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Monday, July 17, 2006

Jo’burg, South Africa: Constitution Hill

After the build up by Mosie yesterday, we couldn’t wait for Constitution Hill. I was fully prepared for the visit but I only really thought so. It was not to be an easy walk.
We took a guided tour of the area – formerly the prison for holding until criminals were transferred to bigger facilities in Pretoria. The prison was opened in 1893 and you would not believe when it was closed. This is history? It closed in 1983. 1983. 1983 was only 23 years ago. I was raising a young family when the prison was finally closed.
We walked into the Fort – the area where the white prisoners were held. Even in jail there was segregation. White guards for white prisoners. There was the Flogger’s Frame where the prisoners were shackled and bound and flogged. Then there were the isolation cells where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day. There was no toilet – only a slop bucket but the prisoners still managed to communicate with each other through the bars and mesh and even played chess. They were only supposed to be kept there for a maximum of 15 days but many of them were kept there for months to break their spirit and drive them insane. Although this was a section reserved for white prisoners, Nelson Mandela was kept in this area because the government was afraid that he would escape and in a black population, he might not be missed for a long time. In the prison, there was no distinction between murderers and political prisoners. They were all treated to the same degree of cruelty.
In the coloured part of the prison, it was worse. How could things be any worse? Inhumane could barely describe what I saw. I could only be grateful that it was now a museum. Even in the world of prison, there are hierarchies. IN some of the areas, there are running videos of some of the former prisoners telling their stories of the cruelty and inhuman conditions they had to endure. One of them talked about being beaten with a donkie piel – a weapon used by the guards to hit you where on the first impact it wouldn’t break your skin but would actually cause you to bleed internally. The second hit would make you bleed. Some prisoners on arrival at the prison would be made to run through a line of guards who would hit so that by the time he was at the end of the line, he may have endured several lashes with the weapon.
The sleeping quarters would house up to 60 prisoners in an area that seemed to hold about 15 of us on the tour. The area was laid out by the chief prisoner who got half the cell, his 4 body guards getting one quarter of the cell and the remaining 55 or so prisoners had to share a quarter of the space. They were called the sardines and were fair game for abuse. I wanted to run out of there but I forced myself to stay so that I will always remember those images imprinted in my mind and hope that I never forget. But I listened to what Nelson Mandela said in one of the video recordings. I’m paraphrasing. He said remember the past but don’t live there. Let it only be a guide to the future so that those wrongs will never be repeated.
We left the prison area and visited the Constitutional Court which deals with matters pertaining to the constitution. There are 11 judges representing the 11 official languages and people of SA. The inside were built with brick from the dismantled sections of the “Awaiting Trial” block of the prison. One of these very bricks was given to Nelson Mandela.
The guided part of the tour finished and we headed off to the Women’s prison. Surely I thought, things would be better there. Women would not be treated as inhumanely as the men. But that was not the case. The women were as badly treated as the men and the degradation seemed to know no bounds.
This was the prison that Winnie Mandela served some time as a political prisoner. Her first child was born there with the assistance of another prisoner who helped take care of her so she would not miscarry the baby. Again there was a section for black women and one for white women. The treatment was intended to break the spirit. I visited some of the cell blocks and saw some videos of former prisoners as well as one wardress (a female warden). I listened to the women talking about how they were stripped when they arrived in prison and how one humiliation was piled on another. One of the most humiliating experiences was having to witness elder women being stripped in front of younger women. There was no respect for culture. Then two women talked about the clothes they were given to wear. A shift with no underwear and no shoes. They talked about getting their periods and having the blood drip down their legs and being embarrassed. They then graduated to being given pads but no underwear to hold them in place so they walked in a peculiar manner trying to maintain some degree of dignity.
If this makes any of you uncomfortable, try to think of how the women must have felt. They lived in filth and squalor and had to endure it. The part that made me cry was when one woman talked about having her baby in prison and there was only enough soap to last for 5 days of the month to wash the baby’s diapers so for the rest of the month, they had to make do with whatever they had. They were punished if their babies cried and many of them although they missed their children, sent them home to be raised by family. Keep in mind that many of these women’s worse crime was that they dared to cross over to an area that was restricted to whites only.
The constitution of SA protects the rights of the individual and was based on the fair and humane treatment of all persons. To think that as recently as 1983, this prison was still in operation. Nelson Mandela said (I’m paraphrasing again) that the measure of a society is not how well it takes care of it’s rich citizens but how it treats its poor.
The protection of the marginalized, disenfranchised and vulnerable is the reason I hope that what I came here to learn, I will have learned. This has been an emotionally exhausting day for me because I wonder in what part of the world the same atrocities are happening and I am not aware. There are times when I am aware that I am aware but there are other times when I am not aware that I am not aware. How do I develop that awareness and when I do, what should I do? What am I supposed to do? How will visiting this museum change my life? It has certainly made me more aware of the issues women face on a daily basis.
As a woman of colour, I am much more aware of the position of privilege that I come to Botswana with but I am also aware that as a transnational feminist, there are many challenges that I still face. My own diasporic location in Botswana as a Canadian graduate student gives my certain privileges as well as challenges. I have a lot to think about.

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