by Vinie Burrows
It is not an exaggeration to say that there can be no successful liberation struggle without the contribution of women and there can be no free society without the emancipation of women. Women are more than half the world and, being the most downtrodden, their priorities are fundamentally directed toward the eradication of all systems that exploit and oppress.
The fate of women is closely connected with the striving toward democracy and justice. As the United Nations Decade for Women, with its goals of equality, development and peace and the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies have indicated, the problems of women must be viewed as a starting point within the political and social circumstances of the society in which they live.
The women of South Africa and Namibia always have been an integral part of the overall liberation struggle of their respective countries, standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder with their entire oppressed nation. They have been tortured, restricted, banned, and have endured brutal treatment and degrading humiliation at the hands of the Pretoria regime. Despite all this, however, their will and spirit remain unconquerable.
For years, Black women in South Africa have had to spend most of their lives without their husbands because of barbaric migratory labor laws. When men are recruited to work in big towns, mines, railways, farms and industries, the entire burden of bringing up children is left to women. Women have been forcibly removed from one place to another and literally dumped into Resettlement camps; kicked out of their homes and condemned to being perpetual refugees in their own country. Women have fled into exile in neighboring African countries and, in escaping from apartheid, have lost everything including relatives, homes, professions and livestock.
These horrendous conditions have existed since the beginning of apartheid and continue to the present without reform. In fact, conditions have worsened. Since the state of emergency was declared [in June 1986] more than 30,000 people have been jailed and over 10,000 of these have been children. But the Black people have stepped up their resistance. Consumer boycotts, rent strikes, school boycotts, prison hunger strikes, and demonstrations have continued despite South Africa’s escalating brutality, the death squads, the presence of the South African Defense Force (S.A.D.F) in the townships, the murder of known activists and the sudden and stealthy raids into neighboring Frontline States to massacre men, women and children. It is also widely believed that the death of Samora Machel, head of state of Mozambique, was engineered by South Africa.
Government censorship of all news reporting from South Africa, including a ban on both television and still camera coverage, keeps news of the South African revolution off the front pages of the world press. Valiantly, the people of South Africa and Namibia have forced the racist Republic of South Africa to channel all its energies into suppressing the people’s revolt, thereby rendering the government almost ungovernable, and destabilizing the economy of this industrial giant. Even as state terrorism persists and increases, the people’s will for self-determination at all costs grows stronger.
Forty-six thousand miners went on a protracted strike at Tsumeb Corporation Ltd. (TCL) in Namibia, a transnational corporation of which one third is owned by an American mining company, Newmont Mining, based in New York City. The workers’ demands were met with cruelty and harassment. Three thousand were fired and faced eviction from their single sex hostels. T.C.L’s past operation has netted millions for its South African and foreign investors, but its Black mine workers make less than 95 U.S. dollars per month for a 48 hour week!
Meanwhile, death squads and local police are waging a genocidal war against the Namibian people, particularly in a 300 mile wide border military zone. Strict curfews are enforced and helicopters equipped with electronic sensors gun down anything that moves. Entire families – men, women, children and the aged – have perished in these daily maneuvers. Just as the Germans decimated the Heror people in the first part of this century, so today the ruling South African government is determined that when and if UN elections are held, there will be fewer Black Namibians to take part.
At present, there are many awaiting execution in Pretoria for politically motivated crimes. They are in their early or middle 20s, and have been convicted on charges relating to the people’s resistance to the violent repression in the townships, and the persecution of trade unionists. In all instances, the case against them was flimsy. Among the prisoners is Sharpeville resident Theresa Ramashamola, the only woman on Death Row. The South African Youth Congress launched a campaign: “SAVE THE PATRIOTS! DO NOT LET THEM HANG!”, endorsed throughout South Africa by progressive forces, including trade unions, churches, the United Democratic Front, etc. It is vital that nongovernmental organizations outside South Africa take up this campaign to save the lives of these patriots.
It is also vital that the world community devote more attention to the plight of women political prisoners in South Africa. When Dorothy Nyembe, who had spent 15 years in prison, was released, the outside world began to get some information about conditions that exist for South African women political prisoners. Unfortunately we have no information on the exact numbers of women imprisoned because political prisoners are kept in isolation. Held in groups of one, two or three, they are usually imprisoned in remote country jails. To visit one of these means a long and expensive journey and most relatives and friends of prisoners don’t have money for the fare. When a prisoner has no visitors, no news gets out and no news of the outside world comes in.
This isolation of [women] prisoners and the consequent lack of information about them, is no accident. Safe from outside inspection and therefore from protest and criticism, the Department of Prisons and the local commanding officer can interpret prison regulations as they choose, or disregard them altogether.
The Women’s International Democratic Federation has proposed that the International Red Cross and Amnesty International undertake a project to ascertain the actual number of women prisoners, where they are jailed, the length of their sentence, the legal circumstances surrounding their incarceration, their physical and mental health, recreation, visiting privileges, study facilities, availability of religious services etc. Additionally, that plans be made to share this information with women’s, judicial and religious organizations, the Special Committee Against Apartheid and the Commission on the Status of Women, along with those who have demonstrated a concern for the plight of Black Women in South Africa.
On Sunday, October 18,1987, the New York Times reported on a study contained in a doctoral thesis by Janos Mihalik, a teacher of law at the University of Bophuthatswana. The study, published in the Johannesburg Star, surveyed prison conditions in South Africa and stated that South Africa has the world’s highest per capita prison population, with chronic overcrowding, widespread brutality by prison guards and conditions that are frequently harsh and unhygienic. According to South African legal experts, both Mr. Mahalik and the Johannesburg Star risked prosecution by publishing the details of the survey. The New York Times article stated:
The survey, which is the product of four years of research, reported that prisons were so overcrowded that the unhygienic conditions sometimes turned them into breeding grounds for disease. Publication of details of prison conditions, unless “reasonable steps” are taken to verify them, is an offense under South African law.
The South African Prisons Act severely restricts the press in its access to prisons and ability to report on conditions there. The last big expose of prison conditions reported nearly 20 years ago led The Rand Daily Mail, a newspaper that has since closed, to be prosecuted in 1970 and fined $250,000.
Mr. Mihalik said that he had once spent 30 months in prison for a financial offense. At that time, he said, prisoners of all races had been forced to strip four times a day so that guards could inspect their bodies for marijuana and weapons.
Mr. Mihalik said that many prisoners had been assaulted by guards and that some had died. The prison officers who were prosecuted received light sentences.
He said that unhygienic conditions in the Central Prison in Pretoria, a maximum security institution where many political prisoners have been held, resulted in the outbreak five years ago of a serious epidemic of disease, which he did not specify.
He said that some white prisoners became so sick they had to be fed intravenously and that the prison was placed under quarantine.
“The sewage system was so outdated, antiquated and frequently so out of order that an unbearable stench prevailed in the vicinity every morning while the contents of a sewer pipe often washed between the prisoners as they had their breakfast.” The prison is being rebuilt.
Imprisonment in South Africa had not been developed as a humanitarian approach or even as a rehabilitative measure, but as a form of forced labor “to fill the vacuum created by the abolition of slavery,” he said.
The struggle of political prisoners for better conditions can be effective only if supported by pressure from outside the prison walls. The need is urgent for those outside to campaign for more information about the conditions of those inside the jails of South Africa and Namibia, and to campaign for an improvement in prison conditions.
Apartheid does not exist in South Africa alone. In New Caledonia, in the southwest Pacific, we know the Kanak women and their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, daughters, and elderly live under intolerable conditions. In New Caledonia, as in other colonially dominated regions of the world, it is a question of confrontation between justice and injustice.
Colonialism is a de facto rejection of the principles of freedom, human rights and self determination. When France, the present Administering Power in New Caledonia, appropriated the land of the original inhabitants in 1853, it adopted a dual policy of aggressive colonization and systematic annihilation of the Kanaks, the indigenous population. Colonial practices pursued over 134 years, exacerbated by the aggressive immigration policies of the past two decades, have reduced the Kanak people from 100 percent of the population to their present status of 40 percent. We call this genocide. Forced removals from ancestral lands are a hallmark of the apartheid Pretoria regime, which confines African people to non-arable land. France has pursued a similar policy these many years by resettling the Kanak people on mountainous and arid areas, unsuitable for food production.
All aspects of life in New Caledonia are dominated by France. The French state is the largest landowner, owning even the reservations on which the Kanaks are required to live; owning also the 30 mile territorial waters, the 200 mile maritime zone and the small islands.
The French state is the largest mine owner. In Southwest Africa, Namibia has seen its mineral wealth systematically plundered and ravished by foreigners; in the Pacific, the Kanak people have had their mineral wealth stolen, expropriated, plundered by the colonial power, France. However, at no time has the Kanak population benefited commensurably from its subterranean wealth.
The French state is the only banker. Controlling foreign trade and relations with the European Economic Community, it has blocked entry into the African-Caribbean Pacific (ACP) Association and participation in the Lome agreements, thereby ensuring monopoly (control) over trade while protecting and promoting colonial interests. In the colonial capitalist economy of New Caledonia, nearly all production and capital equipment, consumer goods, even food products must be imported.
The European settlers, who are 37 percent of the population, own most of the arable land and control the mining industry. The majority of Kanaks, roughly 42 percent of the population, are involved in subsistence agriculture which plays a minor role in the economy. The similarity between apartheid in South Africa and the de facto results of French control of New Caledonia are painfully apparent in a review of the colonial justice system. Mass arrests, arbitrary detention, sweeping police raids, an excessive police and military presence, police brutality and discrimination in the treatment of Kanak vs European suspects are routine and are part of the long standing grievances of the Kanak people against the Administering Authority.
In 1987, after 134 years of colonial education, the Kanak community can boast of one Kanak doctor, one Kanak judge, and two Kanak professors! The lack of professional and technical experts among the Kanak population speaks to the failure of the state run educational system which gives illusion of equal opportunity since there is no gap between Europeans and Kanaks on the primary levels. However, as students move up the educational hierarchy, there is a significant drop in Kanak enrollment. Kanaks are underrepresented in academic, general educational and agricultural training.
French, the language of the colonizer, is the primary language of instruction in the schools. This is a tacit and racist assumption that to be French is superior; to be Kanak is inferior. The fact that only French can be spoken in the public schools is a hardship on the Kanak student besides being an insulting denial of the Melanesian culture and a systemic and cruel way of cutting children off from their traditional roots.
Moreover, public schools are far removed from village settings, thereby increasing the cultural clash, loss of identity and sense of alienation. This alienation experience has been disastrous for the local Kanak population. Kanaks receive an education which conforms to the aspirations and values of colonial society rather than one which responds to the needs of the Kanak people.
The 134-year history of the colonial power in New Caledonia is a saga of land theft, and Kanak resistance; military repression and Kanak rebellion. Military violence and police harassment helped to subjugate the colonized people of New Caledonia. But the tidal wave of history in the South Pacific is cresting and in its mighty sweep comes the surging desire of the peoples of New Caledonia for independence, self determination and national sovereignty. This new force is exemplified in the petition before the Committee of the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanake Socialiste (FLNKS), the legitimate representative of the Kanak people.
The just and considered demands of this petition are corroborated by the communique adopted in May 1987 at the Eighteenth South Pacific Forum which “supported an early, peaceful transition to an independent New Caledonia in accordance with the innate and active rights of the indigenous people and in a manner which guarantees the rights and interests of all inhabitants of this multi-racial society.”
The Eighth Summit Meeting of the Heads of State or Governments of Non-Aligned Countries further supported the Forum position; also the Governments of the Commonwealth countries, reaffirmed in accordance with the United Nations Charter, their support for the right to self determination and independence of the peoples.
The General Assembly Resolution 41/41A of 2 December 1986 reinscribed New Caledonia to the Special Committee’s list of Non-Self Governing Territories recognizing the inalienable right of the people of New Caledonia to self determination and independence in accordance with the landmark Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, contained in GA resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960.
The Women’s International Democratic Federation is mindful of the injustices suffered by the Kanak people and the open and covert oppression they have and still endure. It is also mindful of the international proportions of the issue with France’s military buildup in the Pacific, now greater than the combined entire armed forces of all 13 Pacific Forum island countries combined.
The continued nuclear testing in the area with radiation affecting the health and environment of present and future generations in the Pacific the dumping of nuclear wastes by outside Powers, are all manifestations of the critical importance of the issue of New Caledonia’s independence and the threat to international peace and security posed by the intransigence of the policies of the Administering Authority.
The process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible. The Kanak peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, to exercise their sovereignty; to preserve the integrity of their national territory, and to participate along with the other sovereign nations of the world in the process leading to an improved global standard of life. In the words of a Kanak leader, “The time is ripe, the fruit is ready. It must be picked before it rots.” The Kanak people are determined to have their independence.
It is fitting to the struggles of the South African and Kanak peoples to end with the words which were said defiantly by the 20,000 women of all races on August 9, 1956:
“Wathintabafazi, wathinf imbokodo, uzokufa”
“Now you have touched the women,
You have struck a rock.
You have dislodged a boulder,
You will be crushed.”
Playwright/performer Vinie Burrows is a Permanent Representative for the Women’s International Democratic Federation’s Special Committee on Decolonization. Her theatrical collage, “Her Talking Drum”, which evoked the universal experience of Black women, was recently produced at the American Place Theatre in New York City.