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When They Came For Me: The Hidden Diary of An Apartheid Prisoner

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, John Schlapobersky was a political prisoner in Pretoria and knew nothing about it – he was in solitary confinement. When he learnt about the landing, he looked for the moon without success from the window of his cell.
Fifty years later he visited the NASA Space Center in Houston and, on seeing the speaker he could not hear when it spoke to the world, he began writing this memoir. It describes how he was arrested while a student for opposing apartheid and thrown into a world that few would believe existed, populated by creatures from the darkest places – creatures of the night – where, forced to stand on a brick, he was interrogated through days and nights of sleep deprivation. He was deported fifty-five days later and never went home again.
His story is based on two diaries, one written on toilet paper and the other in the Bible he was allowed. The author reflects on the singing of the condemned prisoners, the poetry, songs and texts that saw him through his ordeal and its long-term impact. Guided by the sense of hope that helped him survive, he has transformed his life by working as a psychotherapist in the rehabilitation of others. In the epilogue he describes this work in short stories of healing and recovery and in the afterword, he explores the relationship between memory and testimony and reviews the South African literature of imprisonment and resistance.
In his Foreword, Albie Sachs describes this as an exquisitely written memoir, and he documents his own periods of imprisonment with accounts that have not been published before. Apartheid and its resistance come to life in these stories, making When They Came For Me, a vital historical document, of its time and for our own.


Glimpses from WHEN THEY CAME FOR ME: The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner by John R. Schlapobersky (Berghahn Books, 2021)

from Chapter 1, ‘Arrest’

The police came for me at the university just as the lecture was starting. An administrator came in – someone we did not know – and asked for me to identify myself. We could see he was agitated in front of this large hall of students. When I put my hand up, he said someone outside was waiting to see me. In the days following, I would often think back to those moments and wonder what else I might have done instead of wave my hand in the air and rush out. My mother had been on her way from Swaziland to Joburg by car that morning, and so my first thought was that perhaps something had happened on the road. Only the administrator knew what was going on, but he gave nothing away, left the scene as I came out and alerted no one, so I simply disappeared.

Three men in suits were waiting. The one in charge was familiar. He knew exactly who I was and held up a police card to identify himself saying: ‘Mr Schlapobersky, I see. We meet again’. He named himself and, introducing himself as a detective from the Security Police, he said: ‘I am arresting you under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. Come with us’. The composure in his manner was dreadful – both threatening and polite.

from Chapter 2, ‘Interrogation I’

The pattern that emerged overnight was to continue for the days that followed. I stood on the brick around the clock, with breaks for meals and toilet, as a team of six men working in pairs settled down to interrogate me in 4-hour shifts. I talked to them in an open voice, but in another inner voice I talked to the brick without revealing it, and the brick and I continued the ordeal together. The police each kept to defined roles in a programme that Swanepoel coordinated, and the brick ‘stood up to my weight’ over the days that followed. The brick and I became well acquainted, and I would talk to it under my breath, especially in the early hours when my reserves were at their lowest. Swanepoel and his Richter were the ‘bad cops’ full of threats and hatred. The second team of two, X and Y, were the ‘intellectuals’ who took an interest in my studies and wanted to discuss politics and philosophy with me. One of them told me of the PhD he was working on, and said he would like to recruit me to teach his children ‘the good English’ I spoke. There were more sinister invitations that came later as we discussed ‘the future of our country’.

About the author

John R. Schlapobersky is a leading psychotherapist and author based in London. In 1985, he was a Founding Trustee of Freedom From Torture, a human rights charity. Publications include From The Couch To The Circle: Group-Analytic Psychotherapy In Practice (Routledge, 2016), winner of the American Group Psychotherapy Association’s Alonso Award in 2017, now in translation to other language editions.

About the book

Use discount code SCH082 for 25% off the print or eBook version.

The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner
John R. Schlapobersky
Foreword by Albie Sachs

In 1969 John Schlapobersky, a student in South Africa, was arrested for opposing apartheid and tortured, detained and eventually deported. Interrogated through sleep deprivation, he later wrote secretly in solitary confinement about the struggle for survival. In this exquisitely written memoir, based on two hidden diaries – one in his Bible and the other on toilet paper – he reflects on the singing of the condemned prisoners, the poetry, songs and texts that saw him through his ordeal, and its impact. The sense of hope through which he transformed his life guides his continuing work as a psychotherapist in the rehabilitation of others. Apartheid and its resistance come to life in this story to make it a vital historical document, one of its time and one for our own.

An exquisitely written memoir about human endurance, survival, repair and transcendence.’ • Justice Albie Sachs

An intriguing story of endurance and survival. A reminder of times, and the people who resisted them, that should never be forgotten.’ • Gillian Slovo

‘When They Came For Me is many things – the tale of an ordinary young man swept one day from his life into hell, testimony to the wickedness a political system let loose in its agents and, above all, an intimate account of how a man became a healer.’ • Jonny Steinberg, Professor, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

A chilling, gripping, harrowing reminder of the evil nightmare that was the apartheid police state – and the brave people like John who resisted it.’ • Peter Hain, Lord Hain of Neath

One of the most vivid, intimate and sustained accounts yet, of the brutality that apartheid’s torturers unleashed – a remarkable book about our inhumanity, the resilience of the human spirit and a powerful explanation for the present past lingering in the intimate violence of South African society.’ • Jonathan Jansen, Professor, University of Stellenbosch

John has made surviving into a creative act, documenting his experience and elevating it through poetry and literature … an act of creative protest (and) a means to bear witness for the many who did not survive.’ • Jack Saul, Director, International Trauma Studies Program, New York

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