Black warders no better off than their charges

The plight of black warders is not very different from that of prisoners in South Africa’s prisons, say two warders at Modderbee Prison interviewed by the Mail & Guardian this week.

“Our prisons are run like ‘volkstaatjies’—black prisoners and warders are considered kaffirs, and white authorities rule both with an
iron fist and refuse to accept change,” said Hlanganisa Tshabalala, a warder at Modderbee for the past two years. During his years there, Tshabalala said the regime at the prison had gone from bad to worse.
“We are the targets of public tirades by white officers, so we enjoy neither the respect of prisoners nor that of our white colleagues,” he said.

The problems at Modderbee had worsened since prisoners joined the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights and warders joined the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union. “The authorities consider these organisations pro-ANCand a threat to the white domination in prisons. “Sapohr members who had grievances were put into isolation cells and called instigators, while Popcru-affiliated warders were called recalcitrant and labelled ‘langsterie’ [baboons).

Weekend and night duty were added to warders’ schedules as punishment for their affiliation,” Tshabalala said. He added that the gangsterism endemic to South African jails was encouraged as a way of weakening prisoners. “Gangs are used to bring to discipline prisoners complaining
about assaults or brutality.”

Divisions were also sown among black warders, Tshabalala said. “Those considered sympathetic to prisoners’ problems were isolated and downgraded to insignificant tasks, while others were promoted.” Warders had been required to sign “letters of affirmation” that they would not attend to prisoners’ grievances, as this would be considered unprofessional.

“If prisoners had problems, the white warders would jot them down but there would be no timeous response or they would be disregarded. This situation was the same for Popcru-affiliated warders who had complaints.”

Tshabalala said internal tribunals held in response to prisoners’ claims of assault by warders were a waste of time. These cases are presided over by senior officials who are friends of the warders and the complaints are normally swept under file carpet.There is no way a prisoner can win.”

Popcru members—even those who attended courses—had little chance of promotion, he added. “Decisions on who should be promoted are made by white superiors. If you are considered a ‘langstert’ your chances are nil.”. He said requests for an impartial body to hear the complaints of both prisoners and warders had “fallen on deaf ears”.

Amon Shabalala, a Modderbee warder for 12 years, said prison administrators had started communicating directly with prisoners without consulting black warders, which had undermined them.

He explained: “Initially black warders were the natural channel for prisoners’ complaints. Then management started negotiating directly with prison gangs like Big 5, 288 and Air Force. This created an atmosphere where black warders were seen as irrelevant.”

Shabalala said the campaign against Sapohr had intensified in the first week of April, when prisoners had decided to go on a hunger strike to force the government to give them the vote. This resulted in all Sapohr leadership inside the prison being put in isolation,” he said. “Hunger strikers complained that warders had come into their cells and forced them to eat, using batons.

“The prisoners decided to find their own solution. We wanted to communicate this to the authorities, but by now lines of commuuication had broken down as our monthly meetings with management were no longer held.” Shabalala said resistance to white authority had heightened after the election, with prisoners assaulting white warders.

“In the space of two weeks four warders were assaulted and one stabbed, but still the authorities did not want to change their Draconian attitude.” The amnesty issue had been the last straw. “Violence begets violence, and the brutality imposed with impunity by white officers was the ultimate cause of the death and destruction that we saw at Modderbee,” Tshabalala said.

Correctional Services responds to claims
Allegations of racism and neglect of warders’ and inmates’ grievances claimed to have caused rioting were denied by the Department of Correctional Services this week. Department spokesman Koos Gerber said: “Personnel of the department perform their duties in a professional manner and racism is not tolerated at all”. Although Gerber said allegations that prison gangs were used to silence inmates with complaints were ‘absurd”, he did confirm that Modderbee administrators had held discussions with prison gang members in 1992.

This had resulted in an agreement that the gangs “would cease unruly behavior”. Responding to claims that a group of Sapohr members had been confined to single cells became they were instigating other prisoners to go on hunger strike, he said: “The group was put in single cells after an incident in which a warder was assaulted, for the period ensuing the investigation. This was done at the request of other prisoners.”

Gerber denied warders had been asked to sign a document that forced them not to consider prisoners’ complaints. He said: “The only undertaking obtained from members was one of treating prisoners in a politically unbiased and professional manner.” On the breakdown of channels of voicing warders and inmates grievances, he said: “All complaints are dealt with accordingly and prisoners are given the opportunity to voice these on a daily basis without
unnecessary delay”

Client Media Releases

All things 'creepy crawly' at award-winning UKZN stand
Tellos founder to present at ITWeb AI 2019
The rand: Before, during and after Elections 2019