Once Upon a Life: Margie Orford
04 Sep 2011
In 1985, the crime writer Margie Orford was thrown in jail by South Africa’s apartheid police. Here she tells of the brutal experience that turned her from an idealistic student into a traumatised young woman
The Observer, Sunday 4 September 2011
On 20 July 1985, PW Botha, then-president of South Africa, declared a state of emergency in the areas around Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. The police were given unlimited powers of arrest and detention without trial. It was the beginning of apartheid’s long and violent endgame.
One afternoon in October of the same year, a friend stops by. The state of emergency has been extended to the Western Cape, she says. I must come. There’s a protest march at the University of Cape Town. I have been involved in student politics (writing, protesting, marching) since 1983, so I abandon the Romantic poets – preparation for my final exams – and we drive up to the university. The police are on one side of De Waal Drive, the protesting students on the other. We hold up placards – mine says Stop the State of Emergency – as the indifferent commuter traffic heads for the cocooned southern suburbs.
I watch the cops. I don’t like tear gas. “Five minutes to disperse!” yells the bull-necked officer, but the police are already charging. Everybody runs. I look back. There’s a cop gaining on me. His skin is raw from shaving and acne. I pass out.
Stop fainting, lady, he pleads when I come round. Let me go, I say. We each had to get one, he explains. He has been brought up to be polite to white girls. One what? I ask. One student, he says, as he bundles me into the back of a special-branch car. I concentrate on not throwing up.
We are taken to Pollsmoor, a maximum-security prison. The walls are garlanded with razor wire. There are watchtowers. The guards have dogs and guns. The female guards take charge of the women. I’m taken into a room by a peroxided blonde. She tells me to put everything on to the table. I strip. Jewellery, shoes, shirt, jeans. I stand in my bra and pants. The guard enters a list of my belongings into a ledger. I dress again. We are herded down a labyrinth of passages. Like an Escher drawing, the corridors seem to lead back to where they started. Hands protrude from the bars. I see slices of faces, fish-eyed leers.
My cell is two-and-a-half-paces long, and one-and-a-half wide. A lidless toilet, a table, a bed, one grey blanket. High up, there’s a window. The barred night looks in on me. I lie on the bed. There is an eye in the door that opens and closes during the night.
In the morning a tray is brought. I try the tea. Tepid, thick with tannin, sweet. My stomach heaves. There are two slices of white bread and a puddle of jam. My throat closes up and flings the food back. After some days, I am sent to the doctor. A little crab of a man whose hands scuttle on my body. Release me, I say. I’ll be better. But he will not do that. The nurse puts her arms around me. Give the child something, doctor, she instructs. If she’s calm, she’ll eat. He gives me a blue pill that floats me outside myself, but still I cannot eat.
I am taken down the passageways again and ushered into a visitors’ room. There is a wooden chair, a counter in front of a window. I sit down. I watch the empty room through the blurred glass. It mirrors the room where I am, except it is empty. The door opens. My mother appears. She is so much smaller than I remember. She sits on the chair opposite and puts her hands up on the glass. I put my hands up to meet hers. She is crying. We both speak, but we have never done this before so we don’t know to press the intercom. Her mouth moves, but I hear nothing. Our guards, standing two paces behind us, show us what to do.
My mother tells me she has been to a Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee meeting. This is an organisation of township women, poor and black, whose children have disappeared. My mother’s voice sounds strange, attenuated. I take my finger off the button. I no longer hear her; instead, I watch her face, her fear. I am protected from an excess of violence by the talisman of my white skin – that much we both know. As the warden standing behind my mother leans forward to tap her shoulder, I feel a touch on my own. Our time is up. Our hands with their mirrored palms slide down the glass.
I am moved from the single cell into a bigger one that is jammed with bunks. We are 20 women, more perhaps. The space is so confined that only a few of us can be off our beds at a time. The showers are communal, as are the toilets. There are no doors.
A prison day is made up of 23 long hours and one very short one – the exercise hour. There are splashes of sunlight on the concrete, and the sky, squared off as it is by the courtyard walls, is blue. To get outside we go past the single cells where a white woman has been held in solitary for months. We talk to her as we file past. The wardens tell us not to; they say, security police orders. So we sing. They tell us not to sing either. We say, you cannot stop us. The next time we go out, workmen are welding a sheet of metal over the woman’s window, closing the darkness around her like a fist. I hear her voice. She is singing a Xhosa song, her voice breaking on the high notes. How long, I wonder, does a woman sing in the dark.
I am called for interrogation late one night. I am not given time to put on a bra. The guard escorting me is not happy. The special branch, she mutters, they come here at night, make us bring you. Then they make us wait outside. If anything happens to you – she jabs my arm – we are to blame. But she opens the door and ushers me in anyway.
Two men are waiting for me. The one behind the table greets me; the other does not, but he stands too close. The hairs on my arm rise. So do my nipples, peaking against my thin nightie. I fold my arms. The nakedness of their physical power over me takes my breath away. We are alone, two men and a girl in the middle of the night. No one will open the door, whatever they might hear. My fear of them – a sexual terror – slips under my skin, heading towards the bone like a filleting knife. It gets into the marrow; it lives there still.
Then come the Kafka-scripted questions. Who told you to go? Why? Where? Who is behind this unrest? Is it the Communist Party? I give no answers. I have none. In the end, they get bored – I really don’t know anything. They summon the warden and she takes me back to my cell.
The next day I write my final philosophy exam. The guards assigned to invigilate are armed. I wonder if they will shoot me if I cheat. I open my paper, but the questions make little sense.
I am charged with treason – we all are. It carries the death penalty, but it does mean that we will be taken to court. We assemble, are loaded into the van and then offloaded into the cells below the court. They stink of men’s piss. I try not to touch anything. I try not to breathe. We are called. I climb the concrete stairs. A trapdoor opens. Three more steps and I pop like a golem into a wood-panelled court. We file into the dock. The charges are read. My lawyer says something. The judge listens and they confer. Absurd, he decides. The charges are dismissed.
I walk out on to the steps in front of the courthouse. The sun is blinding. There is a crowd of people. Some are there for me. Friends and mothers, hugs and tears, smiles for the photographers. Everything, everyone tells me, is the same as it was before. I am fine, apparently.