The other side of the cell

Grim reminder: A women prison warder’s uniform from a bygone era on display at the former women’s jail at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

Grim reminder: A women prison warder’s uniform from a bygone era on display at the former women’s jail at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

There are so many stories about women who were detained for their fight for freedom from apartheid. These include the likes of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Fatima Meer and Ruth First.

But what of the women who were employed to guard the detained activists during this time of struggle? The women who wore the keys to the cells on their belted waists,roamed the corridors freely and went home at the end of their shifts? What are their stories?

On September 5 1978, Marilyn Stephens*began her 39-year career in correctional services at Middelburg prison in the Eastern Cape. “I was first doing nursing in 1977 and realised that it was not my thing. But I still needed a job. So then I applied for a warden post in 1978,” Stephens recalls.

“There were three shifts: I worked either day shift, first watch or second watch. On one shift I made sure they received their food and sanitary pads. In other shifts I would guard them in the courtyard or while they cleaned to make sure they were behaving. Sometimes I had to inspect their cells and their bodies also.”

At first, the inmates she encountered were imprisoned for petty crimes, theft, murder and robbery. It was only when she was transferred to Pollsmoor prison in 1981 that she began interacting with political prisoners.

“Some of the other political prisoners were Lumka Yengeni, Tony Yengeni’s wife,” said Stephens.

As a coloured warden, she was not allowed any contact with political offenders but found ways to communicate with them.

When asked about the treatment of political prisoners by staff, Stephens treads carefully and says little. “My job was custodial. The coercion and interrogation was the work of the police force and we had nothing to do with that. I can’t say we were all like that.

“What I can say is they were not supposed to be there so I was nice to them. I made separate food for them and had to smuggle it in from home. I brought them things like pads, sausages and other nice stuff. I had to protect them because I was on their side. I would even call some of them my children.

“But it was something I only shared with wardens who had friends that were political prisoners. I couldn’t trust any other wardens with that information, I still needed my job,” she sighs and laughs nervously even though apartheid ended years ago and she has left the correctional services department.

“Jenny Schreiner [an Umkhonto weSizwe veteran] was also there [detained under section 29 of the Internal Security Act]. But I didn’t talk to her because of the colour of my skin. I was actually not allowed to work with political prisoners.

“The apartheid government didn’t want them to poison me with their activism. They thought I was more gullible because of the colour of my skin. They didn’t know I didn’t need to be poisoned, I was already on the activists’ side.”

*Not her real name

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