Nemeth/Star Productions - Picture Gallery

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Home / #RightNow / Season 2021 / EP03 - #RightNow Johannesburg: Constitution Hill - Women's Jail 15

The paintings that you see enlarged on the walls of this courtyard were done by Fatima Meer while she was in detention in the Women's Jail for six months in 1976 on charges of terrorism. Fatima was given the paints by a close friend and comrade, Nana Weinberg, who frequently visited her in the Jail. Prisoners were not allowed to paint any images of the Jail and Fatima did these in secret. One day, Fatima was called to meet the Superintendent of the Jail. Fatima recorded the following conversation with the Superintendent. "I have a report that you have been making sketches of the prison. You know that is against the rules, 'said the Superintendent. 'Sketches of the prison!' I feigned surprise. ' We are locked in our yards. How can I sketch the prison?' 'I thought as much,' she said, to my relief. 'i have been painting flowers and makind cards. You have seen these. They go through your office.' 'i know,' she said. ' The vagaash (black wardress) must have been mistaken.' I thanked my lucky stars. Just yesterday I rolled up the sketches and hid them under my underwear and discreetly passed them on to our lawyer during consultation. Winnie had taken charge of the remaining paintings and had smuggled them out through a vagaash." This large cell held up to seventy sentenced prisoners. Most women were here for criminal offences, but some sentenced political prisoners were also kept in these cells. The wardresses would use long-term sentenced prisoners to keep order in the cell. These cell bosses would use their power to extract favours from other prisoners. "Sis Gugu was a boss. She was fat like a man. She was in control. She would take your food. Sometimes she told you to take off her overalls. And then you had to wash it for her. You were her baby. If she didn't like you, you would scrub without soap. Even the matron would see and say nothing." Nomsa Mthethwa, pass offender, 1976 and 1977 "I am a Zulu and not used to silly things. I used to hate snangananga (lesbian sex). Sometimes someone would ask you to wash a vest for her and you would do it innocently. In the meantime she would be going around telling people that you were her girlfriend and that would lead to a fight." Assienah Mnisi, prisoner, 1973 "I am crying now because I am sad and sorry and angry when I think about the suffering inside these cells. There were bullies who wanted to force you to become angry and do something that increased your sentence, especially if you were about to be released. We used to hide our prison cards so that others didn't know the duration of our sentence." Bella Dlamini, prisoner, 1973 "The only time we had peace of mind was during the night and between one and two o'clock in the afternoon when we were always locked up in our cells as the warders went for lunch. This hour seemed like a week away from the swearing and the insults one heard each hour of the day from the warders and from the Iong-term Prisoners. The daily language was so foul that I felt sick of the Place." Maggie Resha, Political Prisoner, 1959 "This was the devil's place and sometimes we would hear the prisoners screaming because of the beatings that were taking place," Daphne Kunene, trespasser, 1976 Text: Constitution Hill Museum