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When They Came for Me: The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner

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When They Came for Me

The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner

John R. Schlapobersky
Foreword by Albie Sachs

248 pages, 5 illus., bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-78920-906-8 $149.00/£110.00 / Hb / Published (May 2021)

ISBN  978-1-78920-908-2 $29.95/£23.95 / Pb / Published (May 2021)

eISBN 978-1-78920-907-5 eBook

View CartYour country: - edit  Buy the eBook! $29.95info on epub formatRequest a Review or Examination Copy (in Digital Format)Recommend to your LibraryAvailable in GOBI®


“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. Former Labour Minister. Author of Political Activist

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.” • Prof. Jonny Steinberg, African Studies Centre, Oxford University, Author of One Day in Bethlehem

“John has made surviving into a creative act that includes documentation of his experience and elevating it through poetry and literature in writing (that) is also as an act of creative protest; a means to bear witness for the many who did not survive; and a holding of account for those perpetrators who did. It informs the principles he uses as a psychotherapist to help others with similar experience find their way back to life … the sign they had emerged from the relational damage inflicted was to truly live and love again. This memoir is both a powerful historical testimony and a window into the complexities of revival following state terrorism.” • Jack Saul, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, Director, International Trauma Studies Program, New York. Author of Collective Trauma, Collective Healing

“An intriguing story of endurance and survival. A reminder of times, and the people who resisted them, that should never be forgotten.” • Gillian Slovo, formerly President, PEN. Author of Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country (1997); Red Dust (2000); Ice Road (2004); The General: The Ordinary man who challenged Guantanamo (written with Ahmed Errachidi, 2014)

“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 … and a gift, hopeful and uplifting, of how a victim of extreme violence turns his personal experience into a professional practice, psychotherapy, that restores the broken lives of those who suffered similar fates. In the telling, the prisoner is freed and his tormentors, all named in person, left with the tragic memory of what they have done.” • Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Professor Emeritus, University of Stellenbosch; Former Vice Chancellor, University of The Orange Free State, South Africa


Apartheid and its resistance come to life in this memoir making it a vital historical document of its time and for our own.

In 1969, while a student in South Africa, John Schlapobersky 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.  

Those writings inform this exquisitely written book in which the author reflects on the singing of the condemned prisoners, the poetry, songs and texts that saw him through his ordeal, and its impact.  This sense of hope through which he transformed his life guides his continuing work as a psychotherapist and his focus on the rehabilitation of others. 

“[T]hetale 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, Oxford University

From the introduction:
I was supposed to be a man by the time I turned 21, by anyone’s reckoning. By the apartheid regime’s reckoning, I was also old enough to be tortured. Looking back, I can recognize the boy I was. The eldest of my grandchildren is now approaching this age, and I would never want to see her or the others – or indeed anyone else – having to face any such ordeal. At the time my home was in Johannesburg, only some thirty miles from Pretoria, where I was thrown into a world that few would believe existed, populated by creatures from the darkest places, creatures of the night, some in uniform. I was there for fifty-five days, and never went home again.

John R. Schlapobersky is a leading psychotherapist and author based in London. He is a training analyst at the Institute of Group Analysis and was a Founding Trustee of Freedom from Torture in 1985. Publications include From The Couch To The Circle: Group-Analytic Psychotherapy In Practice (Routledge, 2016), which won the American Group Psychotherapy Association’s Alonso Award in 2017 and is in translation to other language editions.

Subject: History: 20th Century to Present
Area: Africa


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