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IT was a bittersweet day for former prisoners at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill: they told heart-breaking stories of being imprisoned there, yet ended with a triumphant celebration to welcome the African National Congress Centenary Flame.
More than 100 women gathered at the prison-turned-museum on 14 June, where Mally Mokoena, the City’s portfolio head of corporate and shared services, told how she was jailed for fighting against injustice and gross human rights abuses during the apartheid days.

The Women’s Jail – known as the Women’s Gaol in days gone by – is the first museum in the country devoted to telling the stories of the prison experiences of women during the colonial and apartheid eras. Highly acclaimed women such as Albertina Sisulu and Fatima Meer, and other political activists were incarcerated here.

Mokoena said she was jailed in August 1976 and was released the following year on 14 March. “I was taken to John Vorster Square and after some interrogation that took seven days and nights, abused and bitten, I was brought here. Everything that the boers could lay their hands on was used as a weapon,” she recalled.

Life was not easy and black prisoners were ill-treated, she said. “We slept on the floor while white [prisoners] had beds.” Black prisoners were subjected to what she described as a humiliating search: they would be forced to strip and spread their legs to be searched. It was an ordeal that white prisoners never experienced.

Painting a bleak picture of life in the jail, Mokoena said they had to drink water from the same container that they used as a toilet. “Our supper, which was soft porridge, was at 2pm,” she remembered.

Rita Ndzanga was a prisoner with Mokoena. She said when she was brought to the prison in October 1976; she doubted she would leave the place alive. Her husband passed away while she was in prison and she was not allowed to go to give him the last farewell. “I thought I was going to be released to bid farewell to my late husband,” she said.

The moving ceremony began with the arrival of the ANC Centenary Flame, which was welcomed with much excitement. The women ululated and sang for the flame, which was handed to the likes of Mokoena and Ndzanga. The flame, according to the party, signifies the commitment of the country to democracy, human rights and constitutionalism.

In observation of the 100-year anniversary of the ANC, the flame has been taken to main branches of the party across the country following the major celebration in Mangaung on 8 January. Before the flame was taken across Braamfontein to Metro Centre, people could take pictures next to it; some even held it.

At Metro Centre, the seat of the Johannesburg City council, employees who had eagerly waited for the flame welcomed it with excitement. It was officially welcome by council Speaker Conny Bapela, community development portfolio head Chris Vondo, and other councillors who greeted it with singing and dancing.

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