corpun logoWorld Corporal Punishment Research

rainbow ruler :  Features :  South Africa judicial page 5


Section 6


On this page:

6. What caning of adults involved

On other pages:

1. Introduction

2. Implements and terminology

3. Historical background and legislative timeline

4. Corporal punishment of "juveniles"

5. "Prison discipline" canings

7. What caning of juveniles involved

8. Interesting cases (adult)

9. Interesting cases (juvenile)

10. Statistics

11. Illegal punishments, kangaroo courts, native/customary courts

12. The deterrent effect of corporal punishment

13. The abolition of JCP


Canings of adults in South Africa, whether on the order of a court or for "prison discipline" reasons, were invariably inflicted within a prison and subject to Prison Regulations.

s.355 of Act 31/1977 provided:

Save as is specially provided in s.353, every punishment of whipping by whatever Court imposed shall be carried out privately in a convict prison or gaol, and in accordance with the regulations made under the law governing prisons or gaols.

Prison Regulation 100 stipulated:

(1) [...] Corporal punishment must not be inflicted -

(a) before the period in which the appeal may be lodged in terms of the relevant provisions of the Criminal Procedure Act 1977 has elapsed and written notice received that an appeal has not been lodged, unless the convicted person has indicated in writing that he does not intend to appeal, and that he agrees that corporal punishment may be inflicted before the expiration of the said period;

(b) where an appeal is lodged against the sentence whereby such corporal punishment is ordered, before written notice is received that the sentence is confirmed;

(c) where the sentence by which such corporal punishment is ordered is submitted for review, before written notice is received that the sentence is confirmed [...]

Prison Regulation 425 laid down:

Where the court imposing any sentence of corporal punishment by whipping has not indicated the character of the instrument with which the whipping is to be inflicted, such punishment shall be inflicted by caning, in the manner hereinafter described.

The Regulations required that four officers, including the Chief Officer of the prison, must be present during the whipping.

Prison Regulation 426 prescribed different types of canes to be used for adults and for juveniles under 16 years, and this regulation and the succeeding regulations to 431 prescribed directions as to how, where and when the caning was to be inflicted.

In R v Samson [1956] 4 SA 205 there was a discussion of the type of cane used for punishment. The court referred to the Prison Regulations and the prescription by s.109(1) of two types of canes to be used in corporal punishment, the shorter and thinner type for those under 19 years of age and a thicker type for those over 19.

In R v Panganayi [1961] 1 SA 266 the Court referred to the Prison Regulations 109 FGN 42/56 prescribing the dimensions of the cane as:

"For prisoners under 19 years of age, three feet long and not more than 3/8" in diameter and in the case of a prisoner who is 19 years of age or over, a rattan cane, four feet long and not more than ½" in diameter".

These are about the same dimensions as the cane still used in Singapore.

Various eyewitness and reported accounts of prison whippings exist, in both official and unofficial sources.

Many of these accounts stress the severity of the punishment. According to one source (which we have not yet been able to corroborate), a former judge has written:

"As we were leaving the prison, I heard wails of agony coming from the ordinary prison next door, and stopped and asked what it was. Oh, said the superintendent, that is one of the men you sentenced today receiving the strokes which you awarded him. I stopped with a sense of shock to ask myself whether our system of corporal punishment is really justified, but I had to answer almost immediately. Yes, it unfortunately cannot be dispensed with. The man I heard might have been the prisoner who caused the death of his wife by kicking her repeatedly in the head with a booted foot, or the hulking savage who raped and ill-treated a little girl of 10. No, unpleasant as it is, a judge in South Africa does not perform his duty if he does not impose corporal punishment in the case of crimes where savagery and brutality are a feature."(1)

In 1952 an MP quoted in Parliament an alleged eyewitness account from a newspaper:

"Some while ago, in 1949, the newspaper Dagbreek published an article with photos showing one of our prison warders with this vicious instrument of punishment, the cat-o'-nine-tails. I would like to read a short article, translated, from this newspaper Dagbreek, describing this corporal punishment:

"'With a powerful flourish the inchstick comes whistling through the air, draws deep strokes across the buttocks of the cringing man. A second, third and fourth cane stroke sweeps down. From the strokes that lie so neatly alongside one another like the fingers of a hand, oozes blood ... It is an experience they never forget. The cries of pain of one man ran through the prison, was the comment of the warders interviewed.' There are the photographs I referred to, and these photographs show a man who is tied to this triangle in the middle of a prison yard which is visible to many people."(2)

The MP, and presumably the newspaper, have here clearly confused the two different implements (cat and cane).

UPDATE: Research in the back files of Dagbreek for 1949 has failed to find the photographs mentioned, so it seems the MP got the year or the newspaper wrong.

In R v Mayana and Another [1910] SA 72 the court discussed the mode of infliction of corporal punishment, and referred to the instrument employed, and its physical effect:

"The punishment of lashes has of recent years been inflicted upon the buttocks with a stout cane of regulation size.

Some time back reports were made to the Law Department regarding the effect produced upon certain Chinese prisoners who had undergone sentences of twenty lashes in that way. The views of the various district surgeons were then obtained, and I have taken occasion to refer to the papers in connection with this matter. The great weight of professional opinion was to the effect that no sentence of lashes to be inflicted with the instrument at present in use should exceed fifteen. Out of a total of twenty-seven medical men, only three were of opinion that more than fifteen cuts could be given without risk of undesirable results.

And the conclusion at which I arrive, after perusing the papers, is that there is considerable danger with a greater number of strokes of bruising the flesh and injuring the subcutaneous tissues to an unjustifiable extent. I am assuming that the lashes are inflicted upon the natives: in the case of Europeans and Asiatics the danger is greater still. In addition to this there is the further consideration that the greatest pain is caused by the earlier strokes; after a comparatively small number of blows have been inflicted there is reason to believe that the muscles lose much of their power of resistance, the buttock is less sensitive, and the injury inflicted become quite disproportionate to the pain caused.

My remarks assume, of course, that the lashes are effectively laid on. It would be possible to diminish the bad results of an undue sentence of lashes by making the blows lighter after a certain stage, and I have reason to think this is sometimes done. But that is not satisfactory. The severity of the punishment should be settled by the Court, not by the lashing officer, and a court is entitled to assume that the strokes it orders are properly and effectively applied.

Sitting alone, I am not going to lay down any hard and fast rule on this subject by saying that in no cases should more than fifteen lashes be inflicted. But I know that the considerations to which I have alluded have great weight with the judges of this Court [...]."

In another early case, R v Whitaker [1911] TPD 1092 (Transvaal), the Supreme Court provided some insight into life in that era within prison walls and the process of judicial corporal punishment.

Whitaker and Morart were prisoners on remand for laying dynamite on railway tracks at Johannesburg. They were kept in jail awaiting trial. In a court action, they alleged that they had been given illegal treatment. They were held in punishment cells for 6 weeks for 22-23 hours a day, with exercise for only 2 hours a day. The punishment cells were 9ft x 4ft, 12ft high, with no window except a small louvre high up through which dim light was admitted. They were refused visits from legal advisers and friends. They were not allowed smokes, newspapers, or books in their cells, and alleged that there was unnecessary handcuffing. They said they were held in dirty and unsanitary cells which were "in close proximity to where corporal punishment was inflicted" and were subjected to other unnecessary indignities. Their counsel, PF Smith, said these conditions constituted a punishment, as did placing them "in proximity to flogging". He submitted that "corporal punishment was administered to other prisoners immediately outside their cells, and they were distressed by the noise occasioned thereby".

Wessels J said:

"I also think that they are entitled to complain that they, as awaiting trial prisoners, should have been condemned to listen to the infliction of lashes upon prisoners. Mr Balina tells the court they were both very nervous and frightened, and the more nervous and the more terrified on awaiting trial a prisoner is the less should his nerves be racked by being placed in close proximity to the place where whipping is administered".

Damages of 20 pounds were awarded against the State.

In 1930 in R v Sandanela and Others the use of the cat was discussed. Tindall J referred to a minute received from the Director of Prisons:

"[The Minute] [...] does not favour the use of the cat. Various reasons are mentioned, the most important being that in the case of a whipping across the shoulders with a cat there is considerable danger of not only permanently marking the convict, but of causing permanent injury to his health. It appears that about twenty years ago a circular was issued to the district surgeons in the Transvaal asking for their advice generally on the subject of corporal punishment, and the replies received were almost unanimously in favour of the cane as opposed to the cat. When Prison Regulations were framed in this Province under section 260 of (the) Ordinance, it was definitely laid down in one of the regulations that corporal punishment in the case of adults should be inflicted by means of a cane of specified dimensions and that the whipping should be administered not on the back but on the bare buttocks".

The severity of the "heavy" cane was noted in R v Mayer [1943] AD 389. The prisoner was a male under 21 years. He had already received his 6 strokes. The Judge who specified the nature of the instrument in the sentence noted:

"The character of the instrument which was to be used was specified by me for two reasons: He would have otherwise had to be whipped with the "heavy" cane -- see Prison Regulations 426 -- and I did not want that".

Preparations for a judicial caning in a Rhodesian prison
Secretly taken photograph of preparations for a judicial caning in Rhodesia, where the arrangements were roughly similar to those in South Africa.
(Sunday People, London, 16 February 1975)

In Prison Administration in the Union (unpublished MA dissertation), University of South Africa 1937 15,21, JPA Scoemann described prison whipping as:

"the most harsh, the most brutal, and the most despicable of all punishment ... Corporal punishment leaves open wounds and the victim is unable to sit for at least two weeks after the infliction of the punishment".(3)

General Otto, former Commissioner of Prisons, described the procedure in 1983:

"The naked prisoner is tied in an upright position to a wooden triangle with wrist and ankle straps. A blanket is placed over his kidneys and a wet cloth pulled tightly over the buttocks, whereupon the cuts are imposed (usually by one of the tallest warders). The cuts are counted down in the presence of the district surgeon for what seems to be an eternity. The wet cloth prevents the skin from bursting as was the case earlier on."(4)

A former prisoner has written:

"A contraption called a 'Mary' is commonly used for beatings in South African prisons. It is two heavy vertical pieces of wood fixed together with a wooden leg to hold the contraption at an angle of 45 degrees to the ground. The prisoner is spreadeagled across the frame, and his wrists and ankles buckled to it.

"The prisoner is naked apart from a thin white piece of canvas across the buttocks and a narrow pillow across the base of the spine to protect the kidneys in case the cane misses the buttocks. The stick is a flexible piece of cane about an inch in diameter, and the warder grips it with both hands. He puts every bit of his strength into each stroke and it slices into the buttocks [...] " (5)

Indres Naidoo, a well-known political prisoner, described his caning in prison for an offence against prison discipline -- refusing to obey a lawful command. He had to wait three weeks for his trial, at which he was sentenced to four strokes. Then he had to wait another two weeks for the sentence to be confirmed:

"Other comrades [...] teased me about what would happen. 'Hey, Indres, by the time you get out of gaol you'll be an old man. Now you'll have a torn backside as well, and no woman will look at you.'

"For the next two weeks I waited anxiously in my bare cell [...] The days were long and boring and I waited impatiently for the punishment, uncertain about my reaction, since up to then no political prisoner on the Island had been given lashes, and I was to be the first. [Robben Island in the 1960s]

"Every Tuesday and Thursday, we had heard screams coming from the hospital yard where lashes had been inflicted, terrible screams, and I thought of them again and again as I waited. The prisoners had always yelled out 'Mama! Help!' -- loud animal cries of pain -- but I had made up my mind that, no matter how painful it was, they would not hear a squeak out of me.

"Right in the centre of the yard was the whipping 'Mary', a sloping wooden frame with leather straps at the top and bottom. In front, I saw a burly chief warder, about six feet tall and weighing a good two hundred pounds, flexing his arms, and standing nearby, with twenty or thirty warders in attendance.

"Lying on the ground were half a dozen heavy bamboo canes with leather grips at the thicker end, and I saw the chief warder pick them up one by one to test them, flashing them through the air and bending them. As each cane whistled down he kept saying that he would make the coolie cry, and the warders standing around in expectant little groups talked loudly among themselves about how I would scream, waiting impatiently for the drama to begin.

"One of the warders ordered me to remove my trousers; the doctor asked if I suffered from any serious ailments and when I said 'No' he pronounced me fit for caning. First, my hands were strapped high above my head and then, as I lay at a forty-five-degree angle on the frame, my ankles were tied. My pants lay on the ground quite near me and, under the doctor's supervision, cushions were strapped on my back and over my thighs, leaving only my backside exposed.

"A medical orderly dabbed iodine all over the exposed part, and I heard the burly chief warder saying, even more loudly than before, that he was going to kill me that day, that I would have the scars for the rest of my life. He kept boasting about how efficient he was, with years of experience,and the other warders egged him on, almost hysterical with excitement.

"In the meantime the doctor told me not to worry since it would not be too bad and would soon be over but even while he was talking I heard the whistle of the cane. Next moment it felt as though a sharp knife had cut right across my backside. There was no pain immediately but, suddenly, my whole body felt as though it had been given an electric shock. I grabbed hold of the Mary with both my hands and clung tightly to it.

"The chief warder commented sarcastically, 'Oh, de koelie wil nie huil nie - the coolie doesn't want to cry', and all the warders joined in the chorus. He went on to say that the next three strokes would land right on the cut; the medical orderly applied more iodine and this burned me even more than the caning.

"The doctor continued to speak to me, saying that it had not been too bad, and that one stroke had already gone. While he was talking I again became aware of the whistle of the cane [...]

" [...] The last shot came whistling down and cut me right along the very line of the first cut. That stroke was so painful that after it I could hardly see in front of me. I was dazed, and strange shapes appeared in front of my eyes. I grabbed hold of the Mary and hung on to it as I tried to regain control of myself.

"In all that time I did not speak or groan and, as the chief warder marched away [...] I heard the warders commenting angrily that I was refusing to cry [...] I heard the doctor saying that I had taken it well, and somebody loosened the straps. As my feet touched the ground I felt that I was going to collapse at any moment [...] I heard the warder in charge saying abruptly that I must put on my pants and return to my cell [...]

"As I bent to pick up my shorts I could feel that I was going to go down. My arse was as hot as fire, and when the tip of my shirt touched it it added to the agony. Holding my shirt up, I managed to pick up my trousers and realized that if I stood any longer and tried to put them on I would fall to the ground, so I decided to walk away with my pants in one hand and my shirt held up by the other. The distance was about a hundred yards and I moved along it unconsciously, wobbling on my feet, my head spinning, past all the warders. I was determined not to show any sign of weakening, and the warders just stood and watched me all the way to my cell, waiting for me to drop. One of them opened the cell to let me in and I saw that, for some reason or other, the prisoners had not been sent out to work that day. As I staggered inside there was absolute silence and the prisoners waited for me to say something. Then, in the midst of my comrades, with no warders around to see, I collapsed.

"The next two or three weeks I could hardly sit on my backside and at night had to sleep on my stomach. The wound slowly healed but the scars remained for a long time, and to this day I still sleep on my stomach."(6)

In some prisons, corporal punishment was so frequent that there were regular whipping sessions at which several prisoners were dealt with together. Michael Scott, another political prisoner, described the circumstances surrounding "whipping day" at Durban Prison in the 1950s:

"Worst of all were the days when corporal punishment was inflicted. In fact the worst form of cruelty that I came across in gaol was the carrying out of these forms of punishment sanctioned by the law and prison regulations. Those due for this barbaric treatment were made to undress and stand naked beside their heap of clothes in the yard in front of the hospital to await a farcical medical examination. The white prisoners were dealt with separately and more privately, though their punishment was also severe, as witnessed by the marks on their buttocks for weeks to follow.

"After one touch of the stethoscope and a cursory examination of previous weals the non-European prisoners were marched to the other side of the courtyard leaving their clothes in heaps on the ground outside the hospital, and were made to wait in line along the wall of a shed on the opposite side of the prison courtyard. The warders who were to inflict the punishment would pass the time of waiting by practising their strokes, in view of the waiting prisoners, with a cane about four feet in length.

"Then one by one the prisoners would enter the shed to be tied to a triangular frame and undergo their sentence. Sometimes there were screams,sometimes there were not; but always, when the victim emerged from the shed, he would hardly be able to stand and could only very slowly place one foot in front of the other and thus make his way back to the hospital for another medical examination. Their buttocks, swollen with livid weals, were then treated by an orderly with some kind of astringent lotion. The whole sadistic ritual that attended this process of the law, the long nerve-racking waiting about, the cold and nakedness and the fear of physical pain were calculated to induce in the victim a sense of shame and dread and of being without protection or means of escape [...] "(7)

A much more recent description has been given by a lady doctor who in 1985, newly graduated, was "young, inexperienced and idealistic" when she worked for a time as a district physician in Port Elizabeth:

"After starting the day in the police mortuary with a number of autopsies, I travel to North End Prison (also called Rooi Hel or Red Hell) to perform "admission examinations" on all newly incarcerated prisoners. These examinations involve waving a stethoscope over the chests of dozens of men, lined up, sometimes in an open courtyard regardless of the weather, and stripped to the waist. They are then declared fit (for what, I do not know).

I travel alone to St Albans, a prison for medium- and long-term prisoners. In addition to another 50 or so admission examinations, I have to see about 30 people who have specific complaints —- 80 patients in less than 2 hours. For my own safety, I am told, I cannot see patients without a prison official as "chaperone." All medical records are kept at the prison and can be accessed by police and prison officials. I have to examine prisoners who are to receive various forms of punishment for minor misdemeanours, to declare them "fit for punishment." The punishment could be "spare diet" (bread and water), solitary confinement, leg irons, or caning.

Today I am told that prison regulations also require that a doctor be present during the caning of prisoners, supposedly to ensure that excessive injury is not caused. I have no idea what awaits me. The prisoner is led out into a courtyard, naked except for a pair of underpants. His underpants are removed, and he is strapped to a tilted wooden frame, with his arms and legs spread-eagled. A small cloth is spread over the prisoner's buttocks. The warder who is to administer the punishment then takes up his thick rubber [sic] whip. He stands about 50m away from the prisoner, takes a run up and, as he approaches the frame, raises the whip over his head, bringing it down with a resounding, sickening crack over the man's buttocks, as he thunders past. "One!" shouts someone behind me, and I realize that there are still five more lashes to come. I feel as if I have become an unwilling, but unprotesting, participant in a pornographic film. I go directly from the prison to Dr Lang's office.

"I can't do this," I say. "It's absolutely horrific." "Don't expect any special treatment in this department, just because you're a woman," he replies.

I refuse to watch any more canings, and the prison authorities ensure that canings are scheduled for days when I am not on duty."(8)

Turning to a probably less reliable source, in his book The Seychelles Affair, Major "Mad Mike" Hoare, who served a term in prison in South Africa in 1982 for his role as a mercenary in an unsuccessful coup, described how he had observed the infliction of corporal punishment:

"On my way back to the hospital through the hall I became aware of an atmosphere of excitement among the disciplinary staff. A birching [sic] was in progress. The A frame, a solid timber construction in the shape of the letter A, about ten feet high, had been laid on the ground in a secluded yard near the reception office. A young prisoner lay on the frame, which was raised slightly at the sharp end of the A. He was naked apart from a thin wet cotton cloth covering his buttocks. His arms and legs, which were spreadeagled, were clamped to the frame. The prison authorities and the District Surgeon were in attendance. The doctor sounded the man's heart. OK. Lay on, MacDuff! A hefty warder raised a four-foot cane about half an inch thick above his head and brought it down on the cloth with all his might, grunting as he did so. The youngster bit his lip and grimaced with pain. The doctor adjusted the cloth and sounded the man's heart again. Proceed. The third stroke drew blood. Deep purple-red weals scarred his bottom beads of blood welled up along them. After ten strokes the prisoner signalled them to stop. He would serve out the rest of his time. One stroke was the equivalent of one week's imprisonment. The competition among the Boere (the warders) for the sadistic privilege of administering the punishment was keen. I often wondered about that choice. I imagine he regretted not sticking it out, but who knows?"(9)

The practice described above of giving a prisoner the opportunity to trade cane strokes for weeks in prison is not one that the present authors have found mentioned anywhere else. It seems unlikely that prison staff would have the authority to make such deals. Probably the author of the book was misinformed.

Breyten Breytenbach, describing his time in Pollsmoor prison, wrote:

"You would then be stripped naked and strapped, spreadeagled, to the 'Mare', a three-legged easel-like structure, something from the Middle Ages, bolted to the floor of the central hall. A protective cloth would be tied over your kidneys and the blows meted out with great relish, in the presence of the medical officer."(10)

An Amnesty International document on South Africa, date and title unidentified but probably c.1980, claimed that black and white recipients of corporal punishment were treated differently from each other:

"Blacks and whites are lashed differently. A black is tied to a wooden frame; his clothing is pulled down and he is hit with a cane. The flesh of the buttocks is torn, the raw flesh being described by Dennis Brutus as 'like a freshly-bitten plum' [...]

"Lashing for whites is less brutal. While blacks are lashed naked, whites have always been allowed some protection to absorb the lacerating effect of the cane, on the principle that white buttocks are more tender than black. Up until 1973, a wet calico rag was laid across the naked white buttocks; then a new instruction stated that white men should be lashed with their trousers on and that the lashes should cease at the sign of bleeding."

This observation may be a politically motivated distortion of the truth. Those who saw the punishment inflicted on both black and white prisoners attested to equal severity in each case. It may that one prisoner was hit harder than another on account of his crime, or his attitude.(11)

The Amnesty document continues:

"The Nationalist newspaper 'Rapport' (24 March 1973) described new lashing techniques for whites as 'soft, but very painful'. The police have 'built up an unofficial team of lashers who, while keeping within the bounds of reason, can hit a man so that he whimpers'. These lashers have developed individual styles; the newspaper mentions various methods including a 'golf action' and a 'cricket technique' where the cane is wielded with the arm action of a bowler."

Leaving aside the confusion in the last part of this extract -- if it was the police who had 'built up a team of lashers' it must have been in connection with "Article 294" canings of juveniles, not prison whippings -- the suggestion that white recipients could now keep their trousers on is not one we have encountered anywhere else. In fact it appears to be contradicted by the legal books, as in this example from 1981:

For adults the buttocks are exposed, but for juveniles the cuts must be inflicted over clothes.(12)

It would seem therefore that what the Amnesty International informant assumed was a distinction between races was in fact the distinction between adult and juvenile canings.

A South African police officer, who himself had been responsible for inflicting juvenile punishments with the "light cane", witnessed two adult canings in prison in the early 1950s. He was therefore in the unusual position of being able to make a detailed comparison between the two sorts of caning. He has recorded these observations:

"The same rules applied to 'adult' canings and floggings; it was 'pants off' (underpants, if any, too) for the cane, and bare back but pants on, for the 'cat'. I never saw anyone being flogged with the cat, and only witnessed two 'adult' canings, both of which were markedly more severe than the juvenile variety, as the 'heavy' cane split the skin of the bare backsides at almost every stroke [...]

"The caning of adults involved 'follow-through' strokes, which were full-strength, or at least very hard strokes, inflicted with plenty of shoulder and even upper body weight behind them, but which are not aimed at the man's tail, but rather as if he wasn't there at all; all his bottom did was to define the lateral limits of the target area, but not its depth. The effect was to produce a long, slashing stroke, which sank right into both buttocks and could easily peel a strip of skin off each of them as the cane was virtually dragged through the flesh.

"For floggings with the cat-o'-nine-tails -– which I never observed -- the convict had to take his shirt right off (vest too), so he was naked from waist to shoulders, but his pants, etc. stayed on. The flogging was administered across the shoulders and ribs.

"Those adults who were sentenced to be caned [...] were strapped over a trestle with their naked backsides sticking up and out. 'Follow-through'whacks were used, which always draw blood."


"I attended two adult canings at the Central Prison during the second half of 1954, when I was 23 and had already been doing a juvenile caning job for several months.

I had asked for permission to see 'how it was really done' and regarded myself as one expert going along to study the handiwork of another. The two thrashings I witnessed were quite dissimilar in some respects.

The first thing that struck me, when I was escorted to the small exercise yard at the back of the maximum security section, where the caning was to be done, was everybody's grimness. In the [police] cells, we [the staff] often tried to lighten things up and to show the kids that getting their tails tanned might be very sore, but it wasn't the end of the world, but here, everyone I spoke to adopted the attitude that the convict who was going to be caned might as well have been on death row and could even have wished he was!

My colleague went with me and showed me the caning frame, which he called 'Old Mary'. It was a wooden contraption with a heavy base and two uprights slanting at about 30 degrees behind vertical. It had a padded, height-adjustable crossbar, fixed ankle cuffs and wrist cuffs that could be moved up and down and be pegged in position on the uprights. Obviously, the convict wouldn't be bent over for his cuts, but would just be lying slightly forward, with his hips supported by the crossbar and his chest by what looked like a bit of tennis net stretched between the uprights. Then there was a table with cotton wool, Elastoplast strips and bottles of TCP, mercurochrome and iodine standing on it.

There were a number of canes in a 40 gallon drum with no top.

My colleague gave me one to handle, and I was quite shocked at how heavy and springy it was. The juvenile canes I had used were also kept soaked and could bend about 270 degrees, but even these, much thicker, ones must have been able to flex about 180 degrees, and it was quite frightening to imagine what a thing like that would feel like, wrapping round a bare backside.

The two canings I observed happened about three months apart.

Convict one was an adult black male aged about 28; powerful build, very resentful and aggressive; 'difficult', rather than 'dangerous'.

He was already a prisoner and had slapped a young warder through the face and spat at him.

He was charged with breach of Prison Rules, dealt with administratively by the Superintendent.

His sentence was six strokes, summary infliction, no review.

There's quite a lot of difference between an 'adult' and a 'juvenile' caning. The 'adult' version was far more "spectacular", made a much more callous impression and, I imagine, hurt, as distinct from just stinging and burning, a lot more.

Both adult convicts I saw being caned were completely naked for the punishment, which already gave the impression of extra severity, although it really made no difference, as the victim's backside was bare whether he was a man or a teenager.

No. 1 was brought in stark naked, so there wouldn't be any trouble getting his pants off when the time came, but it still took four warders to get him strapped on to 'Old Mary', with a wide 'kidney belt' buckled round him, just above his backside.

Once he was in position, though, he just seemed to give up and stood/lay there passively while the prison doctor gave him much the same sort of examination that we had in the cells.

Meanwhile, a big, husky senior warder was choosing a cane. He swished a couple of them through the air in a way that I thought was cruel, because if he was going to hit like that, he would be making mincemeat of that convict's bare backside. I could see that the convict knew it, too, from the way his behind clenched every time he heard the cane and even though he must have known he wasn't getting it, yet.

When he had been passed 'fit', the warder got into position on his left side, just a few inches in front of his hip. From that I knew that he was going to hit him well round on the side of his left buttock and let the cane bend round his backside. I was interested to see how much cane he was going to actually hit with. It all seemed to happen in slow motion from then on. The cane was laid across both buttocks, right in the middle of his backside, the tip sticking out about 3 inches backwards across the existing almost chalk-white dent leaving a raw, twin-edged stripe, which started to bleed almost at once. The convict's whole body went rigid and he sucked air in, going 'Aaaaah', rather than yelling, but I could see that it had hurt him a lot more than any light cane cut ever could have.

The next three followed quite quickly, all from the same side, one above and two below the first one and all leaving open weals on both buttocks. It was obvious that the intention there was to hurt the convict as much as possible, while we, I think, seldom tried to hurt the juveniles more than was absolutely necessary.

The last two were perfect 'plaashek' (farm gate) cuts, diagonally across both haunches, one from bottom left to top right and the other, from top left to bottom right, making a clear 'X' across most of the other four, on both sides. The last one really made him yell when the tip dug into the crease just under his right cheek and the blood fairly ran down his thigh.

In fact, both buttocks were almost covered in blood by then, not only from the original strokes but even more from where they had been opened up by the cross-over stripes. It was a terrible mess and I didn't feel so good by the time they undid him from the frame. The man howled when the doctor put, I think, ammonia, on to stop the bleeding and then followed it with a swab soaked in TCP, which obviously stung like hell.

That convict was clearly in a lot of pain and had a badly cut up bottom, but he didn't seem to be in terrible distress. As far as I can remember, they left him tied to the frame while the doctor soaked a chunk of cotton wool in what was, I think, "Scrubbs Cloudy Ammonia" and simply swabbed the guy’s whole buttocks with it until all the blood was gone and the welts were clearly visible.

Then he took a smaller bit of wadding and soaked it in concentrated TCP (I also had been taught to avoid iodine as far as possible, as lots of people are allergic to it), and with that, the doctor disinfected each open stripe as gently as possible. It must have stung like blazes because I remember that that big, tough black man yelled more and louder while that was happening than when he was actually being caned.

Once the wounds were clean and most of the bleeding had stopped, the doctor put ordinary Elastoplast strips longways on the worst of the cuts. I remember thinking that getting them off his quite hairy backside wasn't going to be much fun. Only then did they untie him and off he went, still cussing everybody, under his own steam.

Still, he walked away, unaided, still swearing at the gaolers and the last I saw was a pair of very swollen and black, rather than brown or red,and very ridged, hindquarters vanishing into the building. That one gave me a lot to think about, but, although I was assured that 'white' convicts 'got it' just as hard, I wanted to see for myself, because I felt sure that there must be some prejudice against a black, especially one who had been troublesome.

I arranged with my colleague to let me know when next a white convict was going to be caned, and, three months later, I was back for No. 2.

No 2 was an adult white male aged 25, slight build, quiet and subdued, but classified as 'dangerous'.

His offence was assault with intent and attempted robbery.

The case was heard in the Magistrates’ Court with increased jurisdiction.

The sentence was eight strokes, and 3 years' hard labour, of which one year was suspended for five years; sentence confirmed on review; caning to be inflicted at start of remainder of prison term, after confirmation.

Unlike No. 1, No. 2 was a model prisoner. He was quiet and polite and, of course, had no history of being troublesome, as he had only been transferred from the local Gaol to the prison proper once his sentence had been confirmed.

So, except for the midday meal, his caning was to be his first 'prison' experience, on that occasion at any rate. Also, the warders had no reason to dislike him and I more or less expected that he would get off much more lightly than No. 1 had, especially being white.

His caning took place in a cell, not the exercise yard, and the whole procedure was different. He hadn't been stripped naked in his cell but was wearing his prison trousers, only, when they brought him in. Of course, once his pants came off, he would also be going kaalgat to get the cane, but not having him brought in like that did, somehow, make a difference. Instead of 'Old Mary', they used an ordinary oblong table, about three feet high, to whip him on and, once he was naked and had been examined by the doctor, he was made to lie flat, face down, on it, with his wrists tied to the front legs, his chin supported by the table itself, his ankles tied to the back legs and his bare feet sticking out over the corners. They also put the kidney belt on him, but right round him and the table, so his backside really couldn't move at all.

Having him in that position was familiar, whereas the 'Old Mary' position was strange to me. Also, the table's being higher than the Juvenile court benches seemed to me to make it possible for them to thrash even harder than was done to juveniles.

By the time he was being strapped to the table, the warder had selected his cane and took up his position as soon as his target was ready for him. Because of the height of the table, the strokes were obviously going to land on the outside curve of, to begin with, the convict's left buttock and that is exactly how they were aimed. This warder was far less restrained than the other one had been; he raised the cane as high as he could above his shoulder, having lined it up with the part of the buttocks he wanted to hit, then took a step backwards and literally jumped into the air as he brought the stick down in a full, slashing arc, hitting right into his victim's bottom, and keeping the stick in contact with his flesh for a good couple of seconds. I don't think I had ever seen a cane applied as hard, or so savagely, to any backside, either clothed or bare, as that first cut was.

I expected to see a raw, open stripe right across both buttocks, with blood everywhere and for the convict to be screaming in agony, but it produced little more than a harsh intake of breath from the man on the table and the result was nothing more than a very livid tramline welt, which showed up dead white across both cheeks. Only the depth to which it had gone into the cleft between his buttocks proved that the cane had landed so hard as to flatten the muscles out enough to allow the stick to reach skin that would normally have been protected by the shape of his bottom itself.

That first cut had landed precisely across the middle of the man’s naked backside and the warder proceeded to lay the next three, just as hard, on both sides of the first stripe, one about two inches higher, near the top of his crack and the other two across the lower curve, all about two inches apart, so that No. 4 was right in the crease and was the only one that made the convict yelp.

By then, the tips of the stripes, over the crest of his right buttock and round on to that flank, were starting to bleed, the weals were standing finger-thick proud of the surrounding flesh and were dark red, with almost black edges, while purple bruises were starting to form between the stripes.

That was the halfway mark. The thrashing then stopped while the warder changed sides. I was particularly interested in the next instalment because the first four had been placed so accurately and had produced even and almost identical stripes that I was wondering how on earth he was going to avoid overlapping them with the welts from the last lot. I regarded myself as being quite accurate with a cane, but I knew that there was no way that I would be able to plant any of the remaining four cuts in between those stripes, from the other side, while hitting as hard as he was and being airborne as well.

I needn't have wondered; he just tapped the cane a couple of times on the strip of clear skin between the first one and the stripe up at the top of the backside and then brought it down with the same force and style as the others. There was this terrific crack and the wide white (really a pale, mottled blue) strip of skin became two narrow ones with another thick, red welt between them, its last couple of inches, over the crest of the left buttock already starting to bleed. That one really made the convict yell; it must have been terribly painful, landing on already tender, bruised flesh ... No. 6 followed quickly, landing in between the two lowest welts, obviously hurting like hell and causing a lot of damage to the soft skin near the join of tail and thighs.

The convict was really yelling his head off by then and his backside was jerking around as much as it could, so the warder didn’t even try to put the last two in the remaining spaces, not that I think he was going to, anyway.

Instead, he finished the thrashing off with two cuts that I had never seen before. Instead of using them to make a cross over both buttocks, like in the first caning, he put each one across one cheek only, No. 7 so that its stripe went from the end of his crease with the right leg, with the tip bending into the top of his crack and No. 8 starting at the top of his crack and going down over his left cheek till the tip got him just on the top of his left leg. Because the stripes were so short and hard, they cut right into all the existing welts and burst them open like blisters - there was literally blood everywhere and that poor guy was screaming something terrible. It took the doctor quite a while to stop most of the bleeding and to patch up the worst of the cuts, mainly where the tip of the cane had dug into the flesh. By then both haunches were swollen up like two hard, ribbed footballs.

Not only was his seat badly mangled, with a lot of blood drawn all over both buttocks, but he seemed a bit exhausted once it was over. I recall that they untied him at once. There was the same swabbing away of the blood, but I think he used diluted TCP throughout and the reaction wasn't nearly as fierce as Number One's. The cuts were quite a bit deeper, though, and I remember thinking that, once the blood had been cleared away, the pattern on both his buttocks, but especially on the right one, was like a ragged Cross of Lorraine, thanks to the placing of those last two cuts.

He arched his back as the TCP got to him and I could see from his face that it was stinging his tail like crazy. At that stage, the most spectacular part was the way both haunches had swollen up, so that they stuck out prominently and were literally black and blue, with finger-thick,double-lined welts across them.

There was obviously nothing the doctor could do about that, but they got him off the table and, when it was obvious that he couldn’t walk alone, they hitched his arms over two warders' shoulders and half carried him away. He was still stark naked, simply because it would have hurt him too much to put his pants back on and, anyway, what for, as they would just have to come off again in the sick bay. There had been too much residual bleeding for plasters, but I suppose they dressed the open cuts properly in the medical ward; I heard that he was treated with an injection for the pain and was kept in the sick bay for 24 hours, but I never heard anything more about him." (13)


(1) (Allegedly) Judge Leslie Blackwell, quoted from an unknown source by a reader in 'Police have tea with drug lord' after caller complains", Cape Times, 27 August 1996. Blackwell was a Supreme Court Judge from 1943 to 1955.

(2) Assembly Debates, 8 February 1952, page 829, Mr Kahn MP.

(3) Cited in János Mihálik, "The Taming of the Bad, or Unspeakable Cruelty – Prison Disciplinary Offences", 1989 SALJ 330.

(4) General J.F. Otto, Oorbevolking van Gevangenisse met Besondere Verwysing na die Oos Kaap (1983), 10 The Magistrate 182.

(5) Brian Price, "Horror in Black and White", The Observer, London, 1 August 1976.

(6) Island in Chains: Ten Years at Robben Island by Prisoner 885/63, as told by Indres Naidoo to Albie Sachs, Penguin, 1982.

(7) G. Michael Scott, A Time to Speak, Faber and Faber, London, 1958.

(8) Wendy Orr MD, "Health and Human Rights: A South African Experience"EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window [PDF], in Canadian Family Physician, Mississauga, Ontario, December 2002.

(9) Mike Hoare, The Seychelles Affair, Bantam Press, London, 1986.

(10) Breyten Breytenbach, True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Faber and Faber, London, 1984.

(11) Similar (apparently mistaken) assertions are made in John Jackson, Justice in South Africa, Secker & Warburg, London, 1980. Possibly this was the source of the questionable information in the Amnesty document -- or vice versa.

(12) V.G. Hiemstra, Suid-Afrikaanse Strafproses [South African Criminal Procedure], Butterworth, Durban, 1981.

(13) Private correspondence with the present authors.

blob See also: Section 8: Interesting cases (adult)

blob Next: Section 7: What canings of juveniles involved

blob Video clips

blob Picture index

blob About this website

blob Country files  Main menu page

Copyright © the authors 2005
Page updated November 2005