Studying on the island

2016-10-16 12:51

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My Own Liberator: A Memoir
by Dikgang Moseneke

Picador Africa

412 pages



Surprisingly, the authorities did not resist with any seriousness the right of every prisoner to study.

Their remaining line was that you might forfeit your right to study if you were convicted of a serious breach of the prison code or if you abused the right to study.

Neither we nor they knew how far-reaching the study project would become for prison life and, in time, for our liberation project.

The right to study changed our lot more than anything else.

It extracted the emotional sting from imprisonment. Only physical restraint and discomfort remained as we took refuge in mental activity.

A prisoner who cared to study would, in effect, escape from prison. It was a case of mind over matter. The space to study freed fresh energy and gave us abundant hope.

Formal tuition was offered by a number of long-distance colleges and universities.

The popular options were Rapid Results College and Damelin College, both of which offered junior and senior certificate tuition.

At tertiary level, the University of SA (Unisa) was most used, followed by the London School of Economics.

Enrolled students received study guides and were obliged to submit prescribed assignments.

We could use the lending facilities of the Unisa library, which posted a vast number of books right into our prison cells.

As more of us embarked on formal studies, the volume of the mail parcels that came in and out of prison increased.

Another boon was that we had access to stationery.

We shared the stationery with all inmates. Suddenly our lives extended beyond one foolscap page and a small lead pencil for the quarterly missive.

Every printed or written word had to be censored before entering the prison. With the increased load, this system became inadequate for the task.

New challenges were presented. The censorship system was suited to cope with a few tens of one-page letters a day.

The warders charged with censoring knew very little about academic and other reading material sent to us by external libraries.

If a book was not banned and available at a public library, the warders had no business to keep it out.

In any event, we were entitled to read all of the recommended material. The genie was out of the bottle.

The authorities had no means of limiting the number of books nor the quantity of material any one of us might order or keep in the cells.

Formal studying continued and people sat for year-end examinations.

This meant that the prison had an additional and new challenge. It had to qualify itself with the national examination bodies and universities as an examination centre.

It had to employ officers who were suited to a task which, ordinarily, was well beyond the capabilities of the armed guards at the quarry. So, the skills mix of our officers had to, and did, change for the better.

The unforeseen result was that we ended up, by and large, with a civil band of warders and a more humane relationship between the kept and the keepers.

The prison was also obliged to construct bookcases and writing desks. The desks were riveted chest high into the inside wall of the cell. We had no chairs.

If we had, they would have had to be tall bar stools. This meant that you had to study or write standing against the desk. The authorities seemed most reluctant to supply us with chairs.

They seemed to think no prisoner deserved a chair.

Oddly, the standing position imposed on us a level of industry. Our concentration was the better for the standing. Studying tasks tended to be done efficiently and promptly.

We looked forward to the evenings. After dinner at 5pm, you were allowed to study up to 10pm.

Well, four to five hours of studying every day would have helped any diligent learner secure a good few distinction passes. After all, we were spared all social diversion.

You were not allowed to read beyond 10pm, but if you wanted to, there was a way to beat the system.

We were in an ultra-maximum security prison, so the lights stayed on all day and all night. The guards were meant to be able to see us during their nightly patrols.

Every block had four cells, holding about 60 of us in each. The four cells were built into an H-shape. A long passage abutting the four cells allowed the night guard to look into a cell.

At 10pm the guard would come into the passage, flick the lights and shout into the cell, “Slaaptyd!”.

At that point, you could lie on your belly, screen half of your head with a blanket and continue reading undetected by the night patrols.

Read more on:    unisa  |  dikgang moseneke  |  my own liberator: a memoir  |  book extract

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