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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 12. June 16, 1971


Photo of Sathvandranath Ragunnedn Maharaj

Sathvandranath Ragunnedn Maharaj, one of the 15 'Asians' serving prison sentences under the South African security laws, has now served six and a half years on Robben Island, and has five and a half years still to run.

He was born in Natal in the early nineteen thirties, and was brought up near the small town of Newcastle.

In 1964. when he was brought to court in the Transvaal after some months in 90-day detention, he alleged that during interrogation by the security police, he had been beaten, kicked in the groin, and hit in the groin with a plank pierced with a nail.

Photo of Indres Naidoo

Indres Naidoo is serving a ten-year sentence on Robben Island. He was convicted of sabotage in May 1963. having been unable to appear at his trial because he had been shot by police.

Since he has been on Robben Island he has been charged I with failing to comply with prison regulations: he spent fourteen days in solitary confinement in 1965 for informing his attorney of an assault by a warder on him and of the conditions of the island.

Indres Naidoo is the brother of Shanti Naidoo who was held m solitary confinement for over a year and refused to give evidence in the trial of Winnie Mandela and 21 others.

What are the influences which so bear on a decent, peace-loving man that he feels compelled to stand up against the forces which constitute the state and which result in the commission of so-called crimes against the security of the state?

Why are there political prisoners in South Africa?

I want to paint a very brief picture of life in South Africa, and then to pose the question whether it is possible to accept that form of existence without active protest.

A young African, still a schoolboy, is sent by his mother to a white shopping area to buy some article. He left his passbook at home. He meets a policeman and is arrested on a charge of failing to produce his pass.

A domestic servant sits on a warm night on the curbstone outside his employer's home, it is just after curfew, namely 10 pm. He has no "night-pass" allowing him to be in the street after 10 pm. A police "pick-up" van arrives. He explains his situation. Is he taken to his employer to check up on what he said? No, he is arrested, taken to and locked up in a cell, confined for the night and charged in Court next day.

Africans arrive in an urban area to seek employment, which cannot be found in their "homelands". If they remain for more than 72 hours, they will form part of South Africa's enormous prison population. They may be offered work as farm labourers at a less than subsistence wage. Refusal means conviction and conviction can mean forced labour.

A teacher may decide that he does not want a child he knows to have an inferior "Bantu" education and may decide to teach him to read and write. He will be committing an offence.

An African shop steward may suggest a strike for better wages. He will end up a convict and, should his fellow workers go on stroke, they too will end up in prison.

A worker decides to terminate his employment. He commits an offence. He decides he cannot afford to pay his rent. He commits an offence. He enters a railway station or a post office through a "whites only" entrance. He commits an offence. He sits on a "whites only" bench in a park. He commits an offence.

He has no political rights, no power to vote, no freedom of movement, no freedom of speech, in fact he is only wanted for his labour. He is a human beast of burden.

It would be possible to go on almost indefinitely detailing thin numerable discriminatory and unjust laws affecting the non-white peoples of South Africa. But these examples should be enough to explain why this decent, peace-loving man decides that the atmosphere is choking him and why he must actively oppose the system of apartheid.

And so he courts arrest and conviction and becomes a political prisoner.

Political prisoners are distinguishable from other prisoners not only because they have not been convicted of social crimes; not only because their background obviously ill suits them to be classified with armed robbers, gangsters and thieves; not only because they study in prison; but also because they alone of prisoners are refused any remissions of their sentences.

Quite clearly South Africa's accepted way of life is more compatible with that of the gangster than of the man who seeks to improve the lot of his fellowmen.

If the political prisoner happens to be a solicitor, he will be struck off the roll on application by the Secretary of Justice. The mere listing of a solicitor as a man who has at any time been a member or active supporter of an organisation declared, without prior notice, to be unlawful on the grounds that inter alia it aims at social change in South Africa, will also result in his being struck off the roll. No reason need be given for listing a person and the onus is on him to institute legal proceedings to show he should be listed.

When the political prisoner has served his full sentence, a banning order is served on himand he is placed under house arrest. He may work but his house arrest covers the period 7 pm to 7 am and weekends. He may not receive visitors (which includes close relatives) and may no communicate with any other banned person.

A banned person once had to attend Court. Another banned person attended the same Court. One said "hello" the other put her fingers to herlips. Both were arrested, dragged from Court and thrown into jail.

The African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress are "unlawful" organisations. An elderly man, who had a photo in his house, taken over 20 years ago of himself and other members of the ANC, then a legal organisation, was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

Possession of a badge of the ANC, obtained when it was a legal organisation, had also resulted in heavy sentences. In the same way, possession of an old copy of a new banned publication results in the loss of liberty.

A banned person may not have any statement made by him published or disseminated in any way.

The playing of bridge has resulted in the imposition of a long term of imprisonment for a banned person. Snooker has, however, led to an aquittal. Social intercourse has had so many interpretations by different courts as to lose any real meaning.

If the Minister of Justice thinks the release of a political prisoner can encourage or defend any object of communisim he can order indefinite detention. If it is decided that a political prisoner could bear witness in some other political proceedings, continued periods of detention of 180 days can follow.

Recently we have had the bizarre position of a political prisoner who has been granted an exit permit to leave South Africa but refused permission to leave a town in that same country.

In this short survey, the real suffering of the political prisoner cannot really be portrayed and I have not dwelt at all on the lot of the majority of African political prisoners banished on their release to remote areas of the huge country, there to suffer page break [unclear: cerribly] in distress of body and mind, there to await a [unclear: ingering] death.

I have not even made mention of those wonderful men and women who remain confined in the jails which are symbolic of the "white civilisation" of South Africa. Political prisoners would not ask us to cry for them: but they would ask a cry to go out to all civilized people the world over to stand firm against assistance to apartheid South Africa.

We must couple that cry with a demand for the release of all those true sons and daughters of South Africa from the prisons that confine them and from the restrictions that shackle them.

Lewis Baker

Lewis Baker was arrested with Bram Fischer in 1964 and was convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act. He spent four years in prison in South Africa and holds the distinction of being the first South African lawyer to be disqualified because of his conviction. Immediately after his release from prison in April 1968 he was placed under house arrest. He left South Africa in April 1970.