On 23 January this year, 20 detainees in Diepkloof prison went on a hunger strike to protest against detention without trial. By February, over 600 detainees in prisons all around the country had also stopped eating.
The demands of the detainees were simple: “We want to be released, immediately and unconditionally, or charged in a court of law. We will not eat until then!”
The hunger strikers achieved their goal! At the time of going to the printers, over 500 detainees had been released. But many are under heavy restrictions. And still, the detention cells are not empty.
Learn and Teach spoke to two of the first 20 detainees who went on hunger strike. They shared with us the story of their struggle inside prison — and the painful path that brought them to victory.
For over two years, Sipho and Zoli (not their real names) shared a cell in Diepkloof Prison, also known as ‘Sun City’. When they and their comrades decided to go on hunger strike this year, many of them had been in detention for nearly three years, not knowing if they were ever going to be released or charged.
“After so long in prison, we all felt desperate,” said Sipho. “We sent a petition to the Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, and the Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee, demanding to be charged or released.
We warned them that if nothing was done, we would be forced to take action.
“When we realised that we were talking to deaf ears, we made the decision to go on hunger strike. We organised the strike carefully. The comrades in each prison cell formed a committee and the representatives formed a ‘negotiating table’. The representatives gave the prison authorities a letter telling them of our decision. It was clear that the authorities had no idea how organised we were.”
THE LAST SUPPER
Both Sipho and Zolis’ eyes light up when they talk about their last meal before starting the hunger strike. It is a meal they will never forget. “Supper was served at the usual time — 2.00 pm. We left our bread so that we could eat later that night when we were hungry. We had also collected a few tins of food.
“That night we had a feast and ate the tinned food and the bread. We all ate together, slowly, talking and reminding one another that this was going to be our last supper, maybe in our life. Our slogan was: “We will eat at home!”
The next day, the hunger strike began.
THOUGHTS OF A HUNGER STRIKER
Day One. They have put us hunger strikers in a different cell. Like all the comrades on hunger strike. No exercise. We are kept under lock and key all day, and separated from the other prisoners. This way, they hope the hunger strike will not catch on.
Day Four. I wake up feeling strong in my mind, weak in my body. The strike will go on, I say to myself. I will go on. I hear a sound outside my cell door. A scraping sound. Footsteps move away down the long corridor. I look outside. On the floor, a plate of steaming food. My mouth waters. I think: they are trying to weaken my will. But I will not give in to temptation.
Day Seven. Back in our cells! Just as we planned, our solidarity has worked. The strike has spread, and we are back with the other detainees.
Day Eight. Sometimes I feel afraid. This hunger strike is going to be longer than the others. We try to keep each other’s spirits up. We talk a lot and play games like scrabble, chess, cards and draughts. We talk about food. We look at pictures of food in magazines, and imagine biting into a picture of meat or cake. We talk about what we will eat if or when we are released.
Day Ten. I feel the hunger in my stomach. I tell myself it is in my mind.
Day Twelve. I hear the news that some of our comrades have been released. Morale is very high. We will carry on, even though we know we may die. We know we are risking our lives — we talked about that before the strike.
Day Seventeen. I try to stand, and almost fall to the ground.
Day Twenty-one. Stomach cramps. I feel faint. They carry me out of the prison and take me to a clinic, where I have to wait for an hour.
The SB come for me and take me to a hospital. I cannot walk, so they give me a wheelchair and put me on a drip.
Day Twenty-six. The Reverend Frank Chikane comes to visit. He reports back on the meeting between himself, Tutu, Boesak and Vlok. He says negotiations for our release are going well. That gives us hope.
Day Twenty-eight. It is difficult, starting to eat again.
Day Fifty-eight. Today I will eat at home. It is my last day in detention, my first day with restrictions.
A BIGGER PRISON
Three weeks later, Sipho and Zoli told us: “We are out of prison but we are restricted. We can’t do the things we want to do, say what we want to say. We are now in a much bigger prison.”
Under their restrictions, they are not allowed to be involved in any way with the organisations they belonged to before their detention. They cannot go to any meetings that speak out against the government. They cannot leave Johannesburg. They must report to a police station once a day. And from six at night to six the next morning, they cannot leave their homes.
“The restrictions are heavy — but we believe the hunger strike was a great victory. We showed the government that detention without trial will not save their evil apartheid system for them.”
Sipho and Zoli said they wished to thank everyone who supported them while they were on hunger strike. They share the feelings of their comrades at Diepkloof Prison who sent the following message to newspapers: “We thank our families, community leaders, lawyers, the international community and the many organisations and tens of thousands of people who stood by us during this difficult time.
“Let us look forward to the day when South Africa becomes a truly democratic state where detention without trial will have no place.”
NEW WORDS unconditional release ~~ if you are released unconditionally, you are released with no conditions or restrictions, a petition — a petition is a demand or list of demands signed by a lot of people a feast — a feast is a big and special meal risk your life — when you risk your life, you put your life in danger put on a drip — when people are too sick to take food by mouth, they are given food through their veins.