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Pretoria Central Prison gallows to be restored as a museum
The Sunday Times reports that The Department of Correctional Services is restoring the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison - where over 4,000 people were hanged – as a museum, to give victim’s families, and officials ‘closure’ and to remind visitors how ‘wrong’ capital punishment is.”
Many of us have stood in prison museums or at sites where unspeakable atrocities have been committed. While these experiences may leave an indelible mark on our memories, or cause us to think about the past in new ways, do they really make a difference to the way we act in the present? What interventions, we wonder, are required to effect healing in these contexts?
According to the Sunday Times ” At least 4003 convicted murderers, rapists and political prisoners walked up the 52 steps to be hanged at Pretoria Central Prison between 1921 and 1989.
And soon their families will be allowed to take that same walk in a bid to help them find closure. The refurbished gallows - dismantled under mysterious circumstances in ‘96 - are now being converted into a museum.
Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, whose department has been driving the initiative, will unveil the gallows on December 8.
She said the unveiling was her department’s “small contribution towards paying homage and tribute to all South Africans who were executed. I would want SA to see this as part of a healing process and part of nation-building.”
At least 130 political prisoners were executed there. Among them were Solomon Mahlangu, on April 9 1979, and five members of the Vulindlela family, Sadunge, Maliza, Shilegu, Bonase and Bekapansi, on July 3 1964.
Bekapansi was just 18 at the time, while John Harris - the only white political prisoner to die on Death Row - was executed on April 1 1965. He planted a bomb at Park Station in Johannesburg.
Mapisa-Nqakula said she was “very disturbed” on discovering earlier this year that the gallows had been dismantled and promptly instructed her staff to have them reinstalled.
She said people who worked at the gallows had also been deeply affected by their jobs.
“It left scars in their lives, and I want them to tell their story and go through this process of healing. They were never provided with therapy.”
She said some of them were still employed by correctional services and felt “relief” after speaking to her.
“Among officials, I get a sense of relief that finally someone can listen to their stories and that they can share them with South Africans. For those who came out, I reassured them that the country had moved beyond a period of retribution.”
She said her department was in the process of compiling a list of all officials who were still employed in the department and who had worked there.
“We are also working hard to trace families of those executed in the provinces. Obviously, we will require the assistance of the political parties.”
The names of all 4003 inmates will be engraved on plaques and displayed at the gallows. There will also be murals and pictorials telling stories of what happened.
“We don’t want to leave out the names of common-law criminals who were also executed, because we are saying that this [apartheid] was a system that was unjust, cruel and inhumane.”
Mapisa-Nqakula said the gallows reminded her how wrong capital punishment was.
“I am totally against capital punishment. I would pray that some of the people who are now calling for the death penalty will find it upon themselves to walk through the path to the gallows, because, once you have done that, you will have a different view.”
She said the walk up the flight of 52 stairs - dubbed the last walk - that led to the execution chamber was “emotionally draining”.
“It’s going to be traumatic for young people, but I want them to visit, because I think it will change their entire outlook on life.”
This week the Sunday Times was given an exclusive peek of the refurbished gallows.
Builders were still hard at work breaking and rebuilding walls, including in the “pot” - cells which housed Death Row inmates for seven days before they were executed.
The original wardrobe holding huge hanger hooks for seven ropes, as well as a wooden yardstick for measuring the height of those about to be hanged, was still in the 73m² room. So too was the fan, which helped cool sweating officials as they prepared the prisoners for death.
The two trap-doors, measuring 18m² in total, were open. Above it were six neatly knotted nooses.
Department officials said a maximum of seven executions used to take place simultaneously. For some unknown reason, the execution of female prisoners used to take place 30 minutes earlier than that of male prisoners.
A messenger of the court, armed with a photograph of the prisoner, would verify his identity before a white hood was placed over his head.
Prisoners had to stand on a pair of footprints painted on the trap-door before their executioner released the lever.”
Source: first published in the Sunday Times, 23 Octber 2011 and online on the Times Live website.
See also the website of the International Cilaition of Sites of Conscience