No reprieve: Raymond Suttner paid a heavy price for writing revolutionary pamphlets to inspire the oppressed majority. Picture: SUPPLIED
No reprieve: Raymond Suttner paid a heavy price for writing revolutionary pamphlets to inspire the oppressed majority. Picture: SUPPLIED

This is an account of aspects of my experience of torture when first arrested in June 1975. One of the torturers, Col Andrew Taylor, applied for amnesty for those assaults in 1997, although he died before it could be heard.

There is little that is comparable to finding oneself in the hands of the South African Security Police. You know they have already tortured and killed many people. You know this precludes any sense of human kinship between you and them. You are surrounded by these people and have no access to family, friends or lawyers.

The security police are a law unto themselves. They decide when and what you eat, whether you are allowed books to read and how much exercise you get.

You look into the eyes of these people and sometimes there are glimmers of humour (perhaps, of sadistic humour) and other faint signs of humanity. In some cases — such as that of Taylor — all remnants of human feeling have been obliterated by years of abuse, systematically practised upon fellow human beings.

These people guard you. They stand in front of you, at your side and behind you. You never know what they are going to do next, if a blow is about to fall and from what direction it may come.

There is nothing you can do, nothing unobserved by them, nothing you can do without their permission. What limited washing is allowed is a luxury, and they will not permit you to wash until they have finished their intensive interrogation and torture. Sleep is out of the question until they have completed their business.

There is much crudity, and violence is always in the air. Yet the police also try to maintain a contradictory self-image. They would like to appear to be civil servants who would serve under any government. They  are just doing their job. That is why there is an elaborate pretence that torture and other violence is practised without the knowledge of the senior officers, or while they are off-duty, since they would never approve of it.

Being a captive, and subjected to torture, robs you of the capacity to make all sorts of natural responses to situations. Normal pride in one’s beliefs cannot be displayed unconditionally. One is in the belly of the beast. It will devour you if it so wishes. It is vital to preserve yourself from the worst of its ravages — not at any cost, but certainly at some cost.

I had written revolutionary pamphlets. And they were meant to inspire the oppressed majority to rise up against apartheid. In detention, I was asked to explain just what I meant by all of this.

My interrogators were war criminals, people who practised extreme human rights violations as part of their daily work. Our liberation movement had taken up arms against them in self-defence. How could I explain this to them? What value was there in arguing with these people? I did not repudiate what I had written, but was not in a situation in which I could proudly defend my views.

One knows it will be terrible, but there is great anxiety because of unawareness of what that entails

I was prepared to be klapped but did not invite unnecessary blows. That is why I did not protest when ordered to "bark at the moon" (during a torture session).

Anti-Semitism was an obsession with the police. For them, being Jewish was a crime in itself, predisposing a person to political "criminality" and particularly to communism. They had, while administering electric shocks threatened to "put the k*ffirs onto me". Despite my perception that there was no kinship between the torturers and myself, the white torturers, in their reference to the "k*ffirs", may have assumed a kinship with me. I may have been in jail for taking up the struggle of the black people, but they still claimed me as a fellow white who would fear, as they did, the thought of "the k*ffirs", the barbarians at the gate, the hordes waiting to be let loose on "us".

With my white captors, reason allegedly had a place. What they wished to convey to me was that there was a threat that went beyond reason; and this was "the k*ffirs", a type of primeval force. "The k*ffirs" did not refer to sophisticated police, who turned the electricity on and off, usually stopping just short of mortal danger.

Such behaviour was supposedly rational. The violence of "the k*ffirs" was, in contrast, a basic, unthinking violence.

In a sense, the police were responding to my polite refusal to talk by saying that I should tell them what they wanted to know quickly, before the chance of rational communication became impossible. So what we have, on the one hand, is a sense of dissociation from me as "a Jewish communist" – representing, to the police, the worst of the worst type of white treachery.

But on the other hand, we also have association. The police calculated that their racist associations between Africans and primeval violence would strike a chord with a fellow white.

I had prepared for detention. Yet, in detention, uncertainty is of the essence. There is a large unknown. One does not know what is going to happen. One knows it will be terrible, but there is great anxiety because of unawareness of what that entails. People say that every detention is different. It may be short. It may be long. It may result in a trial. It may not. It may entail torture. It may not. But it is always traumatic.

Even when one has been tortured, one does not know whether it is over, when the torturers will come back and what they will do next time.

I was tortured in June 1975. I have not spoken much about this episode in my life. I did not have the opportunity to be debriefed by a psychologist. Instead, I continued in prison for another eight years.

I have written accounts of my abuse, once or twice, in what seems to some people to be a fairly detached style.

I am beginning to wonder, now, whether I have ever come to terms with this episode in my life. I wonder whether I have sufficiently "worked it through", and now understand and acknowledge the character of the violation and the damage it has done.

My torture was widely known to have occurred in SA, but it was never publicly acknowledged until 1997, when Taylor applied for amnesty for torturing me — although he provided a relatively shorthand account of what was actually done. Nevertheless, Taylor’s statement — that certain unnamed people administered electric shocks — was the first public acknowledgement that this ever happened at all.

I did not publicly complain of torture at the time it occurred, because the police might have simply intensified their abuse. And afterwards, it would have been difficult to prove.

My torture was widely known to have occurred in SA, but it was never publicly acknowledged until 1997, when Taylor applied for amnesty for torturing me

When I was formally charged, after having spent six weeks in detention, I was ready to raise the matter in court. However, my legal team advised that this would be unwise, as I was not giving evidence under oath, but merely providing an unsworn statement from the dock. They reasoned that such a claim of torture could not be tested under cross-examination and would be treated as suspect. They said this had happened in a previous case — that of Sean Hosey.

I was blindfolded for much of the time and I had no witnesses to call. So I did not raise the matter in court. Then I was forced to be silent for eight years while in jail. On being released, I could not speak a great deal about what had not been raised in court. It was as if this incident had not happened at all, and it remained almost totally unacknowledged.

However, after his release, Laurence Kuny, who became a state witness, wrote an unpublished account of his prison experiences, which also notes how I was tortured for withholding information from the police. It was then, paradoxically, that the first official, public acknowledgement of my abuse came from one of the torturers, in his application for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

• This is an extract from Inside Apartheid’s Prison, published by Jacana Media, with a new introduction describing Suttner’s "life outside the ANC".

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