Coloured prison warders: still not black enough


Coloured prison warders: still not black enough

Coloured prison warders in the Western Cape won a landmark discrimination ruling at the Constitutional Court in 2016, but seven years later they say little has changed. Their cynicism means that when election day arrives next year, many coloureds will not vote ANC — or not vote at all, writes DENNIS CRUYWAGEN.


WHEN coloured prison warders were being discriminated against in the Western Cape, they turned to Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC, for help. They were rebuffed. At the time, the ANC had an unwritten policy of putting people it regarded as Africans in top positions. As coloured people, a racial category slapped on them by apartheid legislation, the warders were not regarded as African.

There wasn't a word about once having been comrades in the struggle. “Fokol” is the Afrikaans word that best sums up the ANC’s response. Bitter was the warders' disappointment, and deep was their hurt that the ANC would not assist them.

Their trade union, Popcru, which was launched in 1989 in the Western Cape by mainly coloured warders, did not support them either. Ultimately, this group of warders, with the financial muscle of Solidarity — a movement previously seen as the enemy — turned to the Constitutional Court and won a landmark decision.

Ten men and women representing coloured prison warders in the Western Cape joined the first applicant, Solidarity, in seeking an order against the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), the minister and national commissioner of correctional services, the minister of labour, Popcru and the South African Police Service.

The apex court ruled in 2016 that DCS had failed to consider the demographic profiles of the regional and national economically active population when setting numerical targets. Its refusal to appoint candidates because they were coloured was ruled unfair discrimination based on race and gender.

That was seven years ago. And with a national election next year, the issue of trying to woo the majority of voters in the Western Cape — the coloured population — is bubbling again. As usual, the ANC has started milking nostalgia about the days of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Some may still believe the party is sincere and can be trusted with their vote. Others, such as coloured prison warders, are more cynical. They’ve been down this road before and are tired of being used as voting fodder. Coloured warders, alienated by what they experience as discriminatory labour practices and fearful of workplace repercussions if they are named, say they will not give their ballot to the ANC. They’re still bitter about having had to fight all the way to the apex court.

The former head of Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison, Freddie Engelbrecht, played a key role in persuading his colleagues to approach the Constitutional Court and believes discrimination is alive and thriving in the DCS. To their chagrin and disappointment, he said, those identified as coloured are treated as lesser beings by Nelson Mandela’s successors just as they were by Hendrik Verwoerd’s faithful disciples. They believe the apartheid words “Slegs Blankes” have been replaced by  “Africans Only”. Their workplace experience tells them job reservation has never left.

Engelbrecht, who when he retired was the second most senior DCS employee in the Western Cape, became emotional as he talked about Solidarity. He and his colleagues had to conquer their own prejudices and apprehension before they could accept the union's offer of financial help to challenge their employer in the Constitutional Court.

He also spoke about his bitterness at being betrayed and used by the ANC, his disillusionment with the erstwhile liberation movement, and his conviction that the government’s discriminatory employment practices will see coloureds not voting ANC — or not voting at all — next year.

Activism meets pragmatism

A high school activist in the 1980s, Engelbrecht used to be critical of people from his community who wore the police and prison warder uniforms of the apartheid state. “I used to accuse them of jailing our own people,” he said.

Unemployed in Paarl after leaving school, however, the realities of not having an income brought the pragmatic side in his character to the fore. And Engelbrecht allowed a friend to persuade him to apply for a job with the prisons service in the previous political dispensation.

Wearing the uniform he had detested as a high school activist did not dampen Engelbrecht’s fire. When warders and police officers, shocked by the cruelty with which the security forces tried to quell protests by coloured high school pupils in the Western Cape, formed Popcru — with Gregory Rockman as the union’s first president — he was among them. 

He was Popcru's first Boland chairperson and later deputy provincial secretary. Professional promotions also rolled in, and he was the officer  in command at Dwarsrivier and Pollsmoor prisons.

His integrity, resolve and reforming zeal, as well as his opposition to corruption, made a huge impression on the men and women reporting to him. So much so that when interviews were held for the highest position at Pollsmoor, warders there went on strike and demanded that he be appointed. On June 1, 1996, he was put in charge of the Tokai prison which once held Mandela.

Two years into the new South Africa, the country was largely inspired by Mandela’s leadership and his commitment to national unity, non-racialism, equality and rebuilding the country. Optimism was in the air.

Sharing Mandela’s commitment, Engelbrecht made significant changes at Pollsmoor. He introduced a less harsh environment for women prisoners and their children. “Prison is not a home for children. Some of these kids were isolated from nature and not used to seeing leaves blowing in the wind. It was unnatural. I arranged that those children who were in prison with their mothers could attend the creche where staff sent their children. Not all staff members were happy though.”

He went after criminal gangs that ruled life behind bars, and corrupt  guards who worked with incarcerated gangsters. However, not everyone welcomed his initiatives, and some conservative white warders, threatened by his authority, were not enthusiastic about him. He received threatening anonymous calls at home. “I was accused of being a Hotnot and a kafferboetie.”

Even cruder methods were used to convey messages to him. “One day a bullet was found in one of the cells. My name was carved on it. It was obvious that there was a bullet waiting for me. On another occasion, in need of some fresh air, I walked to the Blue Route Mall. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a group of prison warders. They were acting on information that there would be an attempt on my life and came to take me away from the mall.”

Africanism shows its colours

The buoyancy of the Mandela days did not last and the expectations of a better life for all faded as South Africa began to battle a deliberate swing towards narrow Africanism. In the Western Cape, the employment policy in government departments eschewed regional demographics in favour of the national approach favouring “Africans”. Promotions for those who were regarded as coloured, but not African, began to dry up.

After stints in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, Engelbrecht returned home  to a new post of deputy regional commissioner on December 1, 2009. He noticed a distinct labour practice was being followed in the province: coloureds were being sidelined and Africans advanced. Coloureds were aggrieved and complained to him. He raised their grievances with the national and regional commissioners. Nothing changed.

As resentment grew, he met aggrieved warders. “I told them that we would be hurt badly if we did not unite and stand together.” They drew up a memorandum signed by all coloured directors and deputy directors and in which they requested a meeting with the national commissioner, Tom Moyane. They met him at Brandvlei Prison near Worcester, having already spoken to provincial ANC and Cosatu leaders and MPs on the parliament's correctional services portfolio committee.

“Not one of those approached were willing to help us. We were on our own. Even Popcru, our union, would not assist.”

A constitutional expert lifted their spirits when he told them they had a good case, but it would take lots of money to ask the Constitutional Court to hear the matter.

“Solidarity, we were told, would possibly help us. However, if we went to them, it would mean that we would approach those who had formerly oppressed us. We were faced with a dilemma. We had about R36,000, which was not enough to get an advocate. We had intense discussions among ourselves about Solidarity. All our usual allies had let us down. In the end, we agreed that what we were doing was not only for ourselves, but for our people and for our children.”

Consciences assuaged, they met Solidarity at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. But it was not an easy encounter. “We adjourned many times because we could not get ourselves to make that final decision. It was a tough call because of our prejudices against Solidarity.”

As they debated between and within themselves, said Engelbrecht, one of them, Jeremy Mathys, remarked that history would judge them if they didn’t follow through. “We resolved once and for all that we would be doing the right thing if we went to the Constitutional Court, even if assisted by Solidarity.

“When Solidarity announced that they had R2.2 million available for the case, we knew that we could no longer refuse them. We had the money for a fight in the Constitutional Court.”

A hollow victory

They were overjoyed when the court handed down its judgment on July 15, 2016. It ruled that the wrong benchmark (national demographics) was used in employment practices and that DCS had failed to consider regional demographics. This was unfair discrimination. From that day on, coloured warders in the Western Cape would stand a fair chance of being promoted.

Engelbrecht said many of his former colleagues constantly complain to him, however, that the DCS blatantly and arrogantly ignores and undermines the landmark judgment. “Discrimination against coloureds has not stopped at all in the workplace. I’m deeply disillusioned.”

Now that we are heading towards elections, coloured voters in the Western Cape will find a friendly ANC opening its arms to them. No doubt much will be made of the inclusion of coloureds in the new Western Cape ANC leadership. However, people such as Freddie Engelbrecht and his coloured colleagues have the scars to prove that job reservation did not disappear with the National Party. The ANC is not their friend. Non-racialism, they believe, is a farce.

Sometimes, trust once lost is lost forever. 

So many questions

The Department of Correctional Services was sent a list of questions more than a month ago. Despite undertaking to respond, it has failed to do so.

The questions were:

  1. How many correctional centres or prisons are there in the Western Cape?
  2. How many of them have heads who are full-time appointments?
  3. Please name them.
  4. How many of these heads are acting heads?
  5. Please name them.
  6. How long have they been acting heads?
  7. If they have been acting for longer than six months, why is this, and is it legal?
  8. Does DCS’s employment policy in the Western Cape apply provincial or national demographics?
  9. How is this policy affected by the Constitutional Court judgment about unfair discrimination and unfair labour practices made in July 2016?
  10. In response to questions 2 and 4, how is the so-called coloured group represented?
  11. With respect to your response to the previous question, if coloureds are under-represented why is this so, and are they being discriminated against?
  12. How many directors and deputy directors are in the employment of DCS in this province?
  13. Please name them.
  14. How many of them are so-called coloured and how many are African?
  15. Do you regard so-called coloureds as African?
  16. Please explain why or why not?
  17. What is the total prison population in the Western Cape?


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