South African prison biographies

14 April 2003

Jean Middleton
In 1964, three weeks after Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, security police swooped on activists across the country – among them Jean Middleton, a Johannesburg schoolteacher and a member of the banned Congress of Democrats, a home for white members of the Congress movement.

As her flat was being searched for incriminating evidence, “it was Friday, my day for dyeing my eyebrow and eyelashes, so I got out the little bottles and brushes, and a hand mirror, and, for part of the time, occupied myself that way”.

She had flushed a dangerous document down the toilet when she’d heard police pounding on her door, and they’d thrown her across the room in anger; but, she said, “I had been prepared to eat it, if need be. I knew that would be difficult because I’d eaten a piece of paper once before, to prevent its falling into the hands of the police. It had been quite a small piece of paper, but I’d found it hard to get down.”

This wry, dry, engaging tone permeates “Convictions: A woman political prisoner remembers” (Ravan Press), Middleton’s memoirs of her activism, arrest, year in detention and three years in a string of prisons, including the notorious jail in Barberton.

The experiences she outlines in this eminently readable book were the experiences of all, she writes – or, at any rate, all white, middle-class woman prisoners jailed for their political convictions.

Banned on her release, she fled to England, where she became active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and eventually went to work for Sechaba, the African National Congress’s journal. And in the end, she felt she’d done more for the struggle in exile than at home, where she returned in 1991.

Get “Convictions” from:


  • Exclusive Books


Prison Diary Prison Diary
Durban activist Fatima Meer kept a diary during her detention in 1976 in the Old Fort in Johannesburg, whose women’s prison is now being transformed into a gender commission headquarters.

“Prison Diary” (Kwela), with daily entries, is more personal than political: the food, the bedding, the treatment by jailors, worries about her family’s safety, visits by her children, reading the Koran. Revelations of apartheid-era insanity abound, however.

For example: “Friday, September 24, 1976: We have a new 90-day detainee. Her name is Edith. She is older than us, pushing 60, a slim, athletic, sensible woman, quite the most unlikely candidate for terrorism. She is in prison because she distributed leaflets . They found a copy of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ among her meagre possessions and took it with them as proof of her terrorist influences.”

But, more typically: “Saturday, October 9, 1976: 6pm. It is raining cats and dogs. There is a great rolling of thunder and it is dark outside. The weather has changed so suddenly. A few hour ago it was hot and sunny and I was exercising and sketching . The girls sent bhajyas with Nana [Weinberg, a long-time friend]. They couldn’t ignore my ‘craving’ for bhajya, at least that’s what they thought it was . It was lovely having the girls around, but they must now concentrate on their exams.”

The book includes three sketches Meer did at the time of the cells and her prison mates during her 113 days of detention. Meer was in prison at the same time as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a lifelong friend, who writes the foreward to the diaries.

Get “Prison Diary” from:


  • Barnes&


Voices from Robben Island Voices from Robben Island
“Voices from Robben Island”, compiled and photographed by Jurgen Schadeberg for Ravan Press, gives us photographs and recollections from a number of famous ex-political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, former Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale, Govan Mbeki, the late father of the current president, and long-time struggle stalwart Walter Sisulu. There’s even a brief piece on a prison band called Roots and a moving pieces on the return to the Island by Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Mandela.

Get “Voices from Robben Island” from:


  • Barnes&


Island in Chains Island in Chains
“Island in Chains” by Indres Naidoo (Penguin Books) is a classic account of life on the Island by a man who spent a decade there as a political prisoner, sentenced for sabotage in 1963.

Get “Island in Chains” from:




Reflections in Prison Reflections in Prison
“Reflections in Prison” (Zebra Press) is collection of biographical sketches and drawings of famous ex-Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Mac Maharaj and Ahmed Kathrada, and essays by the men themselves.

Get “Reflections in Prison” from:


  • Barnes&


Fischer's Choice Fischer’s Choice
“Fischer’s Choice: A life of Bram Fischer” by Martin Meredith (Jonathan Ball) is the latest biography of the highly principled Afrikaner advocate who built underground structures for the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party while defending resistance leaders in court.

Fischer was jailed for life and died of cancer after prison officials delayed his medical treatment. An earlier biography of Fischer, by academic Steven Clingman (“Bram Fischer”, David Philip Publishers and University of Massachusetts Press) won a number of awards.

Get “Fischer’s Choice” from:


  • Exclusive Books


Bandiet out of jail
Hugh Lewin’s “Bandiet” (bandit) was a classic during apartheid – the story of a white activist, a member of the largely forgotten African Resistence Movement, who spent seven years in Pretoria Central Prison.


Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See: Using SAinfo material