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Bend the bars

From June 1986 to June 1987, during the first year of the state of emergency, there were at least 3050 women in detention. Over one third of these detainees were aged 18 years or younger. There were also 69 women detained under the Internal Security Act.

When the numbers were last counted, there were at least 80 women in detention under the emergency regulations and over 20 detained under section 29 of the Internal Security Act. But many people believe the numbers are higher than this.

At one end of the hall, there was a huge yellow banner with the words: “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE STRUGGLE, NOT BEHIND BARS.”

Below, written in big black letters, were the names of women in detention and in jail for political reasons. On the stage, dressed in bright gold and brown, Shadii sang “United we stand, divided we fall”, while over 600 people danced and clapped.

Shadii was not the only group to offer its music. The African Jazz Pioneers, Bayete, The Spectres, Thandi Klaasens and Superwomen were also there to remember the women in detention. The spirit was very high at the “Bend the Bars” concert, and the Flower Hall at Wits university rocked until late in the night.

The concert was the last event of the February campaign to give support to women in detention. The campaign was organised by the Detainees Parents Support Committee — but just before the concert, on 24 February, the DPSC, together with 16 other organisations, was banned.

The DPSC was not allowed to organise the concert they had planned. So the members of the Federation of Transvaal Women (Fedtraw) took over and organised the concert instead.


The DPSC campaign began at the beginning of February with a tea party at the Ipelegeng Community Centre in Soweto. All the families of women in detention in the Witwatersrand area were invited. About 400 people of all ages, both black and white, crowded into the hall. A creche, run by the Concerned Social Workers, looked after the children while the youth and adults listened to the speakers.

Liz Floyd, a doctor, spoke about the problems of women in detention. She said that it is not only the body that suffers in detention, but the mind as well. She told the meeting that people who are kept alone in solitary confinement suffer even more than people who are kept in a cell with other detainees.

Liz, who once spent many months in detention herself, said that the problems of detainees are not over when they leave detention. People who have been in a cell on their own for a long time often find it difficult to be with other people again. They feel worried and nervous. She said that families of detainees must know about these problems so that they can help these people to get healthy and strong again.

Another speaker at the tea party was Nomvula Mokonyane, who was detained for about eight months.

Nomvula found she was pregnant just after she was detained. She told the meeting about the problems of being pregnant in detention. She spoke about always feeling hungry — and how Sister Bernard Ncube, who was also in detention, gave all her food to her. Sister Bernard ate only sweets.

Nomvula’s worst moment in detention came when “the baby stopped moving, and I thought it was dead”. She was taken to hospital for treatment, and the baby was saved. Her husband was in detention at the same time as her, and he didn’t know that she was pregnant. They had only been married for two weeks when they were both detained.

The Detainees Aid Movement, an organisation from Soweto, made a wonderful lunch for the people at the meeting. People ate outside, where they chatted and got to know each other. After lunch, the Save the Children group from Soweto, led by Peter Ngwenya, performed their play. This group of children, singing and acting about life in the township, brought tears to the eyes of many people watching.

People were then invited to write the names of any women that they knew in detention, or in jail for political reasons, on the banner at the back of the stage. Marion Sparg, Theresa Ramashemola, Connie Hiatshwayo and Carol Lombard were just some of the names written on the banner.


On the Friday after the tea party, the DPSC, with help from the Black Sash, organised women to stand along Jan Smuts Avenue and Oxford Road in Johannesburg. The women all held posters protesting against the detention 16 of women. Some of the posters read: “Save Theresa from the gallows.”

“Ivy Gcina, held 661 days.” “Release my sister, Jenny, 155 days.” “A woman’s place is not behind bars.”

The women stood for one hour, holding their posters for the motorists to read on their way to work. Some of the motorists shouted angrily at the women and made rude signs at them. But others flicked their lights and gave thumbs up signs to show their support. Some even gave the power salute — the clenched fist.

The February campaign was not the only campaign the DPSC was planning. They were also planning four more campaigns — on National Detainees’ Day, on children and workers in detention, and on the state of emergency.

But because the DPSC is now banned, it can no longer carry on with its plans and work. This means that the DPSC can no longer give advice to detainees and their families, or take statements from released detainees, or send food parcels and tracksuits to detainees.

But, just as Fedtraw helped to organise the concert after the DPSC was banned, other people will fill the shoes of the banned organisations. The banning of the 17 organisations was a setback — but the spirit of the people is still strong and the struggle will continue. That is the best message we can send to the women and everybody else in detention!

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