WHEN STARVATION IS A WEAPON
THIS week, a number of our cabinet ministers showed their solidarity with the Palestinian political prisoners who are currently on Day 35 of a hunger strike in Israeli jails. For 24 hours, our Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and a number of other ministers engaged in a symbolic hunger strike in support of the demands of the Palestinian political prisoners.
A number of ministers stated publicly that the Palestinian struggle was entirely reminiscent of the struggle against the apartheid state, and against apartheid prison conditions in our own country.
Health Minister Aaron Motsaoledi expressed concern about the damage to the internal organs of the Palestinian prisoners, and the possibility that many of the 1 100 hunger strikers may die.
Winnie Mandela also expressed solidarity with the mothers of those jailed who sit in anguish as their sons wither away. Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, who was with me on Robben Island, has spoken of the similarities between the torture he was subjected to in the late 1980s, and that being exacted on Marwan Barghouti.
The Israeli authorities are subjecting Barghouti to sharp and constant noise daily for hours on end, which is a tried-andtested torture method of sensory deprivation.
Ebrahim was also subjected to such mental torture in John Vorster Square, which destabilises a person’s nervous system to the point they can no longer sit or sleep.
The struggle of the Palestinian political prisoners is one against solitary confinement, abuse by prison officials, a lack of adequate medical care, and for the right to visits from family members.
These are the very same demands that we as political prisoners on Robben Island made to the apartheid prison authorities. This has prompted me to speak out against what is happening to the Palestinian political prisoners in Israel.
The apartheid state used its prisons in a very menacing manner to take away the fundamental rights of prisoners, which are enshrined in the Geneva Convention.
For us on Robben Island in the early 1960s, there was a struggle for every imaginable thing – against abuse, and for clothing, blankets, medicine, visits – but, most importantly, it was a constant struggle for food.
The 1949 Geneva Convention says in article 26 that the basic food rations for prisoners shall be sufficient in quantity, quality and variety to keep prisoners in good health and to prevent loss of weight or the development of nutritional deficiencies. Account shall also be taken of the habitual diet of the prisoners.
But without fail, as political prisoners we were left hungry, if not starving.
The authorities used their so-called regulations to discriminate and humiliate prisoners, by even grading black prisoners.
As many who have visited Robben Island will know, the African prisoners were graded “F Diet” and the coloured and South Africans of Indian origin were graded as “D Diet.”
If you had F Diet you had the worst deal as it consisted of breakfast porridge with soup, mealies and a drink called phuzamandla for lunch, and dinner was again porridge with very old vegetables, and only twice a week, 2oz of beef was included.
D diet was only slightly better with porridge with black coffee for breakfast, meilie rice with vegetables for lunch, and a quarter loaf of brown bread for dinner.
The vegetables and meat were bought in bulk quantities, and so by the time it was cooked and served, the meat became green or blue in colour and utterly tasteless. We had no choice but to eat it in order to survive.
The D diet prisoners usually shared their bread with the African prisoners.
The Red Cross from Geneva visited the island on a few occasions, and representatives of the prisoners would outline their grievances such as inadequate and poor-quality food, lack of family visits and the like. The Red Cross never seemed to take the grievances seriously, which made us quite suspicious. It took a year or two for the diet to marginally improve when chicken was introduced once a week, which was considered a victory.
But to improve the quantity and quality of our food in any meaningful way, we were forced to engage in hunger strikes as the most peaceful means to fight for our rights as prisoners.
In order to maintain solidarity among prisoners on hunger strike, we enforced strict discipline so that no one should break the strike no matter how weak or hungry they became. The hunger strikes were always successful and never lasted more than a week before the prison authorities addressed our grievances.
We were still forced to supplement our level of protein through other means. Not far from the stone quarry where we worked chipping stones during the day, there were bushes full of game such as rabbits, guinea fowl and partridges.
One comrade found fishing line on the shore and set up a trap along the barbed wire fences and threw mealies there to attract the game. In that way we were sometimes able to catch rabbits and guinea fowl, which would then be cooked over the blacksmith’s fireplace.
The prison authorities did eventually catch us, and put an end to this source of protein. But these were some of the clandestine methods we used to survive the harsh conditions.
The struggle for food may not be the main grievance of the Palestinian political prisoners today, but their grievances are perhaps even more immediate.
We were beaten by our captors, but never experienced the type of abuse and torture that some of the Palestinian prisoners complain of.
It was rare that we were put in solitary confinement, but this seems commonplace in Israeli jails.
Demands for family visits and adequate medicine are the same demands we made over many years to the apartheid prison service. At the end of the day, if we were ignored, the only thing we could resort to was the hunger strike.
For so many Palestinian prisoners to have engaged in a protracted hunger strike of well more than a month means they are not only resolute, but they are desperate.
It is time the Israeli government and the world listened to their demands. At the end of the day, even political prisoners have basic human rights.
My message to the Palestinian prisoners is – don’t let the authorities break your spirit, it is a hard and painful struggle, but your fight is for the most basic of human rights, and that is something worth fighting for.
Sunny Singh is a former Robben Island political prisoner who was on the Island from 1964-1974.
Palestinian activists stand around a mosaic portrait of Marwan Barghouti near an Israeli military installation in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Picture: AP