By Tim Dauth
JOHANNESBURG — South African prisoners, represented by the South African Prisoners for Human Rights (SAPOHR), will embark on a national strike on April 10 unless the government responds to calls for the establishment of an Amnesty Resolution Committee (ARC). The government has reacted harshly to the strike call.
On March 9, minister for correctional services and Inkatha Freedom Party member Dr Sipho Mzimela issued a statement restricting SAPOHR activities inside prisons and making it difficult for SAPOHR to consult with its constituency through prison visits. The statement claimed that this instruction was received directly from President Nelson Mandela. It also said that it had been decided "not to accede to the request for the establishment of an Amnesty Resolution Committee".
The ARC was in fact developed to give proper effect to Mandela's inauguration day promise "as a matter of urgency [to] address the issue of amnesty for various categories of people who are currently serving terms of imprisonment". This was to acknowledge that South Africa's huge prison population is largely the product of the apartheid regime.
A blanket six-month reduction in sentence — agreed to by the new government after a previous round of mass action called by SAPOHR — and the confusing credit point system have frustrated prisoners. Many have complained that with this system they are being kept for longer than their original release dates. Many have not been told how long their sentence now is.
The government's refusal to establish a transparent and representative committee to address the amnesty issue has produced tension and anger in the overcrowded prisons. "Does freedom mean that a few people climb on the gravy train while the rest live in poverty, homeless children roam the streets, and other people like us prisoners are still in apartheid jails?", asked Thamsanga Holomisa of Leeuwkop prison in a letter the daily Johannesburg Star.
SAPOHR efforts to negotiate the ARC issue with Mzimela have proved fruitless; he has refused to meet with the organisation. Others such as Carl Niehaus, an ANC MP and chair of the parliamentary Select Committee on Correctional Services, and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) have reported similar difficulties.
"We have got no other alternative", said SAPOHR president Golden Miles Bhudu, "but to go back to our constituency and do exactly what they want us to do. And that is to announce a national strike. It is we, the people of this country, that must in fact see to it that democracy becomes the order of the day. We will have a problem if the government doesn't want to make us part of the solution."
SAPOHR has stressed the constitutional right of prisoners to strike and that the call is for non-violent actions including go-slows, hunger strikes and peaceful demonstrations.
SAPOHR members already face constant harassment in prisons. From prisoners' letters received by the organisation it is evident that many members are being beaten, transferred, kept in isolation or subjected to orchestrated gang violence. By further restricting SAPOHR activities the government is giving the go-ahead for even more brutal repression. It is risking a bloody showdown in prisons across the country.
SAPOHR is also calling for people awaiting trial to have their cases heard promptly. It alleges that some prisoners have been held for over a year without trial. This issue led to violent incidents at the St Albans prison recently.
The question of 200 identified political prisoners still remaining in prison is also a serious matter for SAPOHR. Green Left Weekly spoke to two political prisoners and former members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. They are still being held in the Leeuwkop Maximum Security Prison despite being promised release by Christmas 1994. They are now being told to make an indemnity application and wait for the uncertain results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Though still loyal to the ANC, the two prisoners were fed up with broken promises. At least under the apartheid regime, they said, you knew how long your sentence was. The greatest hurt for them as political prisoners was to be kept in prison by their comrades, many themselves former political prisoners. Meanwhile, the criminals of the apartheid regime can apply for indemnity from the comfort of their own homes.
South Africa's criminal justice and prison systems need a thorough overhaul. Many prisoners were jailed during the years of apartheid for crimes related to poverty, racism and state oppression. Many were arrested for being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. For those inside, the system remains as it was under apartheid. Prisoners are still denied the right of protest, the right to organise, the right to serve their sentences without brutalisation.
South Africa's high crime rate has made the issue of prisons and prisoners a political hot potato. There is currently a raging public debate on the retention of capital punishment. In this climate, the government is unwilling or unable to address the legitimate grievances of prisoners.