Few people are tough enough to go without food for 33 days. Only the strongest are ready to die of hunger for something they believe in.
Tozamile Taai is such a person. Even his surname tells you that: taai is the Afrikaans word for tough.
Tozamile was detained when the railway workers were on strike last year. He was a shopsteward of the South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union (Sarhwu).
When he was in detention, Tozamile decided not to eat a crumb until he was charged or released. And that is just what he did. For 33 days he ate nothing until a magistrate came to his hospital bed and charged him.
Three days later, the charges against him were dropped and he was released. Learn and Teach spoke to Tozamile at the Sarhwu offices a few days after he was released.
A SICK MAN
If you see Tozamile, you will not believe that he could live for 33 days on just a glass of water a day. He is not a big man. He is quite a small man with huge spectacles on his nose. He is not even a very healthy man. He is a diabetic. That means there is something wrong with the sugar in his blood and he must get an injection every day.
Before he was detained, Tozamile lived in Tembisa with his two wives and 12 of his 14 children. He was a ticket collector and he had worked for the Railways for 22 years.
At the time of the big railway workers’ strike last year, the union sent Tozamile and three of his comrades to East London to organise the workers there.
On April 23 they were on their way back to Johannesburg when they were detained and held in a jail in East London. In East London, Tozamile learned about hunger strikes for the first time.
TOZAMILE’S FIRST HUNGER STRIKE
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On June 10 he was taken from East London to Johannesburg, where he was held under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. He went on his second hunger strike while he was at the Alexandra police station. \
This time he demanded fresh milk to eat with the dry porridge he got at meal times every day. For four days he ate nothing. On the fifth day he ate porridge… with fresh milk!
In September he was taken to Diepkloof prison, where he was held with 20 other Sarhwu workers.
“CHARGE OR RELEASE US”
On December 14, he and his Sarhwu comrades went on a hunger strike. They demanded to be charged or released. The next day, a letter came from the Review Board. It said that they would be detained until 11 March.
When the 20 other Sarhwu workers heard the bad news, they felt that it would be useless to carry on with the hunger strike.
But as Tozamile will tell you, he is a ‘stubborn somebody’. He had decided that he would not eat until he was charged or released. Nothing could change his mind: not the colonel who said ‘My friend, you will die’, not his Sarhwu comrades who tried to talk him out of it, not even the doctors who warned him that it was dangerous because he was a diabetic.
“The aim was not to kill myself. I knew that they would not let me die on their hands. I wanted to be released. My work is outside with the workers. Being in jail is just a waste of time,” said Tozamile.
He started his hunger strike on a Sunday and he can still remember the last meal he ate – mealie rice, meat, vegetables, bread and milk.
When he stopped eating, he suddenly got 24 hour service. A doctor checked up on him and weighed him every day. Three times a day, food was put in his cell to break him – but he just mixed it all up so that he would not want to eat it. He also stopped giving himself insulin injections. Insulin is medecine that diabetics must take every day.
The first two days of the hunger strike were very hard. “On the second day I was thirsty and I longed for food. But then I would just pray that God would give me the strength to carry on,” Tozamile said. From the third day it became easier, but Tozamile was getting weaker and he was losing weight.
His Sarhwu comrades did everything they could to support him. They cleaned his cell and washed his clothes every day.
On the sixth day of his hunger strike, he was taken to hospital. Two guards sat at his bedside. By that time, he was feeling very weak. He got some exercise by walking a bit, but he could not walk fast because his head would start spinning.
On Christmas eve, the tenth day of his hunger strike, a security policeman brought his senior wife to the hospital to talk him into eating. She begged him to eat and said that she was worried about him. But he told her: “I know what I am doing”.
His wife listened to her husband’s reasons for going on hunger strike. When she left, she knew that nothing could change his mind. She told him that she was behind him all the way.
A TERRIBLE HEADACHE
By the time that 20 days had passed, he was feeling very weak. He remembers how he suffered on the toilet. “It took me from early in the morning until 9 o’clock that night just to push out one small drol.”
As the days slowly passed, his thoughts were no longer clear and he could not see properly. He had a terrible headache all the time.
He was worried that the railways might kick his family out of their house in Tembisa, because he still owed the railways some money for the house.
“Sometimes I thought of my children, but the main thing that worried me was the workers. The railways has been unfair to workers for so long,” he said.
“On the 33rd day, my mind was blank and my eyes were getting worse,” Tozamile said. He was also becoming very thin – he had lost 17 kilograms since the start of his hunger strike. That evening at twenty past six, a magistrate, a prosecutor and lawyers came to the hospital and held a court in his room, around his bed.
“I felt it was a great victory. I have never heard of a court in hospital,” Tozamile said. He was charged with joining an illegal strike and inciting workers to strike.
SOUP AND RICE
His demand to be charged or released had been met, so he could eat again. Suppertime at the hospital was over -but the nurses were so glad that he wanted to eat, that they started searching for food immediately. They brought him a cup of soup with a little bit of rice. “It was tasteless.” His poor body was no longer used to food and that night the soup and rice felt heavy in his stomach.
On Monday 25 January, Tozamile’s lawyer went to court to ask for bail for him. But he did not need bail – all the charges against him were dropped and he was released.
Tozamile says he is now more keen than ever to work for the workers in their struggle. “I know that if I can fight till the end, I will be moving towards a brighter future not only for my children – but for the whole human race.”
Tozamile has learned that a hunger strike can be a very powerful weapon, but he warned that it should not be used too often, or else it will lose its power. “People must be careful with this weapon,” he said.
The Bible says that “Man does not live on bread alone”. Tozamile learned that this is true – if your spirit is strong, your body can keep going through great suffering. He lived without food for 33 days because he believes so strongly that he has the right to be free.