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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.”

The Department of Correctional Services has asked families of those executed to contact Promise Khumalo on 0764134042 or e-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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

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  • Ek is nie regs nie, of `n rassis nie, maar om moordenaars,geweldenaars,verkragters wat wrede misdade gepleeg het, wat wettiglik skuldig bevind en gevonnis is nou te wil vereer en amper hero`s te maak,en dan teregstellings `n apartheids handeling te maak is tiperend van hoe siek die ANC se denke is, absoluut belaglik.Wat is volgende..vereer mooredenaars van boere?? Ek het geen probleem dat galgekamer gerestoreer word nie.Maar om nou `n persepsie probeer skep dat die meer as 4000 teregstellings `n apartheids handeling was is onaanvaarbaar,en gaan net weer emosies ontketing wat nie in belang van versoening is nie.Solomon Mahlango was `n moordenaar wat onskuldige mense doodgemaak het,net soos die Witwolf en McBride ook gedoen het,hulle albei moes ook tereggestel gewees het.Heelwat lande in die wereld het nog die doodstraf en hulle het niks met apartheid uit te waai nie.kyk maar net na Singapore,misdaad syfer baie laag,daar is respek vir die reg en `n persoon dink twee keer voor hy moor,so is daar ander lande ook.

    Ek was vir jare `n Landdros en het met heelwat persone gepraat wat in dodeselle gewerk het,baie min bewaarders het iets oorgehou daarvan, die meerderheid nie!!hulle was ook nie gedwing om daar te werk nie.Ja daar is sekere bewaarders wat nou nog letsels dra,maar BAIE mense in SA dra letsels van die gruwel moorde van naasbestaandes wat vermoor,gekaap,geroof,verkrag ens.
    Ja natuurlik is teregstellings emosioneel en natuurlik sal die families van die veroordeelde deur erge trauma gaan,self gewone gevangenisstraf is traumaties,maar vir meeste slagoffers is en was die trauma veel erger..dit vergeet ons agbare minister gerieflikheidshalwe!!

    Hierdie aksie van die regering is maar nog net een van die belaglikhede wat hulle aanvang, ek vind dit uiters siek!!!

    >Translation by the Archival Platform

    I’m not right-wing, or a racist, but to honour, and almost make heroes of murderers, tyrants, rapists that committed brutal crimes and were lawfully convicted and sentenced and executed is typical of the ANC’s sick thinking, and almost laughable. What next, honour farm murderers??? I have no problem with the restoration of the execution chamber but to create the perception that the more than 4000 executions were an apartheid related action is unacceptable and will provoke emotions that are not in the interests of reconciliation. Solomon Mahlango was a murder who killed innocent people, like the Witwolf and McBride, who should both also have been executed. Many countries in the world still have the death penalty, and they do not practice apartheid. Just look at Singapore - the crime rate is very low and there is respect for the law, and people think twice before they commit murder, as is the case in other countries too.

    I served as a magistrate for many years and spoke with many people who worked on death row, and few of them were affected. They were not forced to work there. Yes, some of the warders still carry the scars, but then many people in South Africa carry the scars of the horrific murder of relatives who have been murdered, hijacked, robbed and raped, etc..

    Of course executions are emotional and of course the families of the convicted are severely traumatised - even ordinary imprisonment is traumatic,  but for most of the victims and the trauma was worse .. our our Honourable Minister seems to have conveniently forgotten that! This action is not just ridiculous, I think it’s utterly sick!

    By FANIE VERMAAK on 10/11/2011
  • Hello.
    I, as a member of the general public, would like to attend a tour of the gallows however I can’t seem to find any information about tours offered.
    Do you perhaps have information that you could send me?

    It would be much appreciated, thank you.

    By Belinda Dietz on 26/06/2012
  • Hi, I am a student at a high school in Johannesburg and our teacher would like to take us to see the gallows. Is there any kind of booking that he can make for a class of 30 learners?

    By Faith Volmink on 30/07/2013