When the state may kill: a penalty that no criminal deserves


When the state may kill: a penalty that no criminal deserves

The Saudis chop off heads. The Americans inject poison or electrocute. The Chinese use firing squads. Until 1995, South Africa used the noose. Every time politicians dangle the populist carrot of the death penalty as a panacea for crime, ANNELIESE BURGESS wonders if they would be prepared to do the dirty work of state killing themselves.


THE hanging chamber is triumphantly visible as you pass through the heavy wooden doors at the main entrance to the old Pretoria Central, now the C Max section of Kgosi Mampuru II. Its distinctive slit windows are like the hooded eyes of a serpent. The chapel crouches at the base and the long blocks of the old death row spread to the sides.

The seven days of a death row prisoner's life were a peculiar set of preparations to die: final letters, a family farewell, a last meal. All leading to a ritualised routine on hanging day.

The countdown to an execution began when the sheriff of the court arrived at the prison to hand over, in person, the black-rimmed warrant of execution.

On receipt, the head of the prison would inform the section heads of death row, who would immediately trigger a lockdown with the instruction to “Kap toe!" 

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Warders would shout these words down the corridors of the condemned. All cells would be locked.

Then came the next instruction: “Baadjie en adres."

“With these words the entire death row would go silent," a former warder says. “Because everybody knew this meant that for one or more people, it was the end."

“Baadjie en adres" was an instruction to every prisoner to gather their belongings and write down the contact details of two family members. Then they waited for the section head (or warder) to inform those for whom a warrant had been issued.

One warder remembers the day he had to give the bad news to a prisoner through the window of a locked cell door. “I call for his ‘baadjie en adres' … Our eyes lock. I can still hear the sound of the breath escaping from his mouth … sometimes when I sit at my house, I still hear that breath escaping."

We spoke to four death row warders. Three white. One black. None of them wanted their names used. Decades later, there was still trauma. And shame. Even for the most gung ho of the four, a man now probably close to retirement but then still working in a prison. He said there were memories from his time on death row as a young warder that he struggled with. And that he dealt with them by not dealing with them — by trying not to remember.

Top: The gallows. Middle: The entrance and long passage leading to the sallows. Bottom: The chapel.
Top: The gallows. Middle: The entrance and long passage leading to the sallows. Bottom: The chapel.

Feedback room

This is a sparse cell off a long, polished corridor with a door to the gallows at its far end. The head of the prison, head of security and sheriff of the court would wait in the fluorescent glow of the windowless room. With a table. A cupboard. And a scale.

Prisoners would be brought in one by one. The prison head would inform them that they would be put to death in seven days.

Then they would be measured and weighed. Height. Neck circumference. Information for the executioner. To prepare the correct set of ropes. 

The Pot

The condemned would then be taken to The Pot — so called by prisoners because it was where you stewed until you were cooked. In this communal cell, all those earmarked for execution would wait out the last seven days.

One warder remembers that once, in the mid-80s, there were 21 prisoners in The Pot at the same time.

Lloyd Vogelman from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation interviewed death row prisoners in the late 80s when the death penalty was still in use. In 1987, on average, someone was hanged every two days.

“In The Pot, prisoners are not permitted to exercise outside. This does not seem to bother them too much because they get a new privilege —permission to speak whenever they wish. Reports suggest they are often manic. They laugh, make jokes, fantasise about getting married, and talk all night.

“The mania sometimes extends to discussions about the process of hanging. They joke about who has the largest neck and how much rope the hangman will need. Some prisoners discuss the process of hanging. One even practised what it would be like. ‘I thought maybe I can't breathe. I put my hand over my nose and mouth to see what it's like not to have any air when your neck breaks.'

“On the one hand, there is a terrible fear of the unknown, of the physical pain of leaving the family. On the other, there is a relief that it is ending."

A typical deathrow cell.
A typical deathrow cell.

The day before

The last family visit was on the afternoon before execution. Prisoners were asked if their family wanted to attend a service in the chapel after the hanging. If so, their names were put on a list.

One warder remembers how difficult the last visit was: “We would stand there with our uniforms on, and this father or mother would ask God to protect the people who are going to ‘kill my child'. They would put their hands and bodies against the glass, and you could see how badly they wanted to touch each other. But they couldn't. And they would cry. Sometimes, after I had taken the prisoner back to the cell, I would go to the toilet and cry."

The last meal

A deboned chicken and six or seven “sparklers" — hard-boiled sweets — would be served with the usual evening meal. Warders often found the last meal untouched when they unlocked the cell on execution day. Sometimes, the prisoners requested that the chicken be given to a friend on death row. 

“Often prisoners didn't eat their last meal. The warders would sometimes eat it. I also did. But it didn't feel right. I ate it once. I couldn't do it again," one warder remembers.

The last night

Most condemned prisoners would not sleep on their last night. Many would pray. Some would sing. Others were silent.

Execution day


The door of The Pot is unlocked. Prisoners do not shower or eat breakfast. They can spend 45 minutes with a spiritual worker or chaplain in death row's two chapels. A warder accompanies each prisoner from the moment they leave the cell to the moment of execution.

“I was 18 years old when I worked my first execution. I tried to talk to the prisoner who was going to be executed. I think I said, ‘Good morning'. I felt ashamed afterwards."

06:46: “Time's up".

Those who did not request time in the chapel are fetched from The Pot. The prisoners are told to remove their shoes. They are lined up and  handcuffed behind their backs. A warder stands by each prisoner.

06:50: “Right, let's go."

The line of prisoners starts to climb the stairs to the gallows on the first floor. Each warder holds their prisoner by the arm. They walk up the 52 steps together.

“Some prisoners sang religious songs while they climbed. Some walked very slowly and you had to almost pull them up. But most of them climbed the stairs briskly and said nothing," one warder remembers.

Hooding chamber


The prisoners enter the small antechamber to the hanging room. You can see the trapdoor of the gallows and the row of nooses in the next room. Prisoners were lined up against the back wall, the warders facing them. 

The sheriff of the court, the head of the prison and the head of security are waiting. 

Each warder is handed a white hood which he places on the prisoner's head, with the front flap folded back so they can see.

The head of the prison asks if there are any complaints or requests. Warders say it was rare for any prisoner to say anything in reply.


The sheriff says, “Gaan. Go."

The line of prisoners, each still firmly gripped by a warder, is led to the execution chamber. 

“No matter how strong you are, you just want it to be over," one warder remembers. “The last part was almost unbearable. Prisoners tended to walk fast. Nobody talks. There is total silence in the gallows."

The gallows chamber is clinical. A polished cement floor. White walls. A wooden cupboard containing ropes. After each execution, the ropes were washed and returned to the closet for reuse in the next round. There is a black telephone on a small wooden table. This was for informing the sheriff of the court of a last-minute stay of execution. No warder we spoke to can remember it ringing.


The executioner is ready. The prisoners, in the correct sequence, are walked onto the trapdoor. They are told to put their feet on the painted footprints. Warders stand alongside the prisoners, still holding them by the arm.

The district surgeon, the head of the prison, the head of security and the area commissioner enter. Sometimes, a chaplain would also be presented if a warder requested it.

One at a time, working down the line, the executioner places the noose around each waiting neck. From behind. Then he lowers the flap on the hood to cover the prisoner's eyes. He steps off the trapdoor. The warders step back and let go of the prisoners. The executioner pulls the lever. The trapdoor opens. The prisoners drop into the space below.

One executioner, Chris Barnard, known to warders as Oom Chris, performed 1,500 executions between 1962 and 1986.

In 1978, Professor Chris Barnard, the heart surgeon (no relation to the hangman), wrote a column in the Rand Daily Mail to counter the argument that judicial hangings were humane.  

“Put a rope around a man's neck, tie the knot next to his ear, fasten his wrists behind his back and drop him a distance of just less than two metres. If you haven't botched it by miscalculating the length of the drop or the strength of the rope, you'll achieve several things at once. The man's spinal cord will rupture at the point where it enters the skull; electrochemical discharges will send his limbs flailing in a grotesque dance, eyes and tongue will start from the facial apertures under the assault of the rope and his bowels and bladder may simultaneously void themselves to soil the legs and drip onto the floor — unless of course you are an efficient hangman who has thoughtfully fitted your subject with a nappy or rubber pants

“It may indeed be quick. We do not know, as none has survived to vouch for it. That it is certainly far from clean is offensively evident to those entrusted with the removal of the body from its obscene dangling at the rope's end or to the doctor charged with checking for a heartbeat. If the pulse is still there — and it often is — justice is mercilessly pursued. The body remains hanging, and the medical officer may wait another 10 minutes before the final test shows that the law has been served."



The bodies are pulled back into the upper chamber of the gallows using a block and tackle. The district surgeon moves down the line with his stethoscope. He checks each body for a heartbeat. If he detects a heartbeat, he moves on to the next body. He holds a clipboard with death certificates. He moves up and down the line until he is satisfied that all the prisoners are dead. Then he instructs them to “go ahead".

The executioner removes the nooses and hoods. The bodies are then lowered into the bottom chamber.


In the centre of the bottom chamber, which you reach by descending a set of stairs, is a big pit that looks like a tiled swimming pool. In most cases, the executed empty their bowels and bladders. Often, there is bleeding from the impact of the metal ring hitting the jaw or tearing into the neck.

The warders undress and clean the suspended bodies using a hose over the tiled pit. The naked bodies are then taken down and stretchered to the next room.

In the autopsy room, the bodies were placed in wooden coffins lined with plastic. The body of an executed person was the property of the state. Families were not allowed to see the bodies — only the coffin with the name tag on the handle. The closed coffins were lowered with a lift into the chapel. Sometimes, families would bring candles or flowers to place on the coffin.

After the brief service in the chapel, the coffin was returned to the gallows, from where it would be taken for burial in an unmarked grave. Family members were prohibited from accompanying the body or being present at the burial.

* The information for this article was gathered in 2011 by myself and a team of researchers when we were appointed to transform the Pretoria gallows into a memorial for the 134 political prisoners executed there between 1960 and 1989. Of the 3,840 people executed in South Africa between 1910 and 1989, 14 were women. Over 28% of the hangings — 1,100 — were carried out between 1981 and 1989.

♦ VWB ♦

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