Holding The Fort by Toni Strasburg, published by NB Publishers, is available now. This extract published by permission.
We didn’t know how long our parents would be in detention and grown up as I was in some ways, I had no idea of finances or of running a household. I didn’t think about how the younger children would get to and from school and nursery, or how, even with Bessie and Claude, I could care for the four of us, and give enough love and attention to my brothers and sister. Keith, whom we all adored, was only three years old. He had rust-coloured hair and was cute and chubby. Patrick was eleven: he also had red hair and although he was very introverted, he and his gang of friends were always getting up to mischief. Then there was sweet, sunny Frances, who was nearly eight. At sixteen, I was far too young to care for three children.
I stood around while the adults discussed arrangements, unable to find a way to express my feelings. In any case, I wasn’t consulted. Although my father’s relatives were comfortably off, with large houses and staff, they lived in other suburbs and there would be practical problems getting us to and from school and friends if we moved in with them. The Lewittons lived three streets away from us, and we would still be near our schools and friends. It was finally decided that, for the time being, I would move to the Lewittons’ house with Pat and Keith, while Frances – who was on holiday with our aunt and cousins – would join us a few days later.
Three streets apart but very different houses. Our house – in the suburb of Observatory in Johannesburg, with its big houses set in large gardens – was spacious, with huge windows which let in ample sunlight. We had a lovely garden, with fruit trees and a pool. Theirs, in neighbouring Bellevue, was small and dark. The entrance served as the dining area. The kitchen opened onto a small concrete back yard. One of the two front rooms was the living room, while the other had been made into the main bedroom. There were two more bedrooms at the back of the house, one of which Andrew and Linda shared. It was always a mess of clothes, toys and books. It felt cramped and unattractive. None of us wanted to stay there.
I don’t remember how our parents’ disappearance was explained to little Keith. I also don’t recall how much Pat and Frances understood about what was happening or why our parents had been arrested. I do remember that we were all miserable about being uprooted but we kept quiet about it.
All around the country, there were hundreds of other children being farmed out to friends or relatives and having to adjust to one or both of their parents facing an open-ended period in prison without trial. It must have been hard for Fuzzy to take on four children, one of whom was only three years old.
We were all at different schools and distressed about our parents’ arrests. Fuzzy’s children were also upset by their father’s disappearance; she had a lot on her plate. I knew Fuzzy well and liked her. She and Archie often visited our home. She never spoke down to me or treated me as a child. But she wasn’t my mother and living at their house was a far cry from being at home.
While we were moving into the Lewittons’ home, my parents were being driven to Marshall Square, a large police station in the centre of Johannesburg, where they were processed, their money and watches confiscated and separated into male and female cells.
At Marshall Square, my dad found there were already fifteen others in the male cells. In his memoir, he writes:
Some – like Archie – are former communists who have long since dropped out of politics. Some have even changed their political orientation entirely. They are all disoriented and shocked to find themselves summarily jailed. What have they done to deserve this? They have had no part in contemporary politics. They cannot seriously be regarded as any sort of a threat to the State. The only possible explanation must be that the Security Services are still using lists, which are ten years out of date. In the evening, we are driven to the Fort to be locked up together with all those arrested earlier in the week.
Among the women detainees were also several who had long since left politics. My mom describes their first day:
Friday, 8 April continued
At last, at about 1 o’ clock, we were taken to waiting prison vans. We began to sing, we said goodbye to the men, who were taken to prison in another van, and were driven through the streets at breakneck speed.
People stopped and stared with surprise at the sight of white women in the inevitable kwela-kwela usually filled with silent Africans. Police cars cleared the way in front with sirens going, and an armoured car followed behind.
The detainees were driven to the Old Fort – an old prison next to the suburb of Hillbrow, now Constitution Hill. There they were called into the Matron’s office and processed.
The Fort was built by President Paul Kruger in 1893 to house white male prisoners. In 1910, a women’s jail was added in close proximity to the Fort. In 1960 the old buildings were overcrowded, and conditions were primitive and unhygienic – even in the white section. In the African section, conditions were barbaric. Shoeless and in ragged prison clothes, prisoners were crowded into filthy cells with no mattresses. Their toilet facilities were very basic, and their food was extremely poor. The Fort was mainly used to house awaiting-trial prisoners.
There were eighteen of us, so all this took a long, long time. We finally ignored the wardresses, to go and stand in a courtyard, where we saw Rica and Violet, arrested ten days before, leaning languidly through the bars of a cell. They looked so much at ease, their faces made up (we thought they would take away our lipsticks and cosmetics), Rica smoking with a long cigarette holder in her hand, that the sight of them allayed some of our fears . . . I didn’t want to think of my family, particularly Keith. Just to hear his name made me want to cry.