APARTHEID'S ALCATRAZ: THE BARBERTON PRISON COMPLEX DURING THE EARLY 1980s - PART ONE
uring the course of the well-known Hart-Fuller debate which took place in the aftermath of World War II, one of the participants in the debate made an interesting appeal. In his analysis of the perversions of the Nazi "legal system", legal philosopher Lon Fuller spoke of the need "to move a little closer within smelling distance of the witches' caldron..."1 This appeal to emotion was not meant to distract from the academic rigour of his argument, but rather to sharpen the understanding of his readers as to the true nature of the social institution he was examining.
The social institution examined in this article is not a legal system but a penal system - ie the penal system of apartheid South Africa. The period examined is the early 1980s - in many ways the height of the apartheid period. The particular focus of this article is on the Barberton Prison Complex which, at the time, was known as the place to which the most dangerous and violent prisoners in the South African penal system were sent to serve their sentences. The importance of Barberton is that, in many respects, it represents the worst of what the South African penal system had to offer at the height of the apartheid era. Through a series of widely publicised, shocking and violent incidents which occurred within the Barberton Prison Complex in the early 1980s, the term "Barberton" came to epitomise brutality, racism, cruelty, and endemic violence - qualities which, to a greater or lesser extent, were to be found within all apartheid prisons. A proper understanding of the nature of the apartheid penal system depends, in part, on an appreciation of what it meant to be confined within what this article terms "Apartheid's Alcatraz".
By choosing to examine the Barberton Prison Complex, the focus of this article is on the treatment of "normal" as opposed to "political" prisoners during the period in question. One reason for this is that South Africa already has a rich prison literature dealing with what it was like to be a political detainee or a political prisoner during the apartheid era.2 Much has been written, for example, on the notorious Robben Island Prison and its inmates.3By focusing on Barberton, the "voices" of ordinary prisoners – often sidelined and silenced – can be brought to the fore. In order to get "within smelling distance of the witches' caldron" that was Barberton in the first half of the 1980s, this article will examine the prison complex through the lens of public discourse – as reflected in a wide range of South African newspapers at the time. By analysing a large number of reports dealing with events at Barberton during the period in question, in both English and Afrikaans language newspapers, as well as in both politically conservative and politically liberal newspapers, this article attempts to capture both the "smell" and the "feel" of what it was like to be imprisoned in one of apartheid's toughest prison complexes. Furthermore, this article seeks to show that – despite legislative measures restricting the publication of information on conditions inside apartheid prisons – the press was able to provide a steady stream of information to the South African public on the shocking events which occurred at Barberton during the period in question.4 With Barberton so much in the public eye during the early 1980s, no thinking South African could legitimately claim to be unaware of the brutality which existed within the apartheid penal system at this time. Although the widely publicised events at Barberton discussed in this article did not concern political prisoners, this article will show that considerable ideological pressure was brought to bear on the apartheid authorities due to adverse publicity around the Barberton Prison Complex. This may well have widened the cracks which were beginning to show in the edifice of the apartheid system at this time.
This article is divided into two parts. Part One deals with a day of violence at the Barberton prison farm on 29 December 1982, as well as the ramifications of the violence: the deaths of three prisoners and injuries to others; the criminal trial which followed, which came to be known as the Barberton "heat exhaustion trial"; and also the direct ramifications of that infamous trial. Part Two examines several violent incidents which occurred within the Barberton Prison Complex during the course of 1983 – leading to a further nine inmate deaths. The response of the authorities to the orgy of violence at Barberton is discussed, including the setting up of a committee of enquiry. The findings of this committee are extensively analysed through the lens of public discourse, as reflected in a wide range of newspaper articles published at this time. The wider relevance of the events at Barberton in the early to mid-1980s, as well as the state of public discourse surrounding these events, is then assessed.