PRETORIA, South Africa — Martha Mahlangu can't bear to visit the prison where her son, an anti-apartheid guerrilla, was hanged. But she says it's important that other South Africans see the gallows the government opened as a monument Thursday.
The new memorial recreates the place where political prisoners like Solomon Mahlangu climbed the stairs to face their executions, never struggling and sometimes even singing anti-apartheid songs.
Martha Mahlangu, an 87-year-old former maid, hopes visitors to the gallows will contemplate her son's sacrifice.
"Solomon only thought of freedom, to free the black man," she said in an interview in her Pretoria home. "He never thought of himself, only about seeing the black man free."
Her voice faltered when she tried speak about being invited to take part in a series of events this week at the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison. She sat on her porch in a neighborhood set aside for blacks under apartheid that today remains predominantly black and poor.
She said she was instead sending her eldest son and a nephew to Thursday's inauguration by President Jacob Zuma of the gallows and the death row block housing it as a national memorial and museum.
She also sent her son and nephew to a traditional ceremony Wednesday during which relatives of those hanged offered prayers and burned incense in remembrance.
Zuma toured the building Thursday morning at the start of the ceremony to open the site, accompanied by several Cabinet ministers and George Bizos, a prominent campaigner against the death penalty who was also former President Nelson Mandela's lawyer.
The anti-apartheid militants who were executed "were terrorists or trouble makers to the authorities then," Zuma said in a speech after his tour Thursday. "But to their people and families, they were freedom fighters who wanted to see a free, democratic and nonsexist South Africa."
Death row was in a low, brick building with imposing oak doors just outside the main block of Pretoria Central Prison. The gallows were abandoned after the death penalty was abolished in 1995.
On Thursday, a sign on a freshly painted wall along a hallway leading to the gallows told visitors some 3,500 South Africans were hanged over the last century. "Of these," it said, "130 were patriots whose only crime was fighting oppression."
Not all those hanged were executed in Pretoria, but many of the most prominent were.
South Africa's highest court ruled in 1995 that the death penalty was a cruel, inhuman and degrading violation of the country's post-apartheid constitution. Executions had been on hold since 1989, as a debate raged that touched on the executions of anti-apartheid militants and on whether there could be a fair or just way of deciding who would be hanged.