Fighting for Hope

Read extracts from Carl Niehaus' book, Fighting for Hope, in which he describes his period of detention and interrogation at John Vorster Square, and how police used his personal relationship with Jansie Lourens to break him.

"The cells at John Vorster were painted dark grey, and the floors were black. In one corner there was a foam mattress to sleep on, in the other a toilet. All the windows and bars were covered with thick fibreglass, apparently to prevent detainees from hanging themselves. In the centre of the high ceiling was a single light bulb which was never switched off. At night the guard could dim it - if he felt so inclined - but that merely made the cell more somber without keeping the light out of one's eyes. Although I was tired, I could not sleep. They could come and interrogate me at any moment. I wondered what they knew, what they had found in the cellar, who had told them about our activities. I kept blaming myself and could not get Jansie's frightened face out of my mind. It was all my fault, I should have been more careful. Questions and self-reproach engulfed me like a whirlwind. The security police knew full well what was going on in my quiet sombre cell, and they waited. The time for interrogation would come sooner or later. They came during the night. I had expected raised voices and insults, not their cold aloofness. The interrogation room was sparsely furnished with a wooden table, stained with coffee and water rings, and three chairs in a row on one side of the table. They told me to sit down and asked whether I was willing to co-operate. Captain Van Niekerk twirled a pencil in his fingers while the silence became more and more uncomfortable. When he looked up there was no emotion in his steely eyes. 'Eventually you will talk; it depends on you how difficult this is going to be.'

Eventually you will talk; it depends on you how difficult this is going to be.

"The days and nights that followed ran into each other and my memories are confused. I was interrogated standing up until my legs and feet were as swollen as an old man's. Back in my cell, my self-interrogation began. My self-reproach was so intense that I wished the next interrogation session would begin. Obed and Catherine, who had sometimes helped to distribute pamphlets, had also been arrested. Who had talked? I insisted that Jansie and I knew nothing, but they had proof and knew that I was lying...

"Sometime in the middle of the night Warrant Officer Deetlefs came to my cell again. He cursed and shouted that I would talk that night. He took me to his office on the tenth floor. It was painfully neat. On the walls, where other people would have hung their pictures, he had mounted photographs of automatic rifles. He repeated the same questions about my contacts in Botswana, and the people I had worked with in Alexandra. Suddenly he jumped up and hit me across my right ear. Pain shot through my head and I steeled myself for the next slap. Then, as suddenly as he had jumped up, he turned around and produced a tape recorder from his cupboard. Without saying a word, he switched it on. Jansie's tearful voice was singing Die Stem. Then he turned to me and grinned: 'I think it's time you started talking.'

"Jansie told me during the trial how, exhausted from lack of sleep and forced exercises, she had been made to sing the national anthem. They threatened to remove all her clothes if she refused.

"It is impossible to describe the despair I felt when I returned to my cell that night. I did not know what they were doing to Jansie. All I could think was that I had to do something to stop them - but I was locked up and powerless. Every time I almost fell asleep, I heard Jansie's voice again and woke up with a start.

"I asked to see the inspector for detainees. He was a retired magistrate and clearly a tired, sick old man. When I told him about the tape recording, I could see in his watery eyes behind his thick-rimmed spectacles that he did not believe me. He did not even open his bulky complaints and requests book. I complained to the district surgeon about sleeplessness and backache. He prescribed pills which the warders were to give me every day. I pretended to swallow them but kept them under my tongue and hid them in the foam mattress. After a week I drank all the pills at the same time. I am not sure whether it really was a suicide attempt - in my despair I was unable to think clearly. All I thought about was that if I died there would be an investigation and they would have to release Jansie. Should I merely become ill, they would have to take me to hospital and then I could ask the doctors, who were not under the control of the security police, to help Jansie."

- Niehaus, C, Fighting for Hope, Human & Rousseau, 1993, pp. 108-111


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)
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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