South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Life as a Political Prisoner

Just as with discrimination in clothing, there was also discrimination in the food prisoners were given depending on their “racial classification”: the non-Africans received a teaspoon of sugar with their morning “pap” (finely ground corn) while the Africans got only a half teaspoonful. Coffee or tea was given twice a day to non-Africans, while Africans got only one cup a day. For lunch, non-Africans were given mealie rice (grits) while Africans got boiled corn. For supper, non-Africans received bread and Africans got none. Non-Africans and Africans were given meat or fish four times a week, but while non-Africans were given 110 grams, Africans got only 60. The one ‘deprivation’ the Africans felt more than any of the others was not being allowed to have bread. In the B-section of the prison, which held more than 30 political prisoners, including the Rivonia group, the non-Africans were able to share their bread with their fellow African comrades. In later years the African political prisoners were allowed one slice of bread a week, and this improved later to three slices a week: one on Wednesdays, one on Saturdays, and one on Sundays. Eventually the political prisoners won the day when everyone was made equal for all of them irrespective of “racial classification”!

One of the boasts of the apartheid government after the Rivonia Trial was that they would see to it that, in a short period of time, South Africa and the world would have forgotten about the Mandelas, the Mbekis, the Sisulus and others. To realize this boast, contact with the outside world was virtually non-existent, while laws in South Africa forbade any information or images from appearing in the media. For the political prisoners this meant no newspapers, no radios, no watches, no television, no books and only a very limited number of no-contact visits by blood relatives only. One 30-minute visit was allowed every six months; only family matters could be discussed and this was closely monitored. Furthermore, no children under 16 were allowed. Of all the privations the people suffered, none was worse than the total absence of children in their confined, male, adult, gray, world. Often permits to visit were ‘mislaid’ by the authorities and the prisoners were powerless to do anything but to accept this with dignity, painful as it was.

When it came to letters, the prison authorities were even more blatant. All letters, incoming and outgoing were heavily censored and in some cases not given to the prisoner or sent on to its destination. Ahmed Kathrada, one of the Rivonia group often quotes the letter sent by his brother in 1964. Kathrada only received it in 1982. The reason it has been withheld for 18 years was because of its political content: the offending sentence in the letter was that there had been a change of government in Britain and Harold Wilson of the Labor Party had come into power.
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