Norma Kitson: a true story
‘Why don’t you stop smoking?’ Pauline said to me after dinner when we were sitting in front of the fire in her sitting-room.
Arthur said: ‘Well, I’ll leave you girls to get on with it. I’ll be in my study. I have work to do.’
We all know Arthur keeps his pornography collection in his study.
I lit up a cigarette, gave my usual few coughs, and settled myself into the comfy leather chair. Pauline fetched an ashtray from the kitchen, impatiently put it on the arm of my chair and continued: ‘I mean, you smoke so much. It’s so unhealthy. Nearly everyone’s given up.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘When I was about 17, my Uncle Chips Cranko was dying of lung cancer. I used to visit him every week and he lay there, sometimes barely conscious, with things in his nose to help him breathe, dying for a cigarette. He would wait till his nurse had left us to talk and then in a weak, croaky voice he would say: “Can you give me a cigarette?” And he would point to the bedside table, with its covered bowls and silver dishes, which also had his box of cigarettes and matches. I was terrified that I would be the one to deal him the last blow, but I used to light up one of his Springboks and put it between his shaky fingers. After just one puff he would be seized with a fit of coughing and spitting, hold it out to me and weakly lie back, fighting to recover. ‘Something impressed me about his total devotion to smoking even in his last gasps of life.’
‘What rubbish!’ Pauline said. ‘It’s got nothing to do with devotion – it’s addiction. To any normal person that experience would be sufficient aversion therapy to turn you off.’
‘Well, but it didn’t. That’s the point. For those few remaining months of his life while I was visiting Uncle Chips, I went from an occasional puffer to a full-time smoker I didn’t feel aversion at all.’
‘It’s all just rubbish!’ Pauline said. ‘There isn’t any good reason for smoking. Imagine blaming your poor Uncle Chips.’
‘Of course, there was also Viktor and van der Merwe,’ I said.
Pauline lay back on the couch, wriggled off her shoes and swung her legs up to lie comfortably ...
On 22 June 1964 Dave was detained under the 90-Day Law. It took till the evening of the second day to find out where he had been taken but, with the help of a Rand Daily Mail reporter, I learned he was at Marshall Square Police Station. Detainees are allowed a meal from their families each day, so as soon as I found out where he was I rushed down with a thermos of coffee and cold roast chicken and salad. I had to leave them with the sergeant at the desk.
‘I want to see him,’ I said.
‘Ag, no Mrs Kitson,’ the sergeant laughed. ‘There’s no visiting detainees. You have to see the Colonel about that. Go and see Colonel Klindt.’ He laughed again as he took the food basket off the counter and placed it somewhere underneath.
The next morning, 24 June, I joined the queue of anxious relatives outside Colonel Klindt’s office. Although most of us knew each other, we didn’t speak. We just stood silent, waiting. After about two hours I was ushered in to Colonel Klindt’s office.
‘I have come to request a visit to my husband, David Kitson,’ I said.
‘No visits for Kitson.’ He did not even look up.
‘It’s no good being difficult, lady,’ he said. ‘No visits for Kitson and that’s it. If you want to apply again tomorrow, well, that’s your affair. You can come back tomorrow. There’s no visits for Kitson today. Next!’ I was escorted out by a young policeman who was acting as a doorman.
I went home to my kids. Amandla was 18 months old and Steven seven. I had a morning job as a secretary at National Dairy Equipment. Before me stretched six months of rushing off to work, almost daily visits to Colonel Klindt’s office, preparing Dave’s meals, delivering them, taking Steven to school and then fetching him and feeding and caring for both the children. Most of our friends stayed away. They were frightened of associating with the relatives of detainees.
But that evening I went to Marshall Square with Dave’s dinner – only to have the first lot returned to me intact. Not a thing had been touched.
‘Why?’ I asked the Sergeant. ‘Why didn’t he eat anything?’
‘How do I know, man?’ he said. ‘Maybe he’s not hungry. You know, a lot of detainees don’t get hungry.’
I looked at him in terror at that thought. ‘Is he all light?’ I asked. ‘Is Dave OK?’
‘Look, man’, he said. ‘I can’t stand here all day answering everybody’s questions, you know. I told you, you can bring his supper every night, OK?’
I went home and carefully unpacked the untouched basket, hoping to see evidence of Dave. I unscrewed the top of the thermos and tipped some of the cold coffee into the plastic cup. I took a few sips in the hope of feeling a little closer to him. Then I went next door to the servant’s quarters to see Violet. She was living illegally in the corrugated iron shack behind the house with her sister, the maid, and I asked her if she would come and help me till Dave came home. Violet said: ‘Look, don’t worry. I’ll move in with you.’
I did not know then what a lot I was asking of her. Not only would the whole weight of the family fall on her after my own detention, but she was also to be detained and interrogated herself.
But that night we sat down at the kitchen table and discussed my worries.
‘Do you think he’s on hunger strike?’ I asked her.
‘No, I don’t,’ she said. ‘The food is your only contact, and Dave’s no fool. You know he would have given you some sign – unwrapped something. I don’t think he ever got it.’
The following day I took Steven to school, leaving Amandla with Violet, and went to work. Five hours until one o’clock and then a rush to get to Colonel Klindt’s office. A two hour wait and then the inevitable: ‘No visits for Kitson. No vials for Kitson allowed today. If you like you can try tomorrow.’
I rushed to the shops to find something nice for Dave to eat, collected Steve, cooked, then went to Marshall Square and handed in the food. The previous night’s food was handed back to me intact again.
‘OK, he’s not hungry again,’ I said. ‘Well I have to do his washing. Where’s his dirty clothes?’
‘No clothes for Kitson,’ the Sergeant said.
That night Violet and I sat around till late, thinking who to phone, who to write to, what to do. Just after midnight the telephone rang.
‘Is that Mrs Kitson?’
‘Yes, who’s that?’
‘Look, I have seen Dave. He is being interrogated at the Grays – sixth floor. They have kept him standing all the time. They throw water over him. They’re giving him a bloody hard time. The bastards are out to crack him.’
‘Who’s speaking? ... hello ... hello.’ But the phone was dead.
I did not go to work the next day. Instead, I picked up four tomatoes at the local green-grocer and made straight for the Grays. At the door I was stopped.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’m Mrs van Wyk.’ (I picked the commonest Afrikaans name I could think of.) ‘My husband had been interrogating those terrorists for days. He hasn’t had a decent break or a proper meal. I’ve brought him something to eat.’ I held up the brown paper bag.
Incomprehensibly it worked. They let me in, escorting me politely to the lift. I went up to the sixth floor and opened the first door I came to. There were two desks and a lot of men standing and sitting in the room. Near the window was a black man in the most awful state. He was staggering, wet, and his nose seemed to be bleeding all over his clothes. I closed the door quickly.
Feeling I was being followed, I ran down to the door at the very end and opened it. I had a quick glimpse of Dave standing in front of a window. There were two men with him. His face was very white and he looked drunk. The door was slammed closed on me as I stood there. Then it opened and one of the men came out and escorted me out of the building. ‘You can’t come in here, you know, Mrs Kitson.’
I went home. I don’t think I’ve had a proper night’s sleep ever since.
‘Smoking,’ said Pauline. ‘You were talking about smoking.’
‘Well, I’m coming to that.’
Over eight hundred people had been detained by the 16th day of Dave’s detention. And then Yasmina phoned me. Her husband was also a detainee.
‘We’re going to picket the Johannesburg City Hall,’ she said. ‘It’s illegal, but what the hell, we’ve decided. I’m so worried about Yusuf. There’s quite a few of us and we are taking the kids. We’re making placards calling for them to be released or charged.’
That night Violet and I made three placards and on 8 July, Dave’s 18th day in detention, in solitary confinement and interrogation, Steven and I, with Amandla in her pram, went to demonstrate at the City Hall. We were a thin straggle of defiant women and children. The police took our names and addresses and the white passers-by looked at us in disgust. But we got a thumbs up from most of the black people who saw us.
On 22 July, exactly one month after Dave was arrested, they came for me. I was taken to Newlands Police Station and put in the ‘Mad Woman’s Cell’ – one which is kept for women who, they say, ‘go suddenly loco’. It had black walls and a broken, stinking loo. After a couple of hours I began vomiting. Later that night I was still vomiting. Suddenly the cell door opened and a very dishevelled and frightened man entered. ‘I’m the doctor,’ he said, standing at the cell door. ‘Now, what’s wrong with you? You detainees are always pretending to be ill.’
‘I’m not ill,’ I said. ‘I am reacting to the dreadful smell of shit from that broken lavatory.’
‘Well, I can’t do anything about smells,’ he said. ‘But it is terrible in here. Look, I’m going to admit you to the Johannesburg General Hospital as a suspected appendix. Otherwise I can’t get you out of here. Just tell them your side hurts, OK? And, listen, don’t mention the lavatory. It’s got to be something medical, OK?’
And he left.
Hours later an ambulance arrived and I was taken to the General. Two security officers stayed outside the door of the ward and no one came near me till about seven in the morning, when a doctor came to examine me. He discharged me immediately and I was taken in a black maria to The Fort where I spent the 28 days of my detention. For the first three days I was in a cell with Pixie Benjamin who was on hunger strike.
On the fourth day I was transferred to a single cell where I remained in solitary. I had no watch, no pen – nothing except a Bible.
I lost all track of time. No sooner would the morning bread and coffee be delivered than it seemed the lunch bread and coffee would come. Or else I would feel I hadn’t eaten all day. And then every now and then the cell door would open and I would be taken for terrogation.
My interrogators were Lieutenants Viktor and van der Merwe. In the beginning they were quite nice. Viktor was quite sympathetic. ‘We just want you to make a statement, Mrs Kitson,’ he’d say. ‘This is not a place for people like you. We know you haven’t done anything. We just want to know the names of the people who were visiting your husband in the last few months.’
‘I’m only prepared to give you my name and address,’ I said. ‘I have nothing else to say’.
‘Like a cigarette, Mrs Kitson?’ Viktor would say.
I decided that I would never ever accept their cigarettes. I suppose it was a silly game to play, and there came a time when it was nearly my undoing.
‘Have a cigarette, Mrs Kitson?’
‘No, thank you.’
Then they would both light up and sit and talk to each other. Van der Merwe was a bit of a clod. But I was impressed with Viktor. He would talk to van der Merwe but I knew he was addressing me, impressing me. He would discuss the different recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos and their relative merits. He quoted from Byron and from Shakespeare. He was a man of culture and knowledge and I was impressed. Although I was terrified of these daily interrogations, as they came to be, I comforted myself that Viktor was a civilised man and that as long as I did not accept their cigarettes I would be strong. I was also frightened of the information I had. It had been me who bought the wigs for Arthur and Harold. Me who delivered the parcel to the hotel which resulted in Jack’s imprisonment. Me who used the typewriter they were looking for. It was me with the technical unit who produced the poster announcing the formation of MK, and all the other leaflets and material. And then there were all the people who came to meetings at our house.
Women are not allowed to smoke in jail. Detainees are supposed to get a 30-minute exercise period a day during which they may smoke – if they have cigarettes. But for the first few days of my detention I did not have any exercise period. I was craving a cigarette.
The interrogations went on.
‘Look, Mrs Kitson, I can get you out of here in one hour, if you just make a statement. Everyone else has made statements. We know all the answers. We just want your confirmation. You’ve got two kids, Mrs Kitson. Do you know they are pining for you? I wouldn’t do that to my kids. Don’t you want to see your kids?’
It got worse. One day I was taken to the interrogation room and they seemed agitated.
‘Sit down, Mrs Kitson. I have some bad news for you.’ Viktor said. ‘Steven has broken his arm. Violet has been arrested, so your daughter has been placed in a police orphanage. Now if you just answer some questions, you can go. Have a cigarette, Mrs Kitson.’
‘No, thank you.’
I returned to my cell. I wasn’t thinking straight. I knew it was all lies but I was worrying as if it were true. I pictured Steve in pain. My mind tried to shy away from visions of Amandla in a strange hostile atmosphere. The words of my mother kept coming back to me. ‘If you want to go in for politics you shouldn’t have children.’
‘I’m all right,’ I kept telling myself. ‘I can’t do anything about the kids. The people outside won’t let anything happen to them. I’m all right. As long as I don’t smoke their bloody cigarettes and don’t get Swanepoel, I’m all right.’ Major Swanepoel was known as The Beast. When my friend Babla Saloojee was interrogated on the sixth floor of the Grays, Swanepoel said he had hurled him out of the window. There is a photograph of Swanepoel hands on hips, smiling over Babla’s broken body.
At my next interrogation, van der Merwe came up to me: ‘Are you going to make a statement, or not?’ he asked impatiently. ‘We’ve wasted enough time on you.’ and he gave me a sudden swipe across the face. My head snapped back with the force of his blow and my nose began to bleed. Immediately Viktor came to my side, offering me his handkerchief.
‘Come on, Van!’ he said. There’s no need to get rough with Mrs Kitson.’ Patting me on the shoulder he spoke to me: ‘That chap is terrible, you know. Sometimes I can’t control him. I’m sorry, Mrs Kitson. It won’t happen again. Have a cigarette, Mrs Kitson.’
‘No thank you.’
It didn’t stop van der Merwe having a swipe at me now and then whenever he felt like it.
I would go back to my cell and sit on the bed and worry. I was desperately worried about Dave, about the kids, about Violet. There was no news from the outside and I was allowed no visitors.
One day I was taken to the interrogation room and van der Merwe walked straight up as if to hit me. Viktor sprang at him: ‘No man, this time its my turn.’
He lunged out at me, his one hand grabbing my shoulder and the other slapping me back and forth in the face. ‘You bloody Jewish red muck,’ he screamed. ‘You filth, you’re all the same – traitors.’ He pulled my head back yanking at my hair and hit me with his fist in my midriff.
Van der Merwe smiled. ‘Do you want a cigarette, Mrs Kitson?’
‘No thank you.’
On the 25th day of my detention, I was taken to the interrogation room to find Swanepoel with Viktor and van der Merwe. I went blind with terror. ‘Now, you are going to make a statement, Mrs Kitson,’ he said. ‘We know all about you.’ He picked up a file of papers and started reading from it. ‘Joined Congress in 1952. Participated in Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People. Attended Warsaw Youth Festival.’ From what he was saying. I gathered he knew little of my more recent activities. I was sweating with fear but I did my best not to show it.
‘The sooner you make a statement, the sooner you’ll be released,’ he said. ‘We can keep you here for ever, you know. No one out there really cares. It’s everyone for himself now. All the others have decided to save their skins. You see, you’ll sing. You’ll sing like a bird.’
Silence from me.
‘I suppose you think you’re doing it for Dave?’ he asked. ‘Don’t bluff yourself. You know how Dave’s been telling you he’s been attending all those meetings? You know where he really was? He’s been having it off with Vera. How’s that then? Eh? Do you want to see a picture of them together?’ He held up something in front of my face but I closed my eyes.
‘He’s a terrific man, David is,’ I said. ‘I never expected a man like him to be satisfied with only one woman.’
It was the first time I had spoken during an interrogation.
Swanepoel hit me across the face with his fist. Then he knocked me off my feet with a side blow to my body. ‘Dirty Commie,’ he shouted. ‘You are all immoral. You all share your men. You don’t know anything about decency, about good Christian family life.’
He was getting very worked up. His bull’s head with the thick ridge at the back of the neck was blood red with rage.
‘Have a cigarette, Mrs Kitson?’ Viktor was at my elbow.
I got up slowly. I was in dreadful pain but I tried not to show it. I sat on the chair and crossed my legs as nonchalantly as I could.
Viktor proffered his pack. I slowly slid a cigarette out and he lit it for me. I felt a sense of relief, of dread, of weakness. I might as well, I told myself, dragging on the cigarette, I might as well just tell them everything. This isn’t getting me anywhere. I’ll land up being killed. They have all the information they need anyhow. I’m just a tiny cog. I’m only a typist. I don’t really know anything of value. I’m not important. They’ve detained far more important people than me. I looked up, prepared to capitulate.
The three of them sat there.
Swanepoel turned to Viktor: ‘Ag, get her back to her cell, man. The bloody woman’s not human.’ And turning to me. ‘Well see you tomorrow, Mrs Kitson, don’t you worry about that!’
Back in the cell I argued with myself. Giving in once isn’t important. I only took one cigarette. But I broke ray own pact. No one knows about the pact but me. I’ll pretend I never made it. I’m still all right, I told myself. Sore, but in one piece. I haven’t ratted on anyone. I’m still strong. And I recalled the words of a wise friend: ‘It’s a very hard struggle this. There comes a time when it isn’t only that you face the wrath of the government, the police and all of them; you also face the ignorance of some of the people in this rotten society. No, not only that. There comes a time when you fed alone. And that’s just the time when you have to be very strong, very sure, right inside yourself. Because you are never alone. You are one of us. Remember that, won’t you.’
Gradually I urged myself back into being strong enough to face the following day. But they didn’t come the next day, or the day after that. The following day I was released.
I went out into the bright winter’s day, to the nearest shop and bought a packet of cigarettes and walked home smoking one after the other.
‘I’ve never stopped,’ I said, lighting up.
‘Well,’ said Pauline, ‘now is a good time to do so. That was all 20 years ago.’
Arthur came downstairs, looking red in the face.
‘Are you two wimmin still yakking?’ he asked.
‘I’m just off home,’ I said. ‘Dave will be back from his meeting. He’s been talking to the local Trades Council about his twenty years in jail.’