Anatomy of a hunger strike

2017-05-25 08:58


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Fasting for Palestine: activists eschew food in solidarity

2017-05-16 13:41

Activists fasting in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners gathered to break their fast at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Monday evening. WATCH

On May 10th the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation issued a statement by its late founder’s fellow former Robben Islander, 86-year old Laloo “Isu” Chiba, that called on South Africans to join a 24-hour food strike in solidarity with the more than thousand Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike for improved prison conditions.

The prisoners’ demands include the right to higher education study, appropriate medical care, and an end to solitary confinement, imprisonment without trial and the denial of family visits.

As a prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years from 1964, and a detainee subsequently under South Africa’s 1985 State of Emergency, these demands have a painful echo for Isu and his own hunger strikes to improve prison conditions.

“I am duty bound today to support the Palestinians who are in the same condition that we were in all those years ago,” Isu says in the statement by the foundation. And he adds in conversation with me that he cannot but feel for political prisoners held fundamentally unjustly anywhere in the world.

I had the privilege of being detained with Isu for the length of the 1985/86 State of Emergency, and participated with him in two hunger strikes at Johannesburg Prison. The Palestinians’ hunger strike, and Isu’s solidarity with it, inevitably evokes our own experience of hunger strikes. These took place under the guidance of Isu and felt imbued as if with fatherly bequest by our leaders on the Island.

We had already been in detention for about four months when a well-known student leader was brought in.

“Hunger strike! Hunger strike!” he began shouting, literally within the very first hour of his detention, as the scores of us queued for some or other reason, perhaps for food, in a passageway in the bowels of the prison. Isu was visibly irritated.

“This is not the way to behave,” he muttered. “It’s ill-discipline.”

Sure enough. A hunger strike, as Isu imparted, is a tool of struggle to be strategically deployed, requires proper preparation, and should not be undertaken on a whim with feigned militancy.

First, the need for consultation and mobilisation. The two full and a bit dormitory cells in which we were locked up, 23 hours a day, buzzed with intense small group discussions on the proposal to embark on a hunger strike, the demands it would be in support of, and the personal sacrifice it in turn would demand.

Our demands ranged from tables and chairs for eating, more time out of our cells and visitor rights, to our unconditional release, the withdrawal of troops from the townships, and the end of the State of Emergency.

Not a morsel of food was to be consumed during the strike. Only water was to be drunk, periodically a little at a time to ensure life-saving hydration, with one mug in the evening taken with a spoon of sugar. This was to offset, to a minimal extent at least, the expenditure of stored energy. Boy, did I look forward to that glass of sugar water at the end of every day! It tasted so good and sweet, and the prospect anchored each hungry day.   

It was crucial to have virtually everyone on board. Eating by anyone would be exploited by the prison authorities and the security police to undermine the strike as a whole as sham. Of course, the frail, much older and very much younger among us were offered exemption from the strike. No one chose to be exempt. But the few Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) aligned activists detained with us refused as was their wont, to join with us as United Democratic Front (UDF) and African National Congress (ANC) aligned activists in any joint action. We were, however, more than sufficient in number and cohesion as a detainee population to go ahead with the hunger strikes.

Among the decisions was to determine and commit in advance to the period to go without food. Our first hunger strike, in November 1985, was for three days, and the second, in February 1986, for ten days. On neither occasion was this planned period of strike revealed to the authorities. They were to be left with the impression that it was open-ended and ongoing so as to apply maximum weight to its impact. We knew, again from the lessons of Robben Island shared with us by Isu, that to go beyond 10 days was to begin to do harm to our internal organs.

It is an irony that the hunger strike appeals to concern for the imprisoned by the very ones that harmfully imprison them. Considerations like the spotlight of the media and public backlash may motivate political concern, but the hunger strike is truly a Gandhian tactic of self-sacrifice to harm, to force the oppressors to confront their conscience and the brutalisation of their humanity.

The prison doctors in particular, who daily weighed us and tested our urine, openly expressed their concern for our health and exhorted us to end the strike. This even as the prison authorities put out statements saying we were falsely claiming to be on a hunger strike while in fact eating – much like the tactics being employed by the Israeli state against the Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti and his fellow hunger strikers. Food was still served daily and even left at the entrances of our cells to tempt.

The Gandhian motive of the hunger strike was most forcefully brought home to me in 1989 during the later open-ended hunger strike by detainees held under the following State of Emergency, which was declared in June 1986. Then hundreds of detainees across the country went on a hunger strike for up to 24 days before its end was negotiated with the Minister of Law and Order by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Allan Boesak. Many were hospitalised, facing risk to their lives.

I remember sitting at the time with the struggle lawyer Krish Naidoo at his offices near the Carlton Centre, and said to him: “If they have any humanity, they’ll respond to the demands of the detainees to be released.”

Adriaan Vlok, the then Minister of Law and Order, indeed did begin to release detainees. This stirred in me the first hope that oppressor and oppressed, black and white, could find one another. When post-apartheid Vlok went about, in penance and atonement, to wash the feet of those who had been harmed by his incumbency and complicity in apartheid, it came as no surprise to me.  

The dates for the start of our hunger strikes were projected weeks in advance and necessary planning and organisation was undertaken in the lead up. This included establishing channels of communication with comrades and solidarity organisations like the Detainees Parents’ Support Committee on the outside to organise solidarity support action and mobilise the press; drafting statements and memoranda and arranging for their smuggling out; building up and storing rations of sugar for that all important once daily drink; and most vitally, psyching up and preparing ourselves mentally.

The first of our hunger strikes, for three days, with no food whatsoever, morning, day and night, seemed a formidable undertaking for those of us for whom it was an absolute first. I recall an apprehension too about how the authorities would respond to our defiance, and total uncertainty about it as a whole new terrain of our relationship with them. But we were now doing something about our situation; about the hopeless, helpless, stifling conditions of imprisonment; feeling power and agency course through our bodies just as fat, muscle mass and strength left it.

Isu must have known that three days was a necessary first step, preparatory for a bigger, longer strike to come; and strategically an opening gambit that allowed for escalation.

The hardest part of the second hunger strike was the first three days. Thereafter we seemed to settle on some track of quiet, peaceful, ongoing gravitation, the feelings of hunger dissipating. Our bodies gave way to dramatic weight loss and ever more weakness. My body memory serves an image of movement like that of a chameleon.  

In some way, I think of this state as a dangerous one, for when the 10th day of no food whatsoever came, we could easily just have gone on. This may be because one’s stomach shrinks and hunger is not felt as acutely. Researchers say the body begins burning fat stores instead of glucose and this is accompanied by the cessation of hunger pains and feelings of well-being, even of euphoria.

Thankfully we began to win some of our immediate demands, including the delivery of steel tables and benches to the kitchen, and called off the hunger strike after the planned 10 days. Isu negotiated with the prison head to provide us with oats on the morning after, not something we had ever had in prison and which I was not particularly familiar with. To this day, I relish oats - and it always takes me back to that morning of its blessed offering.   

At the time of writing the Palestinian political prisoners have gone without food for almost 40 days.  A Palestinian media committee covering the hunger strike reports that many are in a “critical health condition”, which includes vomiting, loss of vision and fainting.

Isu is deeply concerned for the Palestinian political prisoners in the face of a “stubborn” Israeli government. He is outraged at the denial of basic rights to them in their suffered imprisonment, and hopes that “a tragedy” is averted. The Israelis seem to have expressed some favour for the “‘Thatcher option”, he says. Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, intransigently allowed the death by hunger strike of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republican Army prisoners in 1981. 

The Palestinian political prisoners will either win some of their demands or expose the Israeli state’s brutalisation. For the hunger strike is an assertion of humanity, for humanity.  

- Feizel Mamdoo is a filmmaker and heritage, arts and culture practitioner.

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