Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

South African Prisoners Rebel

On June 10, 1994, prisoners in seven South African prisons rebelled, taking prison officials hostage and destroying prisons. Prisoners demanding an amnesty held a warden captive for nearly 24 hours at the Modderbee prison east of Johannesburg before releasing him. One prisoner was killed and at least 30 escaped from the prison which holds 4,000 prisoners, said Correctional Services spokesperson Chris Olckers.

Another prison spokesperson, Lt. Rudie Potgeiter, said at least 80 prisoners burned down 80 percent of the Brandvlei juvenile prison in the Cape Town area. One prisoner was in critical condition and more than 30 were taken to a hospital suffering from burns. Potgeiter said that there had been violence at two Witbank prisons east of Jobannesburg after prisoners refused to return to their cells. 104 prisoners escaped from one unnamed prison during this time period.

Prisoners also rebelled at Leewkop Prison near Pretoria, J.C. Steyn Prison in Port Elizabeth and at the Ncone Prison in KwaZulu. At Ncone, 36 prisoners were injured when they attempted to take two guards captive. This series of rebellions follows earlier riots and rebellions in South African prisons shortly before the recent elections where South African prisoners demanded the right to vote, along with blacks outside prisons, for the first time in South African history. Their demands were not met.

South African president Nelson Mandela met with various government officials to discuss the rebellion. On June 11, 1994, Mandela announced that the government would cut six months off the sentences of virtually all prisoners in order to halt the rebellion. The concession fell short of the demand by prisoners and their outside advocates that all prisoners who did not pose a threat to the community be released. But the group called off the protests and prisoners discontinued their protests on that day. Correctional Services Minister Sipho Mzimela announced that the sentence reduction applied to all common law prisoners except for state debtors and the mentally ill.

On June 13, 1994, 600 prisoners at the St. Alban's jail outside Port Elizabeth rioted and held a guard. They did not issue any demands which were reported by the wire services.

The historic context for these events are that South Africa has the second highest per capita incarceration rate after the United States. Despite the country's recent election of Nelson Mandela as the nation's first black president, virtually all of the country's prisoners are those who were imprisoned by the apartheid regime. Some, but not all, political prisoners have been released. Social prisoners were not affected by the change in regimes and the riots and rebellions reflect their frustration at remaining in prison under sentences imposed by the previous apartheid regime. For them, nothing had changed. The prison rebellions represent the first major protests that Mandela has faced since taking office in May, 1994.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login