An Unlikely Way to Die

On February 15 1977, Matthews Mojo Mabelane, fell from the tenth floor of John Vorster Square, landing on a vehicle parked below. There is still a great deal of mystery surrounding his death, with many believing it was foulplay. However, the security police, bureaucratic as ever, submitted a detailed report that claimed he had fallen from a ledge outside Room 1008 on the tenth floor in an attempt to escape.

Also look at images of the documents the security police prepared for the inquest into Matthews Mabelane's death, which demonstrate the extraordinary measures they took to convince the magistrate of the accidental nature of Mabelane's death:

• The official inquest document (also transcribed below).

• A hand-drawn floor plan of the 10th-floor office from which Mabelane allegedly escaped, and a photograph of the interior of the office.

• A photograph of the outside of John Vorster Square that shows the place from where Mabelane allegedly fell.

• A photograph that shows a closeup of the footprint Mabelane left on the chair he used to access the window through which he escaped.

• A photograph that shows the damage to the vehicle on which Mabelane fell after his escape.

Inquest: ACT 58 OF 1959

Held at JOHANNESBURG in the district of JOHANNESBURG by W.P. DORMEHL esquire, Magistrate for the said district with [blank] as assessor(s) on the 14 day of April 1977, into the circumstances attending the death of the person mentioned below.

Findings in terms of section 16 of the Act:

(a) Identity of the deceased person: Mathews Mabelane, Bantu Male, 22 years, unknown

(b) Date of death: 15.2.77

(c) Cause or likely cause of death: MULTIPLE INJURIES - Sustained by the deceased while questioned by police jumping through a window and walking along a ledge on the outside of the building at the 10th floor loosing his balance and falling to the ground below - Accidental.

(d) Whether the death was brought about by any act or omission involving or amounting to an offence on the part of any person: NO

Date: 30.5.77

W.P. Dormehl

- Report of death of Matthews Mabelane, April 14, 1977, South African Police Archives



back to the Death in Detention memorial page

"He slipped on the ninth floor while washing ... He fell from a piece of soap while slipping."
Poet Chris van Wyk on Death in Detention
Ahmed Timol
Picture: © Imtiaz Cajee, Wits University


The skewed nature of evidence under apartheid

In this lesson plan, learners will be given the opportunity to examine some of the evidence provided during inquests into the deaths of detainees. They will be asked to interrogate its validity, and to identify gaps and contradictions.

Lesson plan (1.16MB)
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
Archive Photo Gallery
A collection of images of the building and the people detained at John Vorster Square.
Audio Documentary
Listen to former detainees at John Vorster Square speak about their experiences at the hands of the apartheid security police.
A 360º view of the memorial erected at Johannesburg Central Police Station.
Remembering detention at John Vorster Square 1
An extract from an interactive DVD on John Vorster Square: listen to former detainee Barbara Hogan speak about the horror of being locked up in apartheid’s most notorious police station
Remembering detention at John Vorster Square 2
Watch interviews with former detainees and an ex-security policeman in this extract from an interactive DVD on John Vorster Square