Photography by Brian Moody
As one of the Sharpville Six, Duma Kumalo was wrongly imprisoned in 1985 for a murder he didn’t commit. He spent seven years in prison, with three of those on death row. He worked for Khulumani – a support group for victims based in Johannesburg.
At the beginning of it all I’d often ask myself, “Why me?” But later I’d say to myself, “If not me, then who? If I’m not supposed to die for the liberation of South Africa, then who is?”
In 1985 I was found guilty, along with five others, for the murder of a counsellor during a rent boycott in Sharpville. I wasn’t even there when the counsellor was killed. In prison I was a dead man walking. I lived next to a grave, watching others being called to execution. Before an execution a prisoner would be given a whole chicken to eat as his last meal. But having no appetite he often gave it to his starving friends. The bond between prisoners was very strong. These kinds of friendship are impossible to make in the outside world.
One Monday in 1988 we were told we’d be hanged the following Friday. Even though I knew there was international outcry, I had no hope of a reprieve. My neck was measured for the size of the rope. They took my underwear, my shoes and my mattress so that I couldn’t commit suicide. On the Thursday before the execution they brought us our chicken, but then, just before 4pm, we were told we wouldn’t be executed after all. When we went back to our cells the chicken was still waiting there. The others chucked theirs away, out of superstition. But I ate mine. I was bloody starving!
Since my release I’ve been fighting to clear my name and get a retrial. This is the only thing that will bring me peace. In the meantime I work to support others in pain.
When I testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I met one of the warders who had been my guard on death row. Seeing me he rushed over and gave me a hug. He said to me, “Our wives had no idea of the kind of work we did. We were too ashamed to tell them.” I told a lie during the TRC hearing. When they asked me if he was the guard who’d mistreated me, I said no. After the hearing I went home and said to myself, “Are you mad? How can you let this man off the hook?” Then I realised, if I’d implicated him it would have sent us all back to the execution chamber.
Primo Levi once wrote: “I don’t want to be like them. I don’t hate them.” It’s a wonderful and powerful statement.
Sadly Duma Kumalo died aged 48 in Johannesburg in February 2006.