Shepherds & Butchers

Chris Marnewick

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Epub ISBN: 9781473536074

Version 1.0

Published by Arrow Books 2017

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Copyright © 2008 Chris Marnewick

Chris Marnewick has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

Shepherds and Butchers is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents, other than those reflected in court records or official documents, are the product of the author’s imagination.

First published in South Africa in 2008 by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa

First published in Great Britain by Arrow in 2017

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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781784753436

To the great loves of my life, Ansie, Jacques, Michel

Il faut, dans le gouvernement, des bergers et des bouchers

– A government must have shepherds and butchers

VOLTAIRE (1694–1778)

Part Image

Palace of Justice, Pretoria 1

The Judge’s scarlet robes signified that this was a capital case, that he had the power of life and death. I watched the serious figure in the centre of the bench as he moved his high-backed chair slightly forward and picked up his reading glasses. His two Assessors, elderly gentlemen dressed in sombre suits, leaned back in their chairs. Their first task had been completed, helping the Judge to arrive at a verdict on the question of guilt or innocence. It remained for the Judge to announce the outcome and to explain the Court’s reasons.

‘The defendant may be seated,’ said the Judge. ‘The judgment will take some time.’

Leon Labuschagne sat down and almost disappeared behind the wood panelling of the dock where Nelson Mandela had stood trial on a charge of high treason more than twenty years earlier, his life similarly at stake. Mandela had escaped with his life, and is due to become our new President in a month’s time. The preparations for his inauguration brought back these memories.

It was October 1988, and it was spring in Pretoria. I was tired. The trial had run for only two weeks, but they had been hard weeks and there had been many anxious moments, long stretches of concentrated action, dark hours of nightmares and despair. I was exhausted; physically and emotionally drained by the effort. I turned slightly in my seat to look around.

Court C of the Palace of Justice was tattered, its furniture and fittings in dire need of refurbishment. Large flakes of paint hung from the high walls. Some of the bulbs in the antique light fittings lining the walls needed to be replaced. The once plush carpet was threadbare and worn through in areas of heavy traffic, its once sombre ox blood-red now faded to a dull pink. The wood-framed windows above the architraves bore the stains of many years’ worth of accumulated dust and grime and the droppings of the ubiquitous pigeons.

The Judge was Mr Justice JP van Zyl. He tested his voice by coughing softly behind his hand before he opened his bench book. Spectators in the back rows of the public gallery craned forward to hear. I sat at counsel’s table with my Junior on my left. The prosecutors were within whispering distance from me. A door slammed elsewhere in the building, its sound muted by the thick stone walls and the carpeting as the Judge started reading in measured tones.

‘The extraordinary defence in this case has its origins in a process of which very few details have been known until this trial – the execution of a condemned criminal by the State.’

I felt my concentration begin to wane as the performance stress started to abate. I had played my part in the trial. There was nothing more I could do, in any event. They were either going to find Labuschagne guilty and sentence him to death, or they were going to acquit him. Either way, my job was done. For once I could afford to let my thoughts run free.

I thought of my childhood friend Oupa Venter. We were sitting in the shade of the camel thorn tree behind the kitchen of Welgedacht Primary School, taking a break from our sword and shield battles, Oupa playing the Roman centurion to my Spartacus. I never told him that according to the encyclopaedia we had on the farm the centurion was supposed to win and Spartacus was supposed to end up on a cross, broken and dehydrated. We were flicking seed pods, floating them in the air like pebbles on water. The only constant in our games was Oupa’s smile, his white teeth flashing in the light – whether he was on the winning or losing side, always that dashing smile.

I remembered the blond hairs on Oupa’s arms, bleached even whiter by exposure to the sun and contrasting with the tanned skin underneath. I felt my facial muscles tighten as I thought of his battered body, lying in his bed, with his blood spattered on the walls and the ceiling of his grandmother’s house in town. His sister and his grandmother had been murdered during the same frenzied attack that took his life. By then I was in high school, and had been overcome with curiosity. I went to look at the murder scene, a house in a dirt road on the poor side of Potgietersrus.

As I sat in Court C I could still see in my mind’s eye the photograph of Oupa’s murderer on the execution notice. It had been posted on the public notice board at the Magistrates’ Court. It was still there when I went for a job interview after I had finished school four years later. The photograph showed the murderer, a smiling man in his thirties, in a prison jacket. There was a number pinned across his chest – 1266. The notice said that Johannes Buchling had been executed for murder. I wondered if he was still smiling when they put the rope around his neck.

My father also appeared unbidden from the recesses of my memory, another smiling face in his thirties. I remembered the journey from Johannesburg to Pretoria in the car many years earlier, with my father driving and acting as tour guide at the same time. I had never been to Pretoria.

‘That is the place where they are going to hang van Buuren,’ he had said as we entered the city from the south. He pointed at the corner of a large building complex on the left. The words over the entrance gates were long for my not yet nine-year-old eyes, but I just managed to get them all before we passed the windowless corner of the last brown building.

PRETORIA SENTRAAL GEVANGENIS

PRETORIA CENTRAL PRISON

I remembered van Buuren, a suave, handsome young man wearing sunglasses, staring arrogantly at me from the front page of the Sunday paper. How could I have known at that time, during that miserable Johannesburg winter when I was racked with croup, that one day I would be the public prosecutor in the very same courtroom where the photograph had been taken?

I glanced up at the Judge – he was still dealing with preliminary matters – as I paged through the register on the table in front of me. I found the right year and scanned down the pages, one by one. There he was, immediately after Gideon Sibiya:

image missing

As I turned more pages of the Capital Cases Register, my eye fell on another name I recognised:

image missing

He had even made it into the Law Reports and I later had to study his case in Criminal Law 1 under the heading INSANITY. The letters EM next to his name intrigued me. I looked more closely at the other entries. There were other similar codes, and I deciphered them quickly. NM appeared the most frequently, Native Male. There were also lots of CMs, for Coloured Male. Occasionally there would be an EM, a European Male. I started looking into the register from a different angle. Why are there no IMs, Indian Males? I wondered. Yet I found one quickly. I also found two NFs on one page, Native Female. The search for an EF, European Female, did not take long either:

image missing

Rheeder was hanged for poisoning her husband. I remembered the case well. The hanging of a woman always made the headlines, and my reading skills had advanced by one year since van Buuren. Before I could find a CF or an IF, Judge van Zyl started to describe the execution process. I had to pay attention once more. The Judge turned a page and stared at the skylight above our heads briefly before he spoke. The clouds had returned for the judgment, great banks of them rushing over Pretoria in waves, their effect felt in the courtroom as alternating sheets of light and gloom as the judge read in and out of the paragraphs of the judgment. It was a judgment crafted for inclusion in the Law Reports. In the pages of the Death Sentence Register I found an escape from the tedium of words that were read and not spoken, of ideas that were emasculated by legalese and precedent.

‘The execution process can only be described as a dramatic and traumatic experience for everyone involved.’

The stress of the trial lingered in my robes as a sweaty mix of fear and apprehension.

Maximum Security Prison, Pretoria: 10 December 1987 2

An hour is a long time on Death Row, but on the day of an execution it is an eternity. Yet for some it may pass too quickly.

The seven men in the Pot waited anxiously for the footsteps they knew would come soon to the doors of their individual cells. They had slept fitfully during the night. Even the nights of the previous week were by now a dim memory of bleak images from their childhood days, of black nightmares, their vain illusions of escape or reprieve shattered by the regular beat of the warder’s boots on the catwalk above their cells. All through this last night the man on the catwalk had marched up and down slowly. Each time he approached the end of the cell-block the prisoners’ hopes would light up as the warder’s footsteps dimmed; then he would return and peer through the barred windows of their cells and extinguish the candle of hope again.

At exactly six o’clock the reveille bell signalled the start of the day in the cheerless complex known as Maximum Security Prison. The seven prisoners and the seven warders assigned to them shivered, mentally rehearsing what lay ahead of them in the next hour. The rest of the prison went into standby mode and no sound or movement signified life in any form within the grey walls. The nearly two hundred prisoners were usually roused from their bunks at the first sound of the bell, but they were left alone on hanging days until the gallows machine had done its work.

In the other sections of the prison the prisoners turned their worry inwards, knowing that the hour to seven o’clock would be a long one for them too. They were eager for the hour to pass so that they could return to the relative comfort of the tedium of prison routine. They did not want to think of the main business of the morning, the execution of their fellow prisoners, seven men who until a week ago had occupied cells among theirs.

The seven warders of the day shift who had reported for duty early faced the Warrant Officer in Charge of Security outside his office. By title this man was in charge of security, but the prison was so secure that such a job would have been boring in the extreme. In reality he was the man in charge of executions, which, in any event, outranked security as the most important pursuit of the prison.

The warders were to be the day’s gallows escorts, their duty to accompany the condemned men through every phase of the carefully planned activities of their final hour. The escorts, young men in khaki green, watched the Warrant Officer in silence and waited for the countdown to begin.

After checking their names against his duty roster, the Warrant Officer read the names of the prisoners to be executed that morning from an alphabetical list on his clipboard and allocated a warder to each prisoner.

‘Gcaba!’ The Warrant Officer pointed to a warder. The warder nodded.

‘Gcabashe!’

‘Maarman!’

‘Mbambani!’

‘Mjuza!’

‘Mkumbeni!’

‘Njele!’

One by one the warders nodded as they received their allocations.

They received their allocations patiently; there were no new warders on this watch and they knew full well what was expected of them. These seven men, some barely into their twenties, were gallows escorts, the men who would accompany the condemned men on their last journey, from the cells to the gallows, and from the gallows to the grave.

The escorts followed the Warrant Officer to the security grille at the entrance to A1 Section and paused behind him while the door was being unlocked. The door was locked behind them again, even though they were to return within minutes. The clatter of the keys and the tumblers in the lock were the only sounds to be heard.

The seven condemned men waited. They had been in these special cells for a week now, and twice they had heard the footsteps approaching at this hour, only to hear the warders stop at adjoining doors and take away other prisoners, seven on each occasion. Twice their minds had played games with them, suggesting that the footsteps were for them, that they were to be called out, and twice they had watched through the barred windows in their doors as others were taken away.

The agony of the wait was worse than anything, for some it was worse even than the prospect of death.

Exactly a week earlier a different set of footsteps had stopped at their doors while they were still in the general cells. It had been a hanging day, the third of December, and after the hangings had been completed the cell doors had been opened as usual at seven o’clock for the prisoners to clean their cells and be given breakfast. Later in the morning the whole prison had been put in lock-down mode again and a roll call was taken. The prisoners knew what that meant. Then, as now, they waited, but on that occasion there had been uncertainty. At whose door would the footsteps stop?

They had stopped at the doors of the men now waiting for their appointment with the Executioner.

‘Pak!’

The single most feared word in the whole of the prison’s vocabulary. The prisoners who were told to pack their belongings would not return to the general cells of Maximum Security Prison. They would be taken away to await execution or to leave Maximum for total freedom or to be taken to another prison to serve an alternative sentence. The Sheriff would tell them which, but first they would have to accompany the warders and the Sheriff to the admin office.

For the seven men now waiting the news had been that the State President had decided not to grant them mercy and that they would be hanged in a week’s time.

When the prisoners elsewhere in the grey complex were not hurried from their cells immediately after the bell, their suspicion that today was a hanging day was confirmed, and they immediately started singing. At first there was only the lone voice of a tenor in a3 Section, then baritones and basses from other parts joined in.

Kumbaya, my Lord

Kumbaya

Kumbaya, my Lord

Kumbaya

Kumbaya, my Lord

Kumbaya

Oh Lord, Kumbaya

The chorus engaged the next verse, and the next, in the same melancholic and plaintive tones, verse after verse, reverently yet insistently. In the past week so many men had been called out for their appointment with the Hangman that the singing had been almost continuous. For more than ten days now the prisoners had been singing and the warders had been too exhausted to stop them.

Someone’s praying, Lord

Kumbaya

Someone’s praying, Lord

Kumbaya

Someone’s praying, Lord

Kumbaya

Oh Lord, Kumbaya

In A1 the escorts quickly took up their positions, a man at each door, and the Warrant Officer produced a large key on a lanyard. He glanced sideways to make sure that all his men were ready. Then he brusquely opened the cell doors one after the other. As he opened each door, an escort stepped into the eight-by-six-foot cell and faced its sole inhabitant.

The waiting was over.

Trek jou dagklere aan! Geen onderbroek of kouse en skoene nie!’

Each warder spoke with the authority of the Warrant Officer behind him.

The language of the prison was Afrikaans.

One of the prisoners was slow to rise from his bed.

‘Maak soos ek sê en maak gou!’

The prisoners complied mechanically, conditioned to do exactly as they were told. Their minds were numb with fear as they undressed sluggishly. Out of habit they neatly folded their blue-and-white-striped pyjamas and placed the fear-filled rags at the head of their bunks. They stepped gingerly into the green prison trousers and pulled their shirts over their heads. When they were dressed they were almost indistinguishable from their escorts, frightened young men in faded prison green.

The armed guards on the catwalk, sweating already under the heat of the steel roof above their heads, looked down, ready for any eventuality, but there was no resistance, no complaint, nor a plea for mercy from any of the prisoners.

What little residual hope the prisoners might have entertained when they entered this prison had been abandoned, as had their faith in their Court-appointed lawyers and the appeals system. They had known since the day they were sentenced how they were to die. ‘Hanged by the neck until you are dead,’ their judges had told them. They had also known for a week precisely when they were to die. The Sheriff had told them: ‘Thursday next week, at seven o’clock.’ Their time was near. What good would resistance do?

One by one the prisoners emerged from their cells. Each escort took his man by the sleeve of the upper arm and the escorts quickly lined up the prisoners in alphabetical order, as on the Warrant Officer’s list.

Gcaba, Gcabashe, Maarman, Mbambani, Mjuza, Mkumbeni, Njele.

‘Dit is tyd om te gaan.’

The Warrant Officer spoke to the prisoners for the first time. He checked that the formation of escorts and prisoners was ready and then turned on his heel. He walked stiffly to the security grille. The escorts and prisoners followed in pairs and in silence.

The procession came to a halt at the grille. The Warrant Officer rapped on the door with his clipboard and the door was unlocked and opened just long enough to let them through. Two men were waiting at a table in the passage, directly opposite the Warrant Officer’s office. The prisoners immediately recognised one of them: it was the man they knew as Squala, the Sheriff who a week earlier had brought the news that the State President had decided not to extend mercy to them.

The other man was a senior police officer, a lieutenant colonel, no less, in full dress uniform.

The policeman rose and with the informality born of years of experience quickly took the first prisoner’s right thumb, rolled it across an inkpad and placed a sheet of paper at the edge of the table. The form had already been completed by the admin staff, who had inserted the policeman’s details, the date, and the name and V-number of the prisoner.

The policeman rolled the prisoner’s right thumb over the marked spot on the sheet. Next he took a small but powerful magnifying glass from his top pocket and quickly compared the print he had taken with the right thumb print on the death warrant. When he had satisfied himself that the prints were identical, the policeman signed the form. The prisoner looked on mutely, not making eye contact with anyone, as he had been taught.

PRISON REF. NO. V3664

I, No. W39520T Rank LIEUTENANT COLONEL Name WILLEM JACOBUS DU PLESSIS, a fingerprint expert in the SA Police, stationed at the South African Criminal Bureau, Pretoria, confirm that on 1987/12/10 at 06h00 at Central Prison, Pretoria, I physically took the right thumb print of MNUXA JEROME GCABA Prison Ref. No. V3664 and compared it with the right thumb print of MNUXA JEROME GCABA appearing on the death warrant J 221A and found the two to be identical.

PRETORIA W J du Plessis

DATE: 10.12.87 SIGNATURE

Right thumb print

One of the prisoners moaned and started sobbing. The Warrant Officer fixed him with a stern look.

Staan stil en staan regop!’

He spoke as if to all of them. He cast his eye over the escorts, surreptitiously; he knew that they had been performing beyond the call of duty during the last week, mere boys doing the work of men.

‘Ruk jou reg, man! Staan stil!’

The prisoner perked up slightly but his whole body was caught in an uncontrollable shudder that ebbed and flowed like the tide. Each time the shivering reached its highest point, the prisoner allowed a primitive groan to escape his contorted lips; it seemed to come from the very core of him. He caught the Warrant Officer’s penetrating stare and wilted under it, but his fear of the Warrant Officer paled against his fear of his own imminent death.

The escorts stood next to their prisoners, in two’s, stiff and ashen-faced. Each held his prisoner by the right sleeve. They were entitled to ask why they should do this job, why they could not withdraw or walk away, but they did not. They faced their duty stoically, masking their own fear under military poses, standing almost to attention, in a column, every man looking straight ahead, a well-drilled unit whose individual members were able to hide their fears and shortcomings in collective action. The shivering and fear in the column was contagious and sympathetically transferred from prisoner to escort, and apprehension passed from escort to prisoner. Each pair had become a pitiful symbiosis, shaking and breathing in unison, at the very edge of self-control as the line snaked towards the table.

Thus they stood, the seven prisoners and their escorts, each having been trained and indoctrinated by the prison culture to perform their respective tasks for the morning, to obey without question, to react immediately and without thinking to every command, to go where they were sent, to march in unison, every man in step. Like a robber and his victim, they shared the fear of the moment.

When the policeman had completed the first certificate he handed it to the Warrant Officer, who in turn slipped it into the folds of the death warrant on the clipboard. Then he motioned to the escort to take the prisoner further into the corridor and with his index finger beckoned to the second prisoner to approach. The policeman did his job with practised ease while the escorts looked on.

The process of identification, fingerprinting and certification in respect of all seven prisoners was completed in half an hour.

The policeman had no further duties to perform at the prison and left immediately through the main guardhouse as the Executioner, a nondescript, elderly man, a retired policeman, arrived. They exchanged a perfunctory greeting in passing each other, each knowing full well the purpose of the other’s presence at the prison. The Warrant Officer and the Sheriff checked their records a second time. They had to be sure that they were hanging the right people.

At exactly six-thirty the prisoners were herded down the passage to the chapel. At least two further security doors had to be unlocked before they could enter. Unseen by them the Hangman joined the back of the procession and slipped through the door leading to the gallows building.

Fifteen minutes was allowed for a short service. The prisoners and escorts sat paired in the pews.

The Hangman went upstairs to wait for them. The Warrant Officer and the Sheriff had time for a cup of coffee in the Warrant Officer’s office.

While the chaplain was engaged in the business of salvation, the Hangman went about his final preparations upstairs in the gallows chamber. He started by examining his equipment. Seven well-used hemp ropes had been laid out for him on the table under the window. He checked each rope for wear or defects that could interfere with his task. Some of the ropes showed signs of wear, but the steel rings and rubber washers appeared to be in good condition. He nodded in approval. The ropes were fine; he preferred the old ropes, made supple by frequent use. A stiff new rope took more time to adjust to the right tightness and position anyway.

The Hangman stood with one of the ropes in his hands, turning the noose inside out for a detailed inspection. He knew this would be the last hanging day of the year. The Department of Justice had advised him that he could take a break for a few weeks. He could not remember how many he had hanged during the year, he would have to check his records, but he had had a busy year and a hectic fortnight and, although his part of the job was easier than that of the escorts and the Warrant Officer, he still felt the tension in his back muscles before every hanging. Things could go wrong so easily, and then the blame would fall on him.

He had work to do. He started by inspecting the rope in his hands more carefully. The rope was standard hemp, an inch thick. The one end was tidied by a string, wound tight to ensure that the rope did not fray. The other end of the rope ended in a fist-sized knot where the rope had been spliced back onto itself, encasing a steel washer. The rope ran through the steel washer, forming the noose, and in the Hangman’s hands the hemp moved smoothly through the steel washer. A heavy-duty black rubber grommet had been set in position to create a noose matching the thickness of the prisoner’s neck. The Hangman slid the steel washer to the grommet and pushed hard against the resistance. The rubber grommet did its work and held the steel washer firmly. The Hangman nodded absently as he picked up the Warrant Officer’s list of prisoners with the relevant measurements against each name. He decided to do a spot check of the first prisoner’s details and calculations.

The list gave the prisoner’s neck size in inches, to the quarter-inch, and his weight in pounds. The Hangman carefully measured the inner circumference of the noose with the steel washer flush against the rubber grommet. The noose was fine and its calculations correct. The Hangman next checked the prisoner’s weight against the Table of Drops and nodded again when he found the calculation of the drop to be correct to the last inch.

With the calculations in order, the Hangman started attaching the ropes to the beam overhead. He used the articulated measuring stick, eight feet long, to mark the precise length of the drop. By means of a special knot he fastened the rope to a shackle attached to the beam overhead. Then he meticulously checked that the length of the drop was exactly in accordance with the calculations. When he was sure that he had everything right, he tightened the knot securely with a special wooden mallet so that the ropes could not slip under the weight of the prisoner. He repeated the process until all seven hanging ropes were securely attached to the beam.

The preparations by the Warrant Officer and his staff had been meticulous and there was little else for the Hangman to do. When he had finished fixing the ropes to the beam he lifted each noose to head height and tied it with a rubber band to the rope. He stood back and looked down the line of nooses. They were out of the way and ready to be attached to the prisoners.

In the parking lot outside Maximum, the first relatives were arriving in small groups. Only two members of each family would be allowed to attend a funeral service in the chapel. They stood around in silence looking at each other, suspecting that they were sharing a similar fate, to be witnesses, but not eyewitnesses, to the destruction of their sons. They would not be allowed to enter the prison until ten to nine but had come early. They could not hear the singing inside the walls, nor could they know that the words reflected their mood exactly.

Someone’s waiting, Lord

Kumbaya

The Hangman waited and studied his surroundings with a knowing eye.

There were four items of furniture in the gallows chamber: a mahogany cupboard in the corner next to the door and a table with two straight-backed wooden chairs against another wall under a row of small windows. Natural light streamed through the windows onto the Warrant Officer’s list of prisoners with the drop calculations on the table.

The gallows machine with its appurtenances dominated the room and, as befitted its status, occupied the centre of the room.

The machine consisted of a number of integrated pieces. A rust-brown steel I-beam was attached to the roof immediately above the trapdoors with steel bolts. It ran the length of the trapdoors with a bit to spare at either end. Suspended from the beam, at various points, were the shackles to which the hanging ropes were attached. There was also a moveable block and tackle attached to the beam. It was used for the heavy lifting, to raise the heavy trapdoors into position and to haul the dead bodies back up into the gallows chamber.

The trapdoors fit into an eight-by-two-yard opening in the floor. The opening was lined on all sides by metal framing of angular steel tubing. The steel frame was part of an elaborate mechanism designed to keep the trapdoors in place and to allow them to open when their release mechanism was sprung. Each of the doors was made of six two-inch-thick hardwood planks glued side by side with epoxy. The undersides of the trapdoors were reinforced with steel straps. At the end of each reinforcing strap was a heavy-duty hinge where the door was attached to the frame.

On either side of the trapdoors was a waist-high handrail running the length of the trapdoors. At the end of the left handrail was the lever. It stood about four feet high and had two safety devices built into it. One was a simple pin that was inserted into the lever mechanism just above the floor and prevented the lever from being pushed forward accidentally. The other was a clutch on the handle of the lever itself.

The Hangman methodically checked each item in the gallows chamber before he removed the safety pin from the lever. He was ready. He looked at his watch. It was twelve minutes to seven. Even though he had used the same equipment without mishap twice already earlier in the week, he decided to take the stairs to the pit room below in order to inspect the main mechanism in the undercarriage of the trapdoors. He descended slowly into the windowless room below the gallows.

The Hangman stood directly under the trapdoors, in a square pit in the floor of the room. The pit gave the room its name and was approximately a foot deep, with a drain in one corner.

The singing in the chapel slowly increased in intensity and could now be heard clearly throughout the complex. When the hymn reached its chorus the escorts joined in and the call for salvation rose to a crescendo.

The singing stopped abruptly as the sermon ended.

When the singing stopped the Hangman knew that it would be no more than ten minutes before the prisoners would be on the trapdoors. He looked up and with his eyes followed the metal tubing to the points where the frame was braced against the ceiling of the pit room. A set of pins on a steel rod supported elbow extensions under the trapdoors, holding them in position. The release mechanism ran the length of the left-side trapdoor and consisted of a steel rod with pins at points opposite the elbow extensions. When the lever was activated, the rod moved backwards and the pins slid out from under the elbow extensions. The trapdoors, devoid of support, then dropped down.

The Hangman took special care in his examination of this crude contraption. Satisfied with the state of the main mechanism he looked cursorily at the rest of the equipment.

More metal tubing and strips cradled six stopper bags on each side below the trapdoors. The stopper bags were suspended from the ceiling by metal cradles. Their function was to catch the trapdoors when they opened and to mute the noise of the trapdoors slamming against the sides of the frame. The stopper bags were made of heavy-duty canvas and were filled with straw.

Footsteps in the room above alerted the Hangman to the fact that the senior officers who had to attend every execution had arrived. He went back into the gallows chamber and shook hands with them. They made small talk, the Head of Central Prison, the Head of Maximum, the Medical Officer and the Hangman. Four warders on standby duty stood to one side.

It was ten to seven. In the chapel the escorts produced standard police issue handcuffs, prodded the prisoners into line and cuffed their hands behind their backs. There was an unexpected though undemonstrative gentleness in their actions. But for the brief moment when the Hangman would slip the nooses over their heads and tighten the ropes around their necks, for these prisoners this would be the last skin contact with another human being. The escorts wasted no time. They gently tugged at the sleeves of their prisoners and led them to the first door. A warder stood at the ready with a key and as the column of prisoners and escorts approached he put the key in the lock and turned it in the same motion.

The heavy door swung open and a whiff of teargas wafted down, partly masked by the smell of disinfectant. It brought back unpleasant memories, of a day when the prison had been filled with shouts and curses and teargas and everyone inside it had been gagging and wheezing, with tears streaming from their eyes. The door slammed shut behind them, locking the column into the narrow stairwell.

The prisoners had never been to this part of the prison. When they looked up, all they could see was the staircase, the grey wall on their left, the steel grille on the right, and the handrails on either side. The handrails were not for them; their hands were firmly cuffed behind their backs. Not that such a precaution could ever match the desperate ingenuity of a man about to be hanged. The stairwell was narrow and windowless at the lower reaches. At the top sunlight filtered through a solitary window.

In the crush of the stairwell the procession made steady progress to the first landing, but when the prisoners in front saw yet another landing ahead they baulked and reared back, bumping into the prisoners and escorts behind them. One man turned and started making his way down when his escort was caught in the stampede of retreating prisoners. The escorts further down the stairs stood firm, blocking the way, but it is always easier fighting one’s way down the stairs than up, and for a moment it looked as if the retreating prisoner would get all the way down, but his escort caught up with him and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and dragged him back to his place higher up in the column.

The escorts held onto their prisoners with a firm grip of the shirt collar and another hand on the handcuffs, lifting the prisoners’ arms high behind their backs. This was not going to be an easy hanging, they knew from experience. With kicks and smacks they settled the column down and made their way up, grunting and cursing, with more kicks and smacks as the need arose. The prisoners put up a token resistance, their spirit broken after a year or more of unremitting conditioning and abuse and by the futility of the uneven contest. The procession came to a halt a number of times when a prisoner’s legs gave in or a manacled hand would not let go of the handrail. Prisoner and escort alike had to fight gravity and fear at every step, on unwilling legs. The escorts’ shouts and exhortations filled the stairwell but could not be heard outside. The smell of teargas was stronger the higher they went. A prisoner wet his trousers. An escort gagged and struggled to hold his breakfast. The column coiled its way upwards, to the light.

When the procession arrived at the top of the stairs most of the men in the column were breathing hard, their uniforms untidy, their eyes wild in their flushed faces. The pungent smell of urine blended with the smell of unwashed men. They entered a large ante-room with some cell doors on the left.

The Sheriff stood waiting with folded arms at the far side of the room with the Warrant Officer. The escorts once again prodded the prisoners into line and turned them to face the Warrant Officer and the Sheriff. The prisoners complied mechanically and stood in a bedraggled line, heads down.

The Warrant Officer held his clipboard in his left hand, with seven white hoods draped over his arm. He studied the prisoners and escorts briefly and then raised his arm to look at his watch. It was five to seven; they were a minute ahead of schedule. He liked things to go exactly according to plan, so he took his time.

‘Staan vorentoe!’

The escorts pushed their men a yard to the front and held them there.

The Warrant Officer walked slowly down the line of prisoners. They kept their eyes on his shoes.

‘Ek wil niks kak van julle hê nie.’

The prisoners stood mute; the escorts peered over their shoulders.

The Sheriff came over to join the Warrant Officer in front of the first prisoner in the line. Standing face to face with the prisoner, the Warrant Officer made a show of comparing the prisoner’s features with those in the first photograph on his clipboard. It was the photograph taken on the prisoner’s admission more than a year earlier. The Warrant Officer did not speak; this was not his show but the Sheriff’s. He took a step to the side as the Sheriff stepped up to the first prisoner.

The Sheriff addressed the prisoner by his name, exactly as it was written on the death warrant.

‘Mnuxa Jerome Gcaba, do you have anything to say before the sentence of the Court is carried out?’ he asked. He struggled with the pronunciation of the Zulu names.

The prisoner mumbled something incoherent. He wanted to speak but did not know what to say. Before he could change his mind, the Sheriff stepped back and made a tick on his own clipboard. The Warrant Officer reached behind the prisoner and handed one of the white hoods to the escort. The custom-made hood was an elasticised headcloth with an additional flap, also elasticised, which would in due course be hooked under the prisoner’s chin and cover his face completely. The escort adjusted the hood on the prisoner’s head and pushed the flap back over the prisoner’s head. When he was satisfied that the hood was properly in place, the Warrant Officer handed the escort the prisoner’s name tag. The escort pocketed the tag and held his prisoner in position in the line. The first prisoner was ready.

‘Thank you,’ said the Sheriff with exaggerated politeness as he went up to the next prisoner to repeat the formality.

‘Joseph Gcabashe, do you have anything to say before the sentence of the Court is carried out?’

From here on things would happen fast. In less than five minutes these prisoners would be hanging from their ropes, destroyed by order of the law.

Yet every second would feel like an eternity for those in the gallows chamber.

Immediately after the last white hood had been put in place, the escorts pulled their prisoners by their shirtsleeves into the next room, following the Warrant Officer’s unspoken command. The prisoners looked around curiously. They had heard the rumour that the condemned were not really hanged, that they were to be taken to secret dungeons below the prison to work as slaves in the Mint, to produce banknotes and coins. But there were no machines in the room and it was devoid of furniture. There was only a row of windows high up on the one side and a second door obliquely ahead.

Ahead of them the Warrant Officer stopped at the door and stood next to it. The Warrant Officer waited with his hand on the door handle. Behind him the Sheriff stood at the front of the column, followed by the prisoners and escorts in pairs.

Here in this last stop before the gallows, the prisoners had a moment to reflect. They tried desperately not to look at the door, tried not to think of what lay behind it. But their thoughts took them to another world of horror and pain and death as an array of events slipped into focus, as in a dream, flickering without colour or sound. Disjointed incidents reared up from their past, a past that was distant yet real, a past that could not be ignored in this final act before the fall of the curtain.

Picture a slightly built, elderly man, walking with a stick, carrying his Bible in the early evening of a Cape Town autumn, being robbed of his meagre possessions, even his dentures. He cries pitifully for help, but to no avail, as he is stabbed repeatedly by his three young assailants. Some women rush to the scene, but the killers ignore their pleas to leave the old man alone. The killers run from the scene only when the police arrive unexpectedly.

Move to a farmhouse attached to a small hotel in Natal. A gang of four lies in wait for the lights to be turned off in the bedroom of the elderly couple they have been stalking. The gang is impatient; it is taking too long. One of them enters the house on a reconnaissance but creeps out again on finding the couple still awake. They decide to wait. At last the lights go out and the gang steal into the house. They grab the sickly old man from his bed and wrest his pistol from him. They stab him in the lung and ransack the house even as his distressed wife shields him from further injury. They rush off into the night. On the way to the hospital the old man drowns in his own blood, in his wife’s arms, while his killers sit down to argue over the fairest way to divide the spoils.

Imagine a middle-aged man in the Transvaal, pleading pitifully for his life with his three youthful attackers. But they taunt him, ‘Do you know what the date is tomorrow? It is the sixteenth of June. You know what that means!’ They rob him of a few meaningless possessions. They discuss ways of killing him before they strike him repeatedly on the head with a hammer. When he does not die quickly enough they pull at opposite ends of a rope around his neck to strangle him. It takes him a long time to die. They drive around with the body in the boot of the dead man’s car before they finally return to the scene to build a pyre of wood and abandoned car tyres and dispose of the body by reducing it to ashes. Even as the body burns the three killers go for another ride in the car. They stop to pick up their girlfriends and have a party during which they distribute the loot.

Then picture Cape Town, where two young men surprise a kindly seventy-three-year-old woman in poor health and living alone, in her kitchen. The one stabs her in the shoulder and takes her to the bathroom where he allows her to wash off the blood. He rapes her in her bedroom. He stops from time to time to shout instructions to his companion about which items to collect from the rest of the house. He smashes the pleading victim’s skull with an ornamental stone she uses as a doorstop. The killers pack the day’s takings and go drinking.

But there was little time for reflection.

The Warrant Officer looked at his watch again. It was one minute to seven.

Then he turned and opened the door without another word. The column followed the Sheriff through the door where they passed the Hangman without seeing him, their eyes fixed on the scene ahead. They were in the gallows chamber.

Immediately in front of the column was the gallows machine with its seven ropes ending in the nooses hanging at eye level, coiled and ready. The ropes so dominated the scene that the prisoners did not notice the officials waiting against the wall. In a row under the window and well clear of the gallows machine stood the Head of Pretoria Central Prison, the Head of Maximum Security Prison, the Prison Medical Officer and the four standby warders. The two officers were dressed in their most formal uniforms: prison-green trousers, shirts and ties and fully buttoned tunics. The doctor wore a businesslike white safari suit. The Hangman was in shirtsleeves, the warders in their fatigues. Like the Hangman they were not spectators, they had work to do.

The escorts did not break their stride as they walked the seven prisoners onto the trapdoors, still holding their charges by their shirtsleeves. The prisoners went onto the trapdoors between the two handrails while the escorts took a line on the outer side of the right handrail. Under the combined weight of the prisoners the trapdoors gave way ever so slightly and the prisoners instinctively looked for a handhold, but their arms were cuffed behind their backs. The escorts quickly manoeuvred them precisely into position, a prisoner on each of the seven pairs of painted feet on the trapdoors and a noose hanging from the beam exactly above each hooded head. The prisoners stood with heads down, their eyes averted from the ropes. But for the prisoner in front, who faced a blank wall, the entire view of each prisoner was filled with the spectre of the shivering prisoner in front of him.

The ropes smelled of the blood of recent hangings. The hemp in the noose was stained.

Overwhelmed, a prisoner in the middle of the line stumbled and his legs started to buckle. One of the standby warders sprang forward to the rail on the left and grabbed the prisoner by the arm as he fell away from his escort. Together the two warders raised the prisoner and held him upright in position. The prisoner swayed in their grip, oblivious to the further proceedings. The white hood had slipped to the side of his head. The standby warder held him steady as the escort quickly readjusted the hood.

The moment the last prisoner was in position, the Hangman moved up to the back of the line and, starting with the last prisoner, slipped the noose over the hood and around the prisoner’s neck. Then he expertly adjusted the noose to ensure a tight fit. The steel ring on the noose sat in exactly the desired position, flush against the jaw immediately below the prisoner’s left ear. The aim was for the combined effect of the rope slamming the head over to the right and the rest of the body continuing its fall to shatter the cervical vertebrae of the prisoner’s neck and to crush the spinal cord. This would happen at the point where the cord exited the skull, between the two vertebrae known as the atlas and axis. As soon as the fit of the noose was exactly to the Hangman’s liking, he turned the flap of the white hood down and hooked its elastic seam under the prisoner’s chin so that it covered his face completely.

The Hangman took but a few seconds with each prisoner. Slip the noose over the head. Slide the steel ring over to the rubber grommet. Pull tight to ensure a good fit. Drop the flap of the white hood over the face. Next prisoner.

Slip noose. Slide ring. Pull tight. Drop flap.

Seven times the Hangman completed the sequence. Slip. Slide. Pull. Drop.

When he had completed the process with the prisoner at the front of the line, the Hangman was right next to the lever.

When the clock in the Dutch Reformed Church in front of Maximum Security Prison began to strike the hour of seven, the condemned men were on their marks on the trapdoors, the ropes around their necks and their escorts by their side.

For a second, time stood still. The moment so long awaited had arrived.

The prisoners stood still on the trapdoors for that eternal moment. They were about to pay the price for their greed, for their rapacity, for their callous, murderous hearts, for the opportunities they had missed to do good things, for the opportunities they had denied their victims, for the pain they had caused to so many others. Their hearts were beating in their ears. Their lungs were drawing quick, shallow breaths. They hyperventilated and the white hoods billowed out in front of their faces with every exhalation, only to be sucked in by the next desperate gasp for air. In this last moment before death every synapse, every sinew was alive with the most acute sense of the present, the here and the now.

Time stood still also for the escorts. They stood on their side of the rail, each next to his allotted prisoner. They were in empathic distress, their pulses racing and their chests heaving with strained breathing. For them too the here and the now was overwhelming, the stench of fear and the smell of the ropes in their nostrils. What fate ordained who should go on the right and who should go on the left of the rail? The escorts knew what was in store for them. Doesn’t everyone who kills die a little with each killing?

That long second ended as the Hangman, in a smooth and practised movement, disengaged the clutch and pushed the lever forward. The escorts, acting as if on an unspoken command, simultaneously let go of their charges and took a step away from the rail. The Hangman looked backwards and down over his right shoulder as the metal cam-rod device supporting the cross-supports under the trapdoors slid forward and allowed gravity to take over. The officials and standby warders on the far side of the room stiffened.

The trapdoors opened with a mechanical thud.

Kellunck!

The prisoners’ bare feet desperately sought purchase on the receding trapdoors and a rush of air escaped upwards between the doors.

Shooosh!