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Complicity in Apartheid Torture

2011 August 19

South African Health Professionals Were
Complicit in Torture Du
ring Apartheid

Writing from South Africa not long ago, Margaret Green contributed an outstanding guest post on inter-ethnic violence during the World Cup. Margaret recently forwarded a very interesting post from her own blog, Beyond Trauma, linking the discussion of health professional complicity in torture here in the United States to similar situations in South Africa’s recent past. With her permission, I’m re-posting the key paragraphs below.

South Africa has a vicious history of torture and also experienced complicity of health professionals – both prison doctors and psychologists. During the apartheid years of the Nationalist government, torture was being used to “break” detainees so that they would inform on their comrades. In “Red in the Rainbow“, Lynn Carneson writes about her father Fred’s first months in detention in 1965. Solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and interrogation for days on end were commonplace. Fred was subjected to more than that until he “broke” – which meant in his case that he gave information that he knew the Special Branch already had.
            Among black detainees, brutal assaults were frequent and deaths in detention not uncommon. District surgeons were supposed to attend to prisoners regularly and to pronounce on the cause of death. In the case of Steve Biko, who died in detention in 1977, despite all evidence to the contrary, i.e. that he was brutally tortured and sustained a brain injury as a result, the doctor concerned, pronounced that his death resulted from a hunger strike. In the following decade, the security police cover-up story when detainees died of injuries, was that they had somehow “fallen out of windows” of prisons around the country.
            It became harder for doctors to be complicit with the police due to the efforts of one courageous young doctor: Wendy Orr. In 1985, while working in the medical examiner’s office in Port Elizabeth she became the first and only doctor in government employment to reveal police torture and abuse of political detainees, when she applied to the Supreme Court, detailing a pattern of extensive torture and abuse of detainees, for a restraining order against the police. In a widely publicized outcome, she successfully obtained a court order to protect detainees from police assault.

Note: the above photograph of a South African torture victim is from African Activist Archive. According to the site, “it was obtained by Don Stillman, Director of Governmental and International Affairs at the United Auto Workers (UAW), on a trip to South Africa most likely in April 1986, [and was] used to lobby members of Congress against apartheid and press them to impose sanctions on South Africa.”

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One comment on “Complicity in Apartheid Torture

  1. Thank you! I am writing a novel set in those times. I would also like to know how many victims "jumped" out of the 10th Floor window of Marshall Square. on said:

    Thank you! I am writing an historic novel set in those times. I would also like to know how many victims “jumped” out of the 10th floor window of Marshall Square.

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