SA’s heroines must speak for Palestine
Twenty years ago, journalist and political activist Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that time hadn’t shaken off her torture.
Sikhakhane-Rankin, who went into exile as an ANC cadre in 1972 and was also associated with the black consciousness movement, took the oath on day two of the special Women’s Hearing.
“Years have since passed since I was among a group of women subjected to torture by mind-breaking by the apartheid security police,” she said, “and yet I often find myself back in the dungeons of solitary confinement, ready to take away my life for no explicable reason.
“This all happens without any conscious thought on my part. I hate it when my mind brings those terrifying memories, but my mind just does it for me. It was orchestrated to destroy me.”
Sikhakhane-Rankin’s testimony found chilling resonance in 2011, but not for the reasons immediately associated with political prisoners of the apartheid state. Instead, 14 years after she described the terrifying ordeal of women activists at the zip of the sjambok, the Khulumani Support Group said the TRC had failed them.
In a report on unremitting neglect, the social movement for survivors of human rights abuses showed how that “failure ... has proved fertile ground for the gender violence women in South Africa face today”. It said rape and genderbased violence “did not fall within the criteria of a political act” at the commission. And it came as a shock to many that the TRC did not even have a category for gender violence against women. Khulumani said it was “simply subsumed under the heading of ‘serious ill-treatment’”.
Six years later, with Women’s Day having been marked since 1995, the response to Khulumani’s report remains as insignificant as the empirical definition of women’s freedom in our country. Increasing levels of violence against daughters, mothers and sisters represent a conspicuous injury in the politics of the liberated nation. Perhaps it is this failure to award proper meaning to the torture of women activists of the apartheid era that has also led to their own relative silence on the agonies of their Palestinian compatriots.
The Al-Ahrar Centre for Prisoners’ Studies and Human Rights released a report last month in which it said Israel had arrested 84 Palestinian women and girls over the past six months. The centre says this figure “includes nine minors, the youngest of whom is 14”. Although that number is consistent with Israel’s increasing military aggression, it doesn’t reveal the extent of Israel’s systemic misogyny against the “other”. This, say many activists working towards the liberation of Palestinians, includes shooting women and girls, arbitrarily detaining them, intimidating them.
We barely hear Palestinian women prisoners’ own stories, let alone those consequential narratives. Where are the conduits for those women’s expression among South African women who were detainees and prisoners of the apartheid regime?
As Khulumani has shown, their stories and their experience were not allocated the same space given to men, even by the TRC. Who, then, would more deeply understand a Palestinian woman political prisoner’s position?
If we did hear the Palestinian stories, facilitated empathically by South African women, we might identify better with the Al-Ahrar Centre’s spokesperson, researcher Riyadh Al-Ashqar, when he explains how Israel “targets Palestinian women and young girls in order to deter them from participating in the Jerusalem intifada”.
For all too many Palestinian women and girls, November’s seventh anniversary of the “Bangkok Rules” (more formally, the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders) will pass unnoticed and unknown. The Bangkok Rules, to which South Africa and Israel subscribe, demand genderappropriate detention, arrest and incarceration procedures, as well as health services, work, rehabilitation, family care and visitation for women prisoners everywhere – including in Israel.
If only that had been so during apartheid. Sikhakhane-Rankin told the TRC how jailed women activists were made to “stand interminably as punishment” when they were menstruating. This alone was a source of fear and disgust, and was often accompanied by being beaten in the stomach and on the breasts.
Palestine’s Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association has previously revealed that Neve Terza Prison in Ramleh is “the only specialised women’s prison facility in Israel”. It and other facilities, says Addameer, “rarely meet the gender-specific needs of women prisoners”. These include “cultural and gender-sensitive medical treatment” which is rarely offered in an environment where there is poor quality food, “physical and psychological punishment and humiliation from both male and female prison guards, who demonstrate little to no regard for their wellbeing or special needs, even when ill or pregnant”, a lack of fresh air and sunlight, dirty and overcrowded cells, stress and isolation from their families.
Although South Africa is indeed still struggling to properly liberate all its women, it continues to improve in meeting the demands of article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. That resolution – adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and ratified by Israel in 1981 – is at odds with the concerns of Palestinian women and girl political prisoners: body-searching; threats of rape by Israeli soldiers and prison personnel; being interrogated by men while shackled; being forced to remove their veils; being denied educational material; being placed in isolation and being assaulted.
These are all familiar forms of torture to South African women who were once political prisoners, and who, like many Palestinian women, were then also often denied their right to a fair trial.
During Women’s Month, we urge those courageous South African women who were once jailed by the apartheid regime to demand, at the very least, a gendered understanding of human rights for Palestine’s women political prisoners. They face multiple indignities and exploitation. Most are held in prisons outside the occupied territory, despite the fact that Israel is a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which agreed that residents of occupied territory should be held in prisons inside the occupied territory.
This usually means that distance and Israeli law preclude their lawyers from consulting easily with them.
Sikhakhane-Rankin recalled the names of her fellow detainees and prisoners Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Ruth First, Dorothy Nyembe, Winnie Mandela, Martha Dlamini, Shanti Naidoo, Albertina Sisulu, Thandi Modise, Barbara Hogan, Thenjiwe Mtintso and others, just as South Africans now also always do every August.
In honouring those stalwarts, let our women heroes pay forward their fearlessness and support women political prisoners in Palestine. It’s more than time.