial killers don’t get this sort of police escort”. We nodded our heads in agreement.
As we entered the court room, the first thing I noticed was the press. The SABC and ANN7 were there, along with The Citizen newspaper. The scenario was all confusing for an Eastern Cape guy like myself. Some of my comrades seemed not to mind but for me the situation was very intimidating. It slowly began to sink in that I had stumbled into the big political game.
The judge came – it was an old white woman. She looked at us and smiled and then the court proceeded. I knew it was going down. I looked at our t-shirts and they were written Black First Land First on the front. And on the back, they were written with bold red letters ‘’Land or Death”. When that old hag came in I could almost sense the drastic mood shift from Andile’s face. I guess he also knew deep down in his heart that we were going to be dealt a raw deal this time around. He raised his palm, his face transfixed on the judge and he shouted, “izwe lethu!” We responded, “iAfrika!” He went on, “iAfrika!” We responded once again, “izwe lethu!” He went on again with more unrestrained vigour, “One settler!” And the comrades responded, “One bullet!” At that point, it was clear that we were in this thing for the whole nine yards. That brief moment of defiance in that court room gave me a sense of euphoria.
The judge told our lawyers that we came from different provinces, so she was left with no choice but to impose the maximum sentence of 7 days in prison while our addresses were being verified. Unfortunately for us, our lawyers were incompetent. They simply bowed out without even a fight. In fact, they bowed out smiling and giggling. They came to us looking horror-stricken and said, “the is no case here, the seven days reamendment is simply a punishment”. I was so infuriated with these men. I wished I could jump out of the docks and strangle the living shit out of them. Next to me in court was a very bright comrade by the name of Bongani Sibeko, a Convener of Tshwane at the time and a student at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Sibeko quickly pointed out to me that there were too many of us for a holding cell and that instead of sending us back to Pretoria police station in Brooklyn we would be sent to the nearest maximum-security prison known as Kgosi Mampuru II – previously known as Pretoria Central Prison. He also added that this is the prison where one of the most prominent and leading black consciousness thinkers, Steve Bantu Biko had finally succumbed to his wounds of torture from his jailers and died. It was also the very same prison that sent Solomon Mahlangu to his early grave and many other revolutionaries.
While driving towards the prison, my mind couldn’t help but drift to the sadistic stories of sodomy inside prison. While I was plummeted into a state of despair and horror, I was brought back to life by the sudden halt of the police truck. A massive man wearing a brown uniform opened the door and immediately it dawned to me that we have arrived in prison. To show us that we were no longer in control of our lives, the warders started frantically banging the side of the police truck and rushing us out like a herd of cows being prepared for slaughter. We were further made to cluster before the prison entrance like kids in kindergarten. They asked us to produce our phones and to take off our caps in the presence of officials. I don’t remember what transpired at that moment but what I am sure off is that a warder wanted to beat up comrade Xolani Kheswa and strangely enough Xolani was as cool as ice in such a tumultuous moment. We were told to take off our shoe laces along with our shoes and the warders continued to search us. While all of this was happening, you could not help but to notice the excessive jewellery that the warders were wearing. Gold watches, gold teeth and gold necklaces were an all too familiar. We were led to the prison administration which was predominantly occupied by white males – it seemed they occupied the less hazardous position in the prison while the black warders were left to the more labouring tasks of the prison. We were then asked to produce our wallets. The same warder who wanted to re-arrange Xolani’s face entered the office and one of the warders asked, “are these phones all from the new ones?” The re-arranger responded, “yes!”
“It’s going to be along night”, said one warder. That statement stuck with me like chewing gum on hair. It is going to be a long night! “What on earth does that mean?” I thought. “Are we going to fight for our lives throughout the night? Shit!” I thought to myself. I started calculating in my mind – if we survive one night of fighting then we are left with six days of fighting. All of this depended on the intensity of the fighting. While I was preparing myself psychologically and physically for a prison showdown I saw a prisoner wearing those orange prison. He pretended to be sweeping close to us and I could almost see that he wanted to pass a message. He finally got the opportunity and told us that we should not take out all our money because when we get to the cells we will need to buy blankets. I remember very clearly that comrade Tshidiso Tsimong was standing right next to me at the time and we both thought that the prisoner wanted to con us. In fact, we were convinced that he wanted us to take the risk of concealing the cash from the warders only for them to rob us later.
We were made to stand in the waiting areas with other prisoners. I must say, the place was very congested and suffocating. Comrade Zwelakhe Dubase had a pack of cigarettes with him. We smoked those cigarettes like there was no tomorrow. Suddenly the area we were held in began to potently reek of weed and the scent was so strong I began to look around. I was confused, how did weed get inside prison? In fact, I was shocked that anyone could smoke weed while the guards were roaming around. Suddenly a guard came in and asked as to whom was smoking weed in that area. He had a stick with him, he slowly looked around and finally spotted the culprit. Now we got a proper introduction to prison. The warder beat up the prisoner with the stick he was carrying and after that he walked away as if nothing happened. While all of this was happening, other prisoners were minding their own business, it was just another day in the office for them. These were seasoned and hardened jail birds it appeared. As for myself, I stood there, motionless and horrified. Andile looked at us, realising that some of us were shocked by the event, he decided to give us a quasi-motivational speech: ‘’Comrades! we are in a revolution here, we must expect death in this thing. In fact, some of us will be imprisoned alone and not as a group. We will bury most of you comrades and that’s what we must understand’’. It was an extraordinary thing to say especially in a moment like that. Scared as I was but I could not help but to be impressed by the iron-will of this leader.
We were asked to come out of the room by some white convict in the orange prison regalia. We came out and we were subjected to a spartan routine of having to sit down and be counted like live stock. They called us one by one to give us our yellow regalia for remanded prisoners. Mine didn’t fit well, it covered my hands and shoes – I had to roll the damn thing all the way up. In fact, it made me look clumsy. When I looked at Tshidiso’s and Andile’s uniforms, I began to brew with envy as their prison regalia fitted them as if it was tailored particularly for them.
After we were given our prison regalia we were once again moved inside the congested room. At this point the problem that comrades seemed to be wrestling with in their minds was the possibility of separation from each other. If that happened, we would be doomed! While we were busy contemplating about our separation we were given our prison cards. When I read my prison card, the damn thing had my name and age on it. Which was fine. The part that about what we were charged with was what drove me crazy. It was written we were charged with intimidation, trespassing, public violence and “KIDNAPPING’’. When I raised my head to enquire about the kidnapping part, I could see some of my comrades were also beyond pale from reading this part. A part of me told me right there and then that I must get myself accustomed to that place because simply one may never leave.
We were asked to walk out once again and at this time we were given food. The menu for the day was bread with peanut butter and jam. I had no appetite, but I forced the bread down my throat. I figured since we might fight for the whole night I might need the strength. We were counted once again but this time they were quick and hasty. This time we were told that those who range from 15 – 25 are going to juvenile and from 25 upwards are going straight to the adult section. We tried to argue our case but sadly to no avail. As we were heading for the prison cells one of the prisoners took it upon himself to shout: ‘’welcome to Kgosi Mampuru!’’. I told myself that it would be a cold day in hell before any of these fuckers get to me.
We were told to sit down in a systematic way, we sat in pairs and at the very beginning close to the door was Andile and right beside me was Sibeko. In the middle of the prison corridor there was a pulpit, a strange sight indeed. Like the president about to address the state of the nation address, a prison warder stepped up and began our prison orientation. “Don’t worry’’ he said, “nothing ever happens on this side”. He continued speaking but the dialect he used was unknown to me most of the time since I didn’t know the language. There were fourteen of us in the adult section and we were further divided in half. Seven went to one cell and another seven went to another.
When we moved to the cell sections I immediately noticed something I will never forget about prison, it had a noise that is only peculiar to itself. It’s a busy and confusing place.