Read ‘Christmas 1965’, an excerpt from Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid
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Jacana Media has shared an excerpt from Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid by Sylvia Neame.

‘To get out of there was our constant wish and so the escape of another prisoner made us feel a rush of relief and almost unbearable excitement. For a moment, we felt that we, ourselves, had broken out of those four walls. We hoped against hope that the prisoner would get away.’

This extraordinary account of imprisonment shows with exacting clarity the awful injustices of the system.

Neame, activist against apartheid and racism and by profession a historian, has not written a classical historical memoir. Rather, this book is a highly personal account, written in an original style.

At the same time, Imprisoned casts a particularly sharp light on the unfolding of a police-dominated apartheid system in the 1960s. The author incorporates some of her experiences in prisons and police stations around the country, including the fabricated trial she faced while imprisoned in Port Elizabeth, one of the many such trials which took place in the Eastern Cape. But her focus is on Barberton Prison.

Here she was imprisoned together with a small number of other white women political prisoners, most of whom had stood trial and been sentenced in Johannesburg in 1964-65 for membership of an illegal organisation, the Communist Party. It is a little known story. Not even the progressive party MP Helen Suzman found her way here.

Barberton Prison, a maximum security prison, part of a farm jail complex in the eastern part of what was then known as the Transvaal province, was far from any urban centre. The women were kept in a small space at one end of the prison in extreme isolation under a regime of what can only be called psychological warfare, carried out on the instructions of the ever more powerful (and corrupt) security apparatus.

A key concern for the author were the mental and psychological symptoms that emerged in herself and her fellow prisoners and the steps they took to maintain their sanity.

It is a narrative partly based on diary entries, written in a minute hand on tissue paper, which escaped the eye of the authorities. Following Neame’s release in April 1967 – she had been altogether incarcerated for some three years – she produced a full script in the space of two or three months. The result is immediacy, spontaneity, authenticity; a story full of searing detail.

Imprisoned is also full of a fighting spirit, pervaded by a sharp intellect, a capacity for fine observation and a sense of humour typical of the women political prisoners at Barberton. A crucial theme in Neame’s account is the question of whether something positive emerged out of her experience and, if so, what exactly it was.

Read the extract:

Christmas 1965

Caroline had arranged to visit me sometime towards the end of December; she was to be at the Cullinans’ farm from about the 10th. I looked forward to her visit. After our reclassification to ‘C’, which I think took place on 6 November, I had written to my brother Graham and he had not yet replied. We were told on about 22 December that all prisoners had been granted a special Christmas visit and, I think, a letter. I had organised this but no letter came, and no visitor. I started worrying. It was a feature of this time. We received so few visits and letters that we worried ourselves to distraction if they were delayed.

And Christmas was coming. We were allowed to buy small quantities of sweets, cheese and fruit and one or two other items. Early on Christmas morning we woke up to jubilant singing, with various other sounds such as drums. The black women were celebrating. It was strange, waking up to this noise in the usually silent gaol. It was summer and so there was sunlight outside. It must have been about 5 o’clock or just before. In winter at this time it would still have been dark, though the cell would have had patches of yellow artificial light here and there from the lights on the outside walls of the gaol.

That day, Christmas Day, there was warm sunlight and a blue sky. Sunlight was on the yellow-orange-brown brick of the courtyard walls, with patches of shadow under the gutter on the far wall and large patches of shadow on the wall to my right. To my left there was sunlight on the wall that divided us from the black women. We did not yet know what it looked like over that wall. We knew nothing about the other side of the gaol. From there were coming the singing voices.

I got up, put on my blue uniform and continued with my reading of Karl Popper. The only important aspect of my life at the time was study so what better to do on Christmas morning than study? This was a prison holiday, which meant that the first bell went at 6.30. There were not many prison holidays since the Department did not recognise all public holidays. I think there were about five: Dingaan’s Day (16 December), Christmas Day, Boxing Day (26 December), New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Republic Day (31 May) and Kruger Day (10 October). Prison holidays meant for us that we did no laundry and we were unlocked at 7 am and locked up by about 3.30 pm. That was all.

We imagined that Christmas would fit into this pattern. But the black women singing did make a difference. Unlocked at 7 am, we said ‘Happy Christmas’ to each other and did all the things we did on every other day – emptied our sanitary buckets, cleaned our teeth and then stood on parade, waiting for the porridge pot. Then breakfast, bread and butter and marmalade, enough for one and a half slices. Most of us had given up eating porridge. Next we washed the dishes in the laundry basin. Thereafter we rubbed up the floor, cleaned the lavatories, somebody got the fire going in the boiler room. And then we stood around since there was nothing else to do. The jubilant singing doubled in volume on the other side. The drumming sounded particularly good.

‘Gosh, I wish we could join them,’ somebody said.

The wardress on duty that day, Miss Wilkin, whom we sometimes called ‘Pomposity’, stood in the boiler room listening to the singing and watched us as we stood around with nothing to do. Suddenly something seemed to strike her. ‘Dis onregverdig dat die nie-blankes kan sing en dans, and julle blankes kan niks doen nie,’ she said. It is unfair that the non-whites can sing and dance, and you whites can do nothing. The fact that non-whites should have it better than whites, if only on Christmas Day, worried her pompous sense of justice! ‘Ja, dis onregverdig, mense!’ We listened to her, interested, and then wandered off and stood in the courtyard, listening to the singing and what sounded like happy shouting.

‘Yes, yes,’ we agreed.

‘They allow them to let off steam once a year as a safety valve,’ someone said.

We stood around silent, shifting, with the weight first on one foot and then the other, hands on hips or behind the back, leaning against the wall.

‘Look,’ somebody said, ‘let’s urge Wilkin to ask Matron Botha if we can go and watch them on the other side, as a special Christmas treat.’ We had found out that Matron Bester was not on duty that day.

‘They would never allow it,’ I said. ‘Not a chance … But there is no harm in asking.’

And so one of us asked Wilkin who, surprisingly, said ‘Ja. Ja’, and then went off to ask Matron Botha.

A little later a grille was opened for us, not the grille at the entrance to our section but out in the courtyard, next to Matron Bester’s office. Then followed the opening of a grey door and we were escorted into a passage to the left and finally into a room on the left of the passage. We found ourselves in what was called ‘the hospital’. A wardress told us that we could go up to the large window on a side of the room. We did so. The pale green venetian blinds were down and the window was closed but we could see through into a large courtyard.

In the centre was a crowd of black women, some just sitting, some dancing. There were a few sitting with buckets between their legs drumming on the metal base. Some were blowing on combs covered with cellophane paper. Others were dressed up as men with black moustaches and little beards. Every now and again somebody from the watching crowd would come forward and do a vigorous dance which looked like a war dance. There were smiles on many faces. It was quite a scene, especially inside a gaol.

I had a look around the courtyard. On my left, it must have been just on the other side of our courtyard wall, was an area much like the centre of our courtyard with a small drain and tap in the middle. On three sides of their courtyard were rooms, most of which looked like cells, with grey concrete floors, and rolled-up mats piled up high on one side. A wardress told us that on the left was the laundry and ahead of us, just to the right, was the kitchen. She pointed out to us the woman who cooked our food. There she was standing in the courtyard with a very white apron and a red headscarf, a distant figure who was connected with the pots that came into our section every day.

One of us asked the wardress whether we couldn’t put the blind up so we could see more clearly. Yes we could, she said, and she put it up. Now we just had the glass of the window between us and the courtyard filled with 230 prisoners, or so a wardress told us. The women out there now became aware that some people were watching them from the window. One of them glanced now and then in our direction. However, most of the women were too taken up with the dancing and singing to care about us. They probably assumed that we were all wardresses.

My heart was beating fast. This is marvellous, marvellous! Thank God Bester is not on duty. If she were told, there would be real trouble for these wardresses. We realised that we would get away with quite a lot if we kept up our image of white madams watching African tribal dancing. And so I tried to put that sort of white madam look on my face and say things like ‘Aren’t they marvellous?’ We were desperate for contact with them, for them to see us and know who we were. But we had to hide this very carefully from the wardresses and appear totally taken up with the singing and dancing.

‘Look, Miss …’ one of us asked a wardress, ‘can’t we open the window? We can’t see clearly with the window closed.’

She hesitated for just a moment, and then said okay. So the window was opened. The women on the other side could see us clearly now. Some of them looked in our direction and smiled. We smiled back with fast-beating hearts. And then we saw one of the white wardresses in the courtyard hustling together about ten of those prisoners, classified under apartheid as ‘coloured’, and she shepherded them over to our window, where they lined up. And they sang us a few songs, songs that had been on the hit parade before my arrest.

Ann was next to me and I felt her discomfort. This was too white-madamish for her liking. She would have preferred no contact rather than contact at this level. After the coloured women had sung us two or three songs, in fact while they were singing their last song, Ann and I arranged to sing them two of our freedom songs. We decided on ‘Shosholoza’ for a start and so we sang, ‘Shosholoza Mandela!’ ‘Shosholoza Sisulu!’ ‘Shosholoza Kathrada!’ Some of the women made as if to join us but the others said, ‘No. No. Don’t. We want to hear the words.’ Ann was shaking with excitement next to me.

As we sang, I noticed the wardress beginning to look panicky. Things were getting out of control. As we finished our second freedom song, the women standing on the other side of the window were whisked away. And all the prisoners, 230 of them, were lined up on the far side of the courtyard and made to sit down. Nobody was allowed to sing or talk.

There were some African wardresses in that courtyard, too. Barberton Prison was a training prison for African wardresses. When the wardresses felt they had things in the courtyard under control, we were told to line up and we were whisked away back to our section, with the door and grille onto our courtyard locked behind us. We tried not to look excited and pleased in front of our wardress, to look as though nothing had happened of any real importance to us. We were simply amused white madams who had just come back from a look at some local tribal dancing.

‘At least they know who we are now, what we are in for.’ It was crucial for our psychology to have managed to make some contact outside our little section. The white wardresses were not quite sure, I think, what had happened, and if they had grasped some of it, they chose, for their own peace of mind, at least for the moment, to pretend it hadn’t happened. The African wardresses, of course, had got the message. That day and for days afterwards, as they went off duty and passed under the windows of our section, they sang ‘Shosholoza’ and laughed and giggled. And from then on when we saw a black prisoner, although this was very rare, we got the Congress thumbs-up sign.

We were locked up specially early that day so the wardresses could go off early to enjoy their Christmas celebrations. We must have been in our cells by 3 or 3.30. We had the long gaol Christmas lock-up ahead of us. We arranged that we would study until about 6.30 or 7 and then we would have our drink. This was to be a mouthful of tonic, a red liquid prescribed by the doctor for one of us, a liquid which went down our throats warm and tasting of alcohol. We had given a portion to each cell.

At this time the doors of our cells were left open at night, with just the grilles locked. This made a great difference to our lives. Not only because it enabled us to have contact with each other, which was important particularly for those in single cells, but also, and this was to prove more important, because of the appalling heat that summer. All summers in Barberton are hot. But this was a particularly excruciating one for us.

It was the middle of the drought. During the day when we were out of our cells, it was bad enough. Standing at the laundry basins, we were soaked in sweat. We found that our perspiring legs stuck to our chairs when we sat at the table eating our food. It was unbearable to walk in the courtyard with the sun beating down onto the white concrete, blinding us and with the sweat running down our bodies, under our uniforms.

One of the worst occupations during this summer was making the fire. We came from the boiler room red-faced with sweat pouring off us. Barberton is in the subtropics and so it is a very humid heat, rather like Durban or Lourenço Marques. Usually in the subtropics there is rain but there was no rain here during that summer. And so, instead of the lush vegetation of the subtropics, that we have, for instance, in Durban or rather just outside Kloof – I had lived in Kloof on the way to Pietermatitzburg for a year while I taught in a school in the city – everything was dry. The hills above us were brown, bare, ominous.

It was unbelievable in the cells at night. With the doors closed, we felt we could hardly breathe. It was bad enough when they were open. As I sat in my chair studying at my table, I felt the sweat running down the side of my face, down my tummy, down my legs. There was not one single part of my body that was not wet. I actually saw the sweat making marks on the linoleum, as it dropped off me. And my feet left wet patches on the floor as I walked.

We, in the communal cell with the tap, were luckier than the others at this time for we could get up from our chairs every now and again, take off our uniforms and splash ourselves with water, and put our feet in cold water in the bucket. I used to go and lie on my bed without drying the water off so that I could feel a little cooler as it evaporated. I would then go back to my studies, and half an hour later go through the same process.

I tried taking off my uniform while I worked but then I faced another problem. That was the insects and, above all, the mosquitoes. We counted sometimes 60 at a time, like small black flies on the ceiling of our cell. Even with our uniforms on, the insects tortured us. They attacked our legs and feet, especially in the darkness under our tables. But they were so greedy that they didn’t even really mind the light and used to buzz round our ears in the most maddening fashion, and nip at our faces. They would even fly under our uniforms and nip our thighs. Our whole bodies felt raw and itchy and burned.

In my bed at night, even to have one sheet over me was unbearable. It burned against my body as though it were on fire or, at least, specially heated. I slept without my nightdress, but the sheet had to be there to protect me from the mosquitoes. I turned my pillow every few minutes to try and find some coolness. Sometimes I found I could not sleep for hours. Or I woke up in the middle of the night with a mosquito shrieking in my ear. And they always found their way under the sheet and attacked my body.

About 5.30–6 in the evening we used to hear them coming. At this time it was still fairly light in our cells, especially the cells that faced north and got the light from the sun as it moved down towards the mountains in the West. I would hear a high distant whine that went on for about an hour before the first mosquito actually appeared. Evidently they were getting going in the dark places in the cells and in the portaal.

One of their favourite hide-outs during the day was in our lockers. When we opened the lockers sometimes in the morning a great cloud of mosquitoes would emerge. Another favourite place for them was in the darkness under our beds. And sometimes under our tables. About 7 o’clock, when the light had gone out of the sky, they started coming out of their dark places.

Barberton is just on the edge of the malaria belt, and I think was actually in it at one time. During this summer at Barberton we were told that one of the warders at the men’s gaol was down with malaria but it was unusual in these parts at this time.

Sometimes we used to go on mosquito hunts at night. When we could bear them no longer, we used to get up and try and kill them as they settled on the walls and ceiling of the cell. We might manage to kill 20 or 30 but we knew it really did no good since there were thousands of them. At the same time, it was a way of working off aggression because they would infuriate one. I never realised before that I could so enjoy a hunt. I was literally bloodthirsty! In my experience at least there is nothing that can be as infuriating as a mosquito, particularly when it is screaming in one’s ear.

It wasn’t only mosquitoes that plagued our nights in the cells. There were scores of different types of insect. Together they made up thousands. During this time of severe heat it was particularly bad. There were tiny green insects with little pointed bodies which stung us and emitted a strong unpleasant smell when disturbed. There were also brown-grey ones which looked rather similar, and little black beetles we called castor oil because when we tramped on them they let off a strong castor oil smell. These used to fly together in droves. They would arrive at about eight o’clock in the evening, and cover the floor and click against the light shades.

There were large black beetles, their bodies about four inches long, with long black antennae which they moved around ominously at the end of strangely moving heads. These very rarely actually came into our cells but they moved around on our cages, making horrible click-clack noises with their legs, and they would suddenly fly a little distance from the cage and then fly back, crashing into the cage with their bodies, which made a hard metallic sound, and whirring their wings with a terrifying noise. There were ‘mis’ beetles (manure beetles), fairly large but not as big as the others, with a strange shield-shaped head with a horn-like appendage in the centre and black shiny plastic-looking legs with smooth plastic-looking joints.

There were all kinds of praying mantises, large and small, some bright green ones, others pale green and yet others brown or grey, praying mantises with all sorts of fancy appendages, fancy wings, fancy legs so that one really had to give them a good look to identify them. Praying mantises, at the best of times, were for me rather frightening creatures, sitting on the wall, front legs up praying, and moving their small triangular-shaped heads from side to side, watching, watching with their large protuberant eyes, swaying their bodies in a peculiar uncertain rhythmic movement as though swaying on a tightrope as their legs tried to find a grip on our cages.

There were scores of varieties of minute insects and scores of varieties of moths, probably well over a hundred. There were huge moths, bigger than butterflies and as colourful. I had been terrified of moths before I came to gaol but there I had to get used to them – almost. In the past what used particularly to terrify me was not the whirring wings or the fat bodies but the thought of the grey powder on their bodies and wings. Those that confronted me in Barberton Prison also reminded me of bats. Sometimes when I saw them out of the corner of my eye, flying into the cell, I thought they were bats, and I would feel my heart contract with fear. There were frogs, too, which hopped into our cells at night, tiny sweet things, and larger ones, with salmon-brick-orange backs and pale concrete-grey legs and undersides.

Lying on my bed this first Christmas evening in Barberton, trying to get cool with the water drying on my body, I watched the scores of insects milling about on my tummy and getting stuck in the drops of water that had not evaporated. Insects on my legs, on my feet, on my face. Occasionally, I rubbed them off irritably but it was a waste of time.

In spite of suffocating heat in our cell, we closed the windows as it got dark and we put the lights on. We had decided that heat was less disturbing to our studies than the insects, though, of course, there were still the mosquitoes under our tables, nipping our legs as we studied. I put on my uniform with my body still slightly wet. The water made dark-blue patches on my uniform. We called over across the portaal to the other communal cell where the rest of us were together, as a special Christmas treat, a very crowded one.

‘Come on. Time for our Christmas toast.’ We each had a little in a teaspoon from our bottle of tonic. And then a second round.

‘Mmmm … lovely! Cheers, everyone! May we not have many more Christmases in gaol.’

‘Freedom before the menopause!’

‘To the men on Robben Island. To the men at Pretoria. To the women in Kroonstad and Port Elizabeth.’

‘To all political prisoners. To all freedom fighters.’

Ann produced a Christmas card which we decided to send over to the other cell. She had drawn in pencil a Mother and Child, with the child, who had a rather dirty face, making the ANC thumbs-up sign. She wrote inside, in part imitation of a Christmas card she had received from somebody unknown in Ireland who had sent it as part of a solidarity action in the international arena, something to the effect: ‘This is a drawing which these brave freedom fighters, Ann, Sylvia and Flo, drew on the wall of their cell, just before they were taken into their small courtyard and shot in December, 1988. They died bravely.’ We were beginning to regard our situation with some humour by then, albeit a rather sick humour, and such attitudes were to grow in the following months.

Though we had come to laugh at ourselves and our situation, it is not to be denied that death had become very much a part of the lives of those fighting against apartheid. Death or permanent incarceration. In the first six months or so at Barberton, until probably well into 1966, several of us felt that we might never be released from gaol. The fact that the authorities had tried to get me, all in all, eleven years, made me feel this particularly strongly but the others felt it too. The hatred the Security Branch had shown us during our 90-day interrogations when they did not seem to care whether we lived or died, and during our nine-month trial in Johannesburg, and the hatred shown to us by the prison authorities at Barberton, particularly in our first months there, made us feel they might never let us go. The hatred enveloped us like an evil vapour.

Moreover, we felt that things might boil up in the country overnight, that a civil war might erupt, and we knew that in such circumstances they would never let us go. And they might even shoot us. During both my 90-day detention periods there was a real war atmosphere in South Africa. This was the time when there were mass arrests right through the country. The 90-day law had been introduced early in 1963. Thereafter had followed the Rivonia raid on 11 July.

I was arrested for my first 90 days just before the Rivonia trial started. The Rivonia trialists faced the death sentence and I believed they would get it unless there was worldwide protest. During my first 90 days – I had been arrested on 17 October – I heard that one of my activist friends in Cape Town, Looksmart Ngudle, had in all probability been tortured to death, as it happened, in the same gaol that I was being held.

About three weeks after the Rivonia trial ended in June 1964 there were mass arrests throughout the country. It was at this time that I was again arrested under the 90-day law, together this time with several of my friends and comrades. During our detention the Park Station bomb had exploded in Johannesburg, placed by the member of the Liberal Party and of the Armed Resistance Movement, John Harris, and leading to the death of one person and the injuring of others. People in detention were met by a burst of hatred and fear from their captors. During 1964 and 1965 several sabotage trials took place all over the country and the Communist Party trial in Johannesburg.

While I was an awaiting-trial prisoner at the Fort, I heard that Babla Saloojee, who had been a friend, had died after throwing himself or being thrown from a window in the Security Branch headquarters in Johannesburg. We had heard about the torture that was being used, not simply in isolated instances, but clearly as a deliberate programme. During 1963 before my detention I had actually taken Laloo Chiba to see Helen Suzman so that he could describe to her the electric torture he had been subjected to during his detention. It was becoming widely known, even amongst liberals, that torture was the order of the day.

Electrodes were put on the head, fingers, genitals and feet of some 90-day detainees and electric currents passed through their bodies. Detainees had had plastic bags drawn over their heads and been hung upside down. Some had been hung out of windows by their ankles, from windows several floors up in buildings, and threatened that, if they did not talk, they would be dropped hundreds of feet to their deaths below. Some were brutally beaten and kicked in the genitals. Others were made to stand hours and hours, even days on end, without sleep, as had happened with some of my co-accused in the CP trial.

All the time there was the hatred and threats of brutal interrogators. John Harris, charged and convicted for the Park Station bomb, was executed just before we were sentenced. Some of us had known him though not well. All these things were not just happening to people whom we read about in newspapers. At any rate, we knew that we were involved in a struggle in which we had to accept the possibility of death. It was a feeling that sank deep, that became part of our attitude to life. The possibility of death was there all the time.

When I was in gaol in Port Elizabeth and in the court at Humansdorp this feeling, for me, was reinforced. The powerful and increasingly corrupt state machine could not only get you sentenced to a prison sentence for something you had not done, it could have you executed on a trumped-up charge.

In my Johannesburg trial Gerard Ludi, informer and state witness, had tried to suggest that I had had something to do with the murder of Justice Kuper, who had been killed by a bullet which had come whizzing through a window of his Johannesburg home. I hardly have the psychology of a terrorist, as the term is used by Marxists, in the sense of one who uses individual terror. An integral part of my political outlook was a respect for the individual, for individual human rights. I am too much of an individualist myself not to give the same right to others.

Then there was the practical side of the matter: I did not know how to use a gun. Eventually, and it took several years – was this deliberate? – the person who had shot Judge Kuper was arrested and sentenced. Kuper had in the past sentenced him on a criminal charge and the murder was evidently an act of revenge. In order to justify its brutal suppression of any political opposition, the state attempted to build up a picture of a liberation movement which was geared to violence and murder.

Death was something I thought about a great deal in prison. Part of my concern had to do with the situation whereby it increasingly appeared that the fight against apartheid was turning into a life-and-death struggle. But it also had a great deal to do with my feeling that our experience in Barberton was a living death. For me in prison, isolation and death became closely identified.

In the mind of the dying what must come especially to the fore, unless one firmly believes in an afterlife, is that death means the blotting out of consciousness, of all the senses, of any relationship with other human beings. I often wondered if the look I saw in the eyes of my comrades as I came through the grille into the section the day I arrived at Barberton was not similar for they were suffering an imposed social death, closely connected with intense sensory and emotional deprivation. I read a strange book some time in the first half of 1966 by an ex-prisoner, Starr Daily, and he noted how prisoners dreaded the idea of dying in prison. That would really be death in isolation, a kind of dual death, one death superimposed on another.

True, the idea of dying in the struggle against apartheid was something different. It could be seen as a part of a common and historical struggle against an evil system, and, thereby, was a highly social act. This was, I suppose, why the image of being shot against a wall in our courtyard did not raise that typical endless, prison feeling, that sense that the life that lay ahead was eternally meaningless.

I am not quite clear now as to why the inclination to laugh at ourselves began to emerge at this time. There had been a tendency while we were awaiting trial at the Fort, if not to laugh directly about ourselves, at least to make endless jokes about the left movement, usually in regard to some of its older leaders, the ‘old guard’, as we came to regard them. We tended to conceive of at least some of them as having a rather rigid outlook and, above all, as being somewhat arrogant. We were part of the ‘Sharpeville generation’ of young white activists who were inclined to stress the leading role of the African people and the importance of (progressive) African nationalism rather than focusing on the ‘class struggle’. A reflection of our attitude towards our own political role is that, while awaiting trial in Johannesburg, we spent some months knitting baby clothes in solidarity with African mothers outside. We were never told, as far as I know, what happened to the articles we sent out.

Now at this Christmas-time in Barberton Prison we laughed at ourselves, and this was increasingly to encompass our predicament, including our conditions in the prison. No doubt our renewed capacity to laugh had something to do with the certain easing of the dreadful pressure that had been on all of us, emanating from the gaol authorities, in the previous long months.

We rolled up Ann’s Christmas card and tied it up with brown knitting wool which at one stage we had been given so that we could darn the male prisoners’ jerseys. We unravelled a long piece, several feet of it, attached to the card and Ann climbed up onto the lower rung of our grille and flung the ball at the end of the unravelled section across the portaal towards the other big cell. After several tries it landed within reach of someone in the other cell. We waited eagerly for their response. There was a short silence. They must have been untying the card. And then there was a roar of laugher. This must have been at the picture of the grubby-faced baby making the thumbs-up sign. They laughed and laughed. Their response was beyond our expectations.

Then there was a short silence while they opened up the card to read what we had written inside. And then they laughed again, hilariously. Again, beyond our expectations. That made us very pleased. And proud. It was so nice, too, to hear laughter amongst us on Christmas Day.

Categories Non-fiction South Africa South African Current Affairs

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts Imprisoned Jacana Media Sylvia Neame

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