BOOK SA brings you an excerpt from Rica Hodgson’s Foot Soldier for Freedom, in which Hodgson replays the story of her arrest by the Apartheid police not long after the March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre:
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From Foot Soldier for Freedom, Chapter 5, Time in Prison
On 21 March 1960 the police opened fire on an unarmed and defenceless group of men, women and children who were marching peacefully in Sharpeville, near Vereeniging, some 60 kilometres from Johannesburg. They had gathered to protest against the carrying of passes. Sixty-nine lay dead and more than 300 were wounded. Most had been shot in the back as they fled police bullets. The demonstration had been organised by the PAC – an organisation that had been formed by a handful of people who had broken away from the ANC in 1959, led by Robert Sobukwe. Adopting slogans like ‘Africa for the Africans’, the PAC believed that white communists were directing the ANC. They were anti-communist and anti-white. Their action on that day in March pre-empted a covert ANC plan for a mass pass burning to take place in the same area ten days later. ANC President, Chief Albert Luthuli, called for a national day of mourning to be observed as a ‘stay away’ on 28 March – when the dead were to be buried – which received a resounding response in many cities across South Africa. On 30 March a State of Emergency was declared.
On 29 March our phone rang at about 11.00 p.m. Jack was out attending an illegal gathering and I was at home with my twelve-year-old son. A voice asked to speak to Jack. Upon hearing that he was out, the voice issued cautious instructions: ‘Listen carefully to this message and give it to Jack as soon as he gets in.’ When Jack returned, he immediately understood the cryptic words. He again went out into the night, this time to warn others of imminent arrests. The man at the other end of the phone hadn’t given his name, nor did he need to. Even then, Nelson Mandela’s voice was unmistakable. After Jack left I went round the apartment looking for any banned publications that may have been previously overlooked. I found nothing of an incriminating nature.
Jack came back again after 1.00 a.m. and announced that he had been ordered to go into hiding immediately to evade arrest. While he packed a few essentials I was to think about where he could possibly go. It was certainly not safe to go to family members, or to fellow comrades who would be in the same position as Jack. Even if one had the money, hotels were equally dangerous. We opted to try good friends who were, to the best of our knowledge, not members of any banned organisation and who would not be known to the Special Branch. I thought of the Joneses (yes, they were actually the Joneses), close friends of Vic and Lil, who lived in Cyrildene and who were sympathisers. Until then, they had not been directly involved in the struggle, but later made their home available to Mandela and others for meetings. Imagine hearing a knock on your door at half past one in the morning and being asked to take a man wanted by the Special Branch into your home. But they were unhesitant in their willingness to help Jack when we arrived at their door. Jack and I kissed goodbye with the promise that he would somehow get a message to me the following day. It was an emotional farewell.
I returned home just before 2.00 a.m. and was in bed again within seconds when there was loud knocking at the door. I grinned to myself and chuckled, ‘Too late, the bird has flown!’ I was in no doubt as to who was at my door, but purposely made it difficult for the police. ‘Don’t let them in straight away, give them a hard time!’ I thought. I asked through the locked door who was there and demanded that they pass their IDs under the door. Finally I opened for them. They asked if I was Rica Hodgson, and when I replied in the affirmative, they informed me that they had come to arrest me. No mention was made of Jack. I was flabbergasted! I went straight to the liquor cabinet and knocked back a stiff shot of brandy. I didn’t offer any to my present company.
When I asked why I was being arrested they refused to answer. They demanded to search the premises and I followed them from room to room. I think it was then that they found and confiscated our passports, which had taken us to Paris in 1948. For two hours they searched through bookshelves and drawers for illegal literature – finding nothing. Their search ended around 3.30 a.m. and they then ordered me to pack a bag. While I had no idea what was to happen to me, I assumed that I would appear in court shortly, to be charged. If no bail was immediately granted I would probably be on trial. So I packed presentable clothing suitable for appearing in court, some make-up, and of course my curlers – I couldn’t go anywhere without those!
Then I asked if I could phone my sister. ‘No calls allowed!’ Instead, I went to wake Spencer who had slept through the drama. I whispered in his ear that if anyone should phone in the morning he should let them know I had been arrested and that his father had gone to the country on a business trip. He was suddenly wide awake. I suggested to him that as soon as I left he should phone my sister Lily and tell her the news. I hugged and kissed him and cried. But now it was time to go. Spencer certainly showed a brave front as we said goodbye. I learned later that my sister heard for the first time of the widespread arrests while listening to the 7.00 a.m. news, and immediately phoned my home. Spencer answered, informed her that his father had gone to the country and that I had been arrested. She broke down and said she was coming at once to fetch him. But Spencer would have none of it, explaining that he was getting ready for school and she could collect him in the late afternoon when he got back. The press also phoned that morning and received the same answers about our whereabouts.
It was after 4.00 a.m. when I was delivered to Marshall Square. Eli Weinberg, a communist, trade unionist and great photographer, was across the road, armed with his camera – his wife was already inside. A large hideous cell greeted me, with its predominantly black, heavily graffitied walls. It already housed three women I knew – Helen Joseph, Violet Weinberg and Phillipa Levy. None knew why we were there or what was to happen to us. I was dog tired and miserable and went straight to sleep. I slept for the next three hours. At 7.00 a.m. I was woken by a white English-speaking wardress – Marshall Square was then manned mainly by white English warders whose wives were the wardresses. Despite the curtain of Afrikaner-engineered apartheid descending on South Africa and sweeping its opponents into jail cells across the country, little or no Afrikaans was to be heard at Marshall Square. The wardress offered me a tray with a boiled egg, toast, jam and a cup of tea. Breakfast in bed on my first morning in prison – I couldn’t believe it! We all burst out laughing.
We would soon find out that we were all being detained, not arrested. No charges were to be brought against us. This round-up was part of the government crackdown that accompanied the declaration of a State of Emergency in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre. This was the first State of Emergency declared by the apartheid government. Since detentions and states of emergency were such foreign beasts, no one seemed to know what to do. How were such strange ‘animals’ as white female detainees supposed to be treated? A stern talking to? A severe hiding? Breakfast in bed? The finest linen? The authorities had no difficulty dealing with black detainees who were accommodated in the most appalling conditions. Fifty of our black male comrades were left standing outside for the whole night in a courtyard too small for them to be able to lie down.
Phillipa Levy was released on some or other technicality. Later that day we were told to pack our belongings. We were being released. There was great excitement as we headed upstairs towards the exit, baggage and all. On the ground floor we met many of our male comrades who had also been taken into custody. Indian Youth League members from the surrounding areas of Vrededorp and Fordsburg and other sympathisers had arrived with curried foods for the detainees. Cigarettes were thrown in through open windows. But almost before we had time to register our freedom, the police came in with an announcement – we were to be re-arrested. Each of us in turn was tapped on the shoulder by a policeman who repeated the same ludicrous mantra: ‘I am formally re-arresting you … I am formally re-arresting you.’ It appears that we had all been prematurely and illegally apprehended because the arrests had taken place before the State of Emergency had been promulgated in the Government Gazette. Back into prison we went. The next day Helen was returned to Pretoria Prison as she was still involved in the Treason Trial. That left Violet and me.
- Foot Soldier for Freedom is published by Pan Macmillan
- Foot Soldier for Freedom: A life in South Africa’s liberation movement by Rica Hodgson
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