[Ppnews] Lesson from South Africa: Support the political prisoners

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 28 15:40:51 EDT 2011

Lesson from South Africa: Support the political prisoners

Submitted by Adri Nieuwhof on Wed, 09/28/2011 - 13:10

Last week, I discussed with Ghadija Vallie the 
lessons learned from resistance in apartheid 
South Africa, particularly involving political 
prisoners. Ghadija coordinated the Western Cape 
Relief Fund that supported prisoners on 
Island, a maximum security prison for political 
prisoners in apartheid South Africa. Vallie also 
worked with most prisons in the Western Cape 
province and visited political prisoners on death row.

The Western Cape Relief Fund (WCRF) was founded 
in 1985 when the apartheid regime once again 
declared a State of Emergency. Ghadija acted as a 
coordinator between lawyers, detained persons and 
their families, NGOs and donors. People of 
diverse backgrounds who were committed to the 
resistance joined forces to build the WCRF from 
scratch. The European Community supported the 
work of the WCRF through the Holland Committee on 
Southern Africa. I was involved in providing this support.

South Africa persecuted anti-apartheid activists 
29 of the Internal Security Act. Ghadija tells 
me: “Normally the South African forces came 
during the night while people were asleep, when 
they are the most vulnerable. They would be taken 
from their homes and detained. People could 
disappear without a trace. They could be held in 
solitary confinement, were tortured. Then after 
months, people could suddenly appear in court or were traced in a hospital.”

The detention-related practices in apartheid 
South Africa under section 29 are similar to 
Israel’s practice of 
detention. The WCRF was founded to meet the needs 
of detainees held under section 29. The climate 
changed when the 
of Emergency was declared in July 1985. “We 
decided to serve these prisoners as well. If 
possible, the WCRF would pay for the bail of 
activists who were awaiting trial. The fund 
evolved into an organization that served all 
political prisoners and their families.”

I showed Vallie letters I received from 
Palestinian prisoners, including a letter from 
Ali. He wrote: “I was surprised when I got your 
letter, because it didn’t take a long time as the 
‘prison time’, where is no value for time. (..) I 
became 46 years old and 23 years of my life I’m 
in prison, so I am enough experienced.(..) Today, 
we live with eight prisoners in cells of about 20 
square meters. The cell includes a bathroom and 
shower. We have to stay in the cell 20 hours a 
day. We eat, sleep, watch television, study, have 
a bath, 
all in the same cell. But all those years, hope still exists.”

Vallie comments: “Why do we keep talking about 
Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison. Why 
don’t we speak about the Palestinian political 
prisoners who are also spending so many years in jail?”

I asked Vallie about campaigns in support of the 
South African political prisoners. She explained 
that there was an ongoing “Release the Detainees 
Campaign”. “Our political leaders from inside and 
outside South Africa gave directions for the 
campaigns. We called for the release of our 
leaders since the 1950s. Prisoners went on hunger 
strike. It is important that prisoners know that 
they are not forgotten. We did a lot of work for 
women and child prisoners; they are more vulnerable.”

Hunger strikes have also been used by Palestinian 
prisoners to protest against Israel’s prison 
regime. Ali wrote me about the hunger strike in 
1992: “At that time we were 13,000 Palestinian 
political prisoners in Israeli jails. 20 days we 
did not eat or drink anything except water. One 
of my friends from Jerusalem died at the last day 
of the strike. Our demands were to improve our 
life conditions in prisons, such as studying at 
open university (to be paid for by our families). 
The food was so bad we demanded to improve it and 
to raise the amount of it because it was not 
enough for us. For example, I was suffering from 
malnutrition. I still suffer from its consequences.”

Vallie thinks that support by South Africans in 
exile for resistance differed from that of 
Palestinians today. For example, exiled ANC 
members protested in front of South African 
Asmal, who died this year, played a key role in 
the International Defence and Aid Fund that 
raised financial support for the political prisoners, tells Vallie.

She continues: “Sometimes activities just 
happened. For example, when former British Prime 
Minister Margaret Thatcher’s son went missing in 
the desert during the Paris-Dakar rally in 1982, 
Thatcher asked people to pray for him. At that 
time, women with relatives in detention or 
awaiting trial held a meeting in Cape Town. One 
woman said: ‘Thatcher is crying for one child, 
but we are crying for a nation of children who 
are held in prison.’ On the spot we decided to 
march to the British embassy and deliver that message to Thatcher.”

“When family members of prisoners or ex-detainees 
came to my office to ask for support, we cried 
together. Then I would say, ‘What can you do to 
change it?’ And people became active, protested 
outside court and detention centers, informed the 
media, and found ways to communicate with the 
prisoners inside. It is so important that 
prisoners know that they are not forgotten. I 
found ways to deliver messages to prisoners on 
Robben Island. Some guards were helpful. I am 
still in touch with Christo Brand, Nelson 
Mandela’s prison guard who became a friend of Mandela”, says Vallie.

“The Palestinian people need to tell us how they 
feel which support should be given. They know, 
they live under oppression, they feel the pain. 
They must drive the vehicle to change this”, adds 
Vallie. “Sometimes the vehicle needs a bit of a 
push. International solidarity activists can 
assist in the pushing of the vehicle.”

This week, Palestinian prisoners announced the 
start of a 
<http://www.imemc.org/article/62131>campaign of 
disobedience to protest an escalating series of 
punitive measures taken against them by the 
Israeli Prison Service (IPS) in recent months. 
Prisoners have decided to undertake a hunger 
strike on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday of 
every week beginning this week. Prisoners have 
also declared that their campaign will include a 
range of other forms of disobedience, including 
refusal to wear prison uniforms, to participate 
in the daily roll call, or to cooperate with any 
other IPS demands. Addameer Prisoner Support and 
Human Rights Association calls for solidarity 
with the striking prisoners. Let’s give the vehicle a push!

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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