Reliving Detention

For many detainees at South Africa's most notorious police station, their time was marked by sessions of interrogation and torture. Read extracts from interviews with some of those who underwent this ordeal.

Also see a drawing by Clive van der Berg of Joyce Dipale's torture at John Vorster Square while she was detained there, as described to the artist by Ms Dipale. The text at the bottom of the drawing reads: "Drawn by Clive vdB as requested by Joyce" and "Electrical shocks / Black hood probably wet / Torture at John Vorster Square".

DR KANTILAL NAIK: ...then of course a new set of security policemen came to question me. That was during the night. And while I was in the same room I actually heard Mohammed Salim Essop screaming and I think that was probably deliberate to also put a bit of fear in me, to say, 'Listen, you better co-operate.' They weren't satisfied in terms of how I was responding and they decided actually to tie my hands with a cloth and they slipped it down my knees, and between my elbow and the knees, they put a broomstick and they suspended me between two tables. They carried on hanging me like that and of course rotating me. Till the following morning, from Saturday night till the morning of Sunday, they tortured me like that. And by that time they undid the cloth, they didn't use a rope, they used a cloth so that they would leave no marks on me, that's what I learned subsequently. And once they undone my cloth, my hands were totally sort of immobilised and that remained for quite a time, almost till about three to three and a half months."

MOLEFE PHETO: "... one of them just cocked his gun and shot just behind my ear. Now at the time I didn't know much about guns so I thought maybe it was a blank which I think it was, I don't know. But when he cocked the gun I saw it, then he walked behind me and then he just said, 'Don't you turn your head!' and then I heard this loud bang. Then I thought he's shot me, maybe somewhere I would feel the bleeding because I don't know, I have never been shot before, but no, I was still standing, I wasn't hurt anywhere so I just thought probably that thing was a blank but it was meant to break me down."

CEDRIC MAYSON: "... at one stage they took me through into a room. It was an office. I think it was probably on the ninth or tenth floor, I can't remember which, and there they got the whole staff to come including all the women to come either in the room or standing on chairs outside looking through these clearstory windows and they just started insulting me trying to break me down, saying I wasn't Christian at all, I was being activated by the Communists or by something like that. One after the other. It went on for quite a long while, they were shouting at me. They just wanted to make me lose my rag I think. And then they went out one after the other. It was obviously very carefully prepared and then each time each person went past me they either spat at me or insulted me or something like that."

I was slapped and kicked. That was better than when they covered my head with a black hood and [shocked] me. That was quite scary. They did that about once every second day.

PENELOPE BABY TWAYA: "I remember. I was slapped and kicked. That was better than when they covered my head with a black hood and electrocuted me. That was quite scary. They did that about once every second day. Quite frightening. That was the first week. The second week he would threaten, kick and slap. But even then when I went through that type of torture I just thought that there was nothing more I could do, what would it help?"

JABU NGWENYA: "You know at times they would say I'm not speaking or saying anything; I'm not prepared to speak. It was winter during most of my times, like now. They would take my clothes off and make me to stand there and go get a bucket of ice water, with ice inside and pour it on top of me and open a fan all the time and I wouldn't be able to speak or to say anything. So those were types of other things that they used to do, beat you up, put electric shock, put a canvas bag and tighten it on the back for you to speak."

BARBARA HOGAN: "To give you an example of the extent of the terror that you finally find yourself, I tried to commit suicide at one stage. In fact it was the day before they took me to Vereeniging when I knew that they were going to take me out of the jurisdiction of this district surgeon. I knew that I would be beaten up elsewhere and I knew that I had nothing more to say and it was this terrifying notion that they could kill you for nothing. By that stage, when you'd been interrogation for six or seven weeks, everyday and all day and the real nasties had started I just lost all sense of proportion. I know now why people commit suicide. For me it was absolutely clear, this was my way out. I stole tablets without them knowing it. I first tried to cut my wrists by sharpening the end of my toothpaste tube, you know it's made out of aluminium, and that wasn't strong enough to get to my vein. I'd tied a thing around my neck, very tight, and at that stage, it was after the assaults, they'd been forced to give me a bed because of the district surgeon. So I had a bed with iron bars at the back and I tied whatever I'd tied around my neck to the iron bars so that I wouldn't be able to release myself. So I was virtually choking and I hoped then that I would suffocate myself while being under sedation. The next morning I woke up and I was alive so I must have managed to rip the thing off my neck. That was the lowest moment in my life."



Tymon Smith, interview with Dr Kantilal Naik, March 8, 2007

Tymon Smith, interview with Molefe Pheto, May 22, 2007

Tymon Smith, interview with Barbara Hogan, April 14, 2007

Tymon Smith, interview with Jab Ngwenya, May 22, 2007

Tymon Smith, interview with Penelope Baby Tyawa, May 26, 2007

Tymon Smith, interview with Cedric Mayson, March 8, 2007


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