Our own experiences under apartheid gives us a greater understanding of what Palestinian prisoners have gone through during their hunger strike, which ended on day 41, writes Mandla Nkomfe.
A hunger strike is the most powerful, yet peaceful tool that can be used by a prisoner or a group of prisoners to show a substantial amount of discontentment with a number of issues.
It is a very calculated effort that can be brought about by factors like poor prison conditions and human rights violations against prisoners.
As South Africans, we know that a hunger strike can send a strong message to an oppressive regime, as was witnessed on numerous occasions throughout the struggle. Being one amongst the many who had taken part in such orchestrated statements of discontent, allows for a sense of understanding as to what the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike endured for 40 days. It also allows for an understanding of the various physical implications of the action that they had undertaken. This understanding is one of reasons why I have supported the #DignityStrikeSA campaign, which called on South Africans to participate in solidarity action in support of the 1500 Palestinians who had been on hunger strike.
The memory of the hunger strike by South African political prisoners that was administered at Diepkloof prison in the 1980s is one that I can never truly forget. Poor prison conditions and lengthy detention periods without trial or conviction were the main driving forces behind the hunger strike. We executed it in a highly coordinated and organised fashion, making use of a number of strategies that we knew would gain us much public publicity and solidarity. The strike was carried out in waves, this meaning that a set number of prisoners would go on hunger strike every week, thus increasing the overall number of prisoners on hunger strike on a weekly basis. The knowledge that our efforts were recognised by our people and supported by some members of the public kept us going and motivated to carry on until we achieved victory. We relied on people like the late Zwelakhe Sisulu and a number of others to communicate our demands and actions to the public, a task which they carried out quite effectively.
The collective looked to individuals like Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army for inspiration, because to us this was a man who was so principled and dedicated to his cause that he died while on hunger strike. And such was the general consensus amongst activists who fought against the evils of the apartheid regime – we were willing to put it all on the line to regain our dignity.
As I learned about the reactions and responses to the political hunger strike in Palestine, I was able to draw more and more parallels with what we went through under the apartheid system. The authorities tried to tempt us with food, and it seemed to be made available more often during the days while we were on hunger strike. I am however, quite appalled by the more aggressive and forceful tactics that have been used to deter hunger striking prisoners across the world. The reports of retraction of visiting rights and the right to see a lawyer by the Israeli authorities during the hunger strike was clearly an infringement of the rights of political prisoners and cannot be justified by any means. The hostile tactics of the Israeli authorities in this particular instance persuaded me to conclude that the experience of the Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike was far worse than my own all those years ago under apartheid.
Underhand tactics, such as releasing a fake video of Marwan Barghouthi, one the leaders of the hunger strike, eating in solitary confinement, had been used. This act was just an attempt to demoralise the Palestinian political prisoners who had shown conviction to their cause until they had achieved victory, with many of their demands being met.
It is very important that we continue to display mass international solidarity with our fellow comrades in Palestine and continue supporting the call for the freedom of Marwan Barghouthi and all Palestinian political prisoners. Participating in initiatives such as pickets, or sharing information about Israel’s use of imprisonment as a tool to entrench its occupation, are excellent ways to stand with the Palestinian people in spirit and show support for putting an end to human rights violations. It is my wish that we can maintain the momentum of the #DignityStrikeSA campaign, and continue participating in events and programmes in support of the brave women, men and children of Palestine.
* Mandla Nkomfe is the Deputy Chairperson of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Board