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History of Detention in South Africa


Detention in South Africa was a common feature during the apartheid era. The government of the day used detention as a way of gathering information. The Truth Commission in South Africa in its reports ascertains that renowned Special Branch was mandated to get intelligence on behalf of the government (Bell 2003 p. 332). Detention of South African citizens was done with utmost cruelty until in the late 1950s. However, a new legal perspective regarding the concept took shape in 1963 when the apartheid regime opted to redefine political detention. The General Laws Amendment Act of 1963 oversaw the number of political detainees rise to that effect. The detention of renowned South African former president Nelson Mandela resulted from this amendment. The significance of political detention meant a lifetime sentence without parole. The General Law Amendment Act was associated with the 90-Day Act that promoted detention without charges and subsequent release of suspects after 3 months (Kathrada 2000, p. 11).

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With time, the 90-Day Act was reviewed and advanced to 180- Day Detention Act, which was part of the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act of 1976. Apparently, the new act allowed re-arresting of suspects upon their release from detention.

The history of detention in South Africa is accounted for by endless interrogation and torture. Physical assault and interviews, as well as coercion, were used as a form of torture. The most extreme torture methods during detention included electric shocks, verbal abuse and physical beatings. These acts were recounted and confirmed to the South Africa Truth Commission by African National congress detainees like Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj and Laloo Chiba at Robben Island (Murray 2008 p.360). Tales of how the apartheid regime subjected South African natives to poverty are still associated with detention horrors.

Detention and improvement

By 1967, detention in South Africa was reinforced by the Terrorism Act (Neocleous 2006, p. 193). This advancement allowed detention of people without trial and subsequent interrogation in solitary confinements. Detention under security legislation later evolved to the Internal Security Amendment Act and the Internal Security Act between 1976 and 1986 respectively (Christopher 2002, p. 166). It is important to note that security legislation on detention was preceded by emergency legislation on the same.

Currently, South Africa still uses security legislation on detention. For example, detention powers on interrogation, prevention and witness still exist.

Violations and controversies

Violations of human rights are recorded as prevalent in South Africa’s detention policy. This can be attributed to the fact that detention violates various human rights. From the current improvement in South Africa, detention violated the Bill of Rights (Ebadolahi 2008, p.83). The Bill of Rights advocates for protection of human dignity, freedom and security of persons. Other controversies surrounding the retention of detention powers are that privacy and freedom of expression, assembly, peaceful demonstration and association are violated. In addition, the detention powers violate the administrative procedures of the justice system. It is difficult to claim that detention is reasonable and lawful depending as evidenced in many cases.

Case studies

Casualties of detention without trial in South Africa included men, women and children. Men were major casualties of detention in South Africa while women were incarcerated for aiding resistance. Horror stories of how children were subjected to juvenile incarceration in South Africa are unpleasant. In this context, controversies surrounding detention without trial stories are replicated in Guantanamo bay where unlawful detention of terror suspects is evidenced (Steiner, Alston & Goodman 2008, p. 411).

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Bell, T 2003, Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth, Verso, New York. Web.

Christopher, A J 2002, The atlas of changing South Africa, Routledge, New York. Web.

Ebadolahi, M 2008, Using Structural Interdicts and the South African Human Rights Commission to Achieve Judicial Enforcement of Economic and Social Rights in South Africa. NYUL Rev., no. 83, pp. 1565. Web.

Evans, M & Murray, R 2008, The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights: The System in Practice 1986-2006, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Web.

Kathrada, A M 2000, Letters from Robben Island: a section of Ahmed Kathrada’s prison correspondence, 1964-1989, Zebra, Colorado. Web.

Neocleous M 2006, ‘The problem with normality: Taking exception to “permanent emergency”. Alternatives: Global, local, political, vol. 31. no. 2, pp.191-213. Web.

Steiner, H J, Alston P, Goodman, R 2008, International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals: Text and Materials, Oxford University Press, Oxford. Web.

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