Ninety-five percent of the people sentenced to death in South Africa during the apartheid years were black, while all the people who sentenced them were white, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was told on Tuesday.

In a written submission to the TRC's special hearing on prisons at the Johannesburg Fort on Tuesday, Paula McBride, wife of former African National Congress guerilla Robert McBride, said the death penalty was a gross human rights violation.

Her husband Robert, now a deputy director in the Foreign Affairs Department, spent four years in Pretoria Maximum Prison on death row from 1987 to 1990 for the 1980s Durban beachfront bombing of Magoo's Bar in which several people were killed.

McBride said she had visited him every day he was in prison.

"(The death penalty) brutalises those sentenced and those who sentence - the judges," she said.

She told of how 28 people were killed in a week in December 1987 during the Christmas leave period. The inmates called this the "Christmas rush".

During the four years her husband was in jail, 300 people were hanged. She described Pretoria Maximum Prison as the "head office of hanging", which was perfectly designed to kill people.

Prisoners were kept under 24-hour surveillance, with the lights on all the time. Prisoners would be told they were to die, or had been granted clemency, when the sheriff arrived at the prison.

McBride said at that time there was silence as the warders walked down the corridors.

Prisoners were told to pack their things and would line up outside an office until they were led in individually to be told their fate.

Those being executed would be taken to a holding area where they would "boil with stress" for seven days before their execution, McBride said.

"Seven days, let me tell you, is a very long time for a human being when you know the exact time and way you will be killed," McBride said.

This was confirmed by death row prisoner Duma Khumalo, one of the Sharpeville Six, who was sentenced to death in December 1985 for the murder of Vaal Triangle deputy mayor Khuzwayo Dlamini in September 1984.

Khumalo said in a statement the cruelty of the death penalty was not restricted to the actual moment of execution, but began the moment sentence was passed.

He told about the psychological trauma of being on Death Row, the tension in everyday life in the prison and the anxiety of waiting to hear who was to hanged.

"We were all frightened. We didn't know when we would be called. Strong men at night would cry," he said.

He had been initially unable to eat when he arrived at the prison. He said condemned men on their last day alive were given a meal of chicken but could not eat it. They were also given R7 to buy things from the tuckshop. The men gave their food to other death row prisoners.

Khumalo said one death sentence prisoner was under age when he arrived at prison. "They let him grow for death row. After two years they hanged him."

Khumalo was granted indemnity before the 1994 elections. "I'm fortunate because I'm still alive, I was nearly hanged for something I didn't do," he said.

He said he was nowhere near the rent boycott march that led to the murder of Dlamini.

Hearing chairwoman Joyce Seroke quoted from the court record, showing Khumalo was convicted as a result of "association with the crowd". The sentencing judge and the Appeal Court had acknowledged there was no direct evidence the "Sharpeville Six" were involved in the murder.

McBride said the prison authorities prevented information about executions getting out of the prison. Families would be sent a second-class train ticket to attend the funeral. They were not allowed to watch the execution but were allowed to attend a memorial service in the prison, where their relatives' coffins would be displayed.

The coffins were closed and no one was allowed to touch them. McBride said during busy weeks relatives would arrive at the prison at the same time as the coffins from the previous day's hangings were being transported out: they were stacked in minibuses.

Relatives would later be sent a grave number for the grave in which the executed prisoner was buried. The commission also heard from a still-serving warder from the Pretoria Maximum Prison, who gave explicit details about the execution process.

Johan Steinberg told how the awaiting-death prisoners would have their identifies checked, and were marched down a corridor to a reception room where they had bags placed over their heads.

They were then taken into the gallows room and the hangman would place the nooses over the condemned person's neck. They would then each be hanged.

Steinberg said he was psychologically affected by two-and-a-half years of being involved in the execution process. He became aggressive and had difficulty communicating with his family.

He often would have to clean the room below the gallows, where prisoners often defecated as they were hanged.

"There we did our job, and did it professionally, if I can call it professional. No jokes were made. We didn't even smoke.

"In a way it was sacrosanct. We had a respect for death. There was no frivolity or discrimination," he said.

Referring to the closed coffins at the memorial services, Steinberg said open coffins would have been extremely traumatic and psychologically damaging for families.

"I know what a person looks like when they've been hanged. It's not a pretty sight. It would have been psychologically damaging for a parent to see them in such a state."

Seroke said from June 1982 to June 1983, 38 of the 81 blacks convicted of murdering whites were executed. None of the 31 whites who murdered blacks were hanged and only one of the whites who murdered whites was executed in the same period, she said.

McBride said pro-death penalty advocates should spend the last seven days with a condemned man to experience the terror and horror of the death penalty.

Seroke quoted, from McBride's submission, comments by heart surgeon Chris Barnard, who ironically shared a name with one of the prison's executioners.

Barnard's 1978 comment described hanging as a "slow, dirty, horrible, uncivilised and unspeakably barbaric" means to take a man's life. In the last 10 years, 16 countries had abolished the death penalty, Seroke said.

South African Press Association, 1997
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