Monday, January 24, 2022

Inside Maximum Prison’s execution chamber with Kgafela as guide

One of the pieces of advice that Kgosi Linchwe gave his son and heir, Kgafela, when he was still alive was that he should never ever accept an invitation from the Department of Prisons and Rehabilitation to witness an execution. Back in the late 1970s, the father honoured such invitation and what he saw so traumatised him that, years later, he suffered from nightmares.

Kgafela gives a second account of this macabre experience in his new book, “The King’s Journal: From the Horse’s Mouth” which has just been published in the United Kingdom. He writes: “One of the prisoners then was called Lesolebe, meaning horrible death. My father told me how they (witnesses) all looked down the gallows pit at the black hooded heads of the hanging prisoners as they dangled down the pit; and how they all waited for the lapse of the standard 20 minutes of hanging before taking the dead bodies down. He said some of the witnesses puffed on their cigarettes as they waited. The hangman then was an Afrikaner from South Africa.

My father says this hangman had a morbid calmness about his job. He chatted with the witnesses and described the art of his ropes as if it was something so dear. In the meantime as the waiting went by, the third prisoner was made to stand on the side watching with everyone else whilst waiting his turn. My father says the last of the three hanged at his time took a long time to die. He jerked himself up in macabre spasms, akin to a snake wringing out its last juice of life. The prisoner made this display just as the hang team of the prison guards was about to take him down. They had to wait a little while. Later after taking him down, the junior prison guards struggled to free the rope from the dead man’s neck. The rope was tightly trapped on the hood cloth. My father dashed to his vehicle outside to bring back pliers from his tool kit that helped the officers to release the rope.

Apparently, he said, the officers were stuck from their own shock and did not know what to do with the trapped noose when the suggestion of the pliers came through from him. My father says the junior prisons officers were terrified by this experience. One of them was particularly jumpy. He sprung out of his skin each time anyone touched him from behind during this entire execution ritual.” According to the book, Linchwe had nightmares of the lifeless hooded bodies dangling down the pit for many years afterwards. Not wanting the same thing to happen to his son, he “cautioned me never to accede to an invitation by government to watch the horrible ritual”. In the book’s telling, life on deathrow is the “depth of hell” and the experience of Mothusi Phiri is used to illustrate that point.

Before the Court of Appeal commuted his death sentence in July 2005, Phiri bore aural witness to the execution of Simon Douglas and some other unnamed prisoners. From his cell, Phiri could hear prison guards preparing and testing the gallows trap door a day before the execution. On the day of the execution itself, he heard the shuffle of feet as the first two prisoners were led to the gallows. “He heard the sobs and other sounds of terror – then crackÔÇôboom! as the trap door sprang open. It is a very unique sound from outside this world, he says. It is like the sound of a fierce thunderclap. He knew two were dangling just across the wall of his cell next door. His head swirled in madness of what was going on upstairs. After a little while, about 30 minutes later, another crack-boom! The last one was dangling. The gallows machine in Botswana takes two prisoners at a time.

Thus, where there are three Souls to dispatch, two go first followed by a last one who is usually made to watch in horror as the first two dangle,” Kgafela writes. Phiri’s ordeal was relayed to him a client of his, Kinsley Sebele, who witnessed this particular execution. By the latter’s account, one of the condemned men “staggered into the noose, praying frantically loud in Ikalanga language.” The praying continued “until the noose was tightened around his neck”. The execution chamber is said to be “just around the corner” from the deathrow cells. Its nearness is such that “every small movement, sound and activity that takes place in the hanging room can be perceived clearly from the regular cells. In this way, the prisoners in these regular cells get to participate fully in the ritual of hanging taking place in the room above them.”


Read this week's paper