Memories of a Prison
Vineet Thakur, a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi has just returned from an academic tour of South Africa. In this article, he tells us about Prison Number 4, one of the most notorious jails in the world. Mahatma Gandhi served his first sentence in this prison. Vineet can be contacted at vineet1232[at]gmail.com.
Rhapsodizing from a platform in Accra Polo Grounds on the night of 6 March 1957, as Kwame Nkrumah opened his independence speech with the famous words “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus, Ghana, your beloved country is free forever”, a certain sartorial irony was evident. He was wearing his prison skull cap that had letters PG inscribed on it – PG standing for Prison Graduate. And thus, in a deeply ironical way, he had chosen to convey that the most glorious chapters of the human freedom have often been written from within concrete structures that work most assiduously to deprive humans of it – Prisons. In the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century, the more repressive the prisons became, the more forcefully they served as laboratories for freedom struggles. From Mohandas Gandhi to Kwame Nhrumah to Nelson Mandela, prisons were the most faithful institutions of colonial oppression and naturally then the best places to theorize and practice anti-colonial resistance.
In 1908, a well-dressed Indian lawyer in South Africa Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi was taken atop a hill in the mining town of Johannesburg, to serve the first of his sentences in ‘Prison Number 4’. The section number 4 had been constructed especially for blacks within an old fort prison complex that the Boers had first built in 1892 and was later used by the British during the Anglo-Boer wars. First deprived of his clothes and then of his humanity, the impressions Gandhi had of his stay in the prison were the following: “This humiliation has sunk too deep within me to remain without an outlet. I, at least, must act upon the light that has dawned on me”. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1913, when Gandhi came out of this prison for the last time after spending about seven months and ten days here over a span of six years, the man had been transformed into a Mahatma. Having endured and measured the extent of the oppressor’s atrocity, he emerged convinced that the oppressor needed, more than the oppressed, to be reinstated into human form. In a telling tale of his belief in refusing to speak in terms of the binaries of the oppressor and the oppressed, he considered his foremost opponent in South Africa – the Boer leader Jan Christian Smuts – a friend for life. Before embarking on his final journey from South Africa, he sent Smuts a pair of sandals that Gandhi made in prison. Smuts wore those for 25 years and returned them to Gandhi saying: “I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”.
Gandhi’s connection with this prison may have been just these seven months and ten days, but the novel praxis of satyagraha he developed during
his stay in South Africa came to influence independence struggles in both India and South Africa. In 1912, a South African Native National Congress was formed in South Africa (which in 1923 took the name African National Congress) which until 1960 resolutely followed the Gandhian passive resistance model. Prison Number 4, meanwhile, continued to be the epitome of repression well into the apartheid years from the late 1940s and a number of prisoners including the likes of Albert Luthuli, Robert Subukwe, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmad Kathrada were incarcerated in this prison from time to time.
Mandela once said – “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. Quite appropriately then the apartheid prisons were in some ways the idealized versions of the society the Afrikaner right wing wanted to create. Prison Number 4 – the most notorious prison in South Africa, if not the most famous (for the latter distinction would go to Robben Island), closed in 1983 and now a museum – is a constant reminder of the nature and scale of oppression of the apartheid society. The Prison exercised strict segregation with White, Indian and Black prisoners given differential treatments, in the same order. White prisoners were given better food, clothing and bedding, while the Blacks were made to suffer not only for their crime (politically defined) but also for their skin colour by making them subsist on the minimum possible. Yet, it is within these walls, that the prisoners would realize that freedom is not about managing to carry out a singular, spectacular act of valour that would cast off the shackles, but about inculcating rituals of resistance in the most inordinate, at times even personal, of activities. Under a system that dehumanizes you every moment; freedom is at times only about remaining convinced of and holding steadfastly to your own humanity. The challenge of maintaining one’s humanity under all circumstances and conditions is a lesson that people like Gandhi and Mandela carried away from this prison. Seeing how their prison warders had to lose their own humanity first in order to unleash oppression and dehumanize the prisoners, they also realized that inevitably it is the oppressor who loses his/her humanity first. A postcolonial society needs a collective return to humanity of the oppressor and the oppressed – of a metaphorical warder and the prisoner – in order to be able to create a truly humane society.
The danger of the oppressed mimicking the colonial structures of oppression is always shrieking from under a veil. Ironically (yet again!) the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s own party, while in exile had internalized the apartheid state’s repressive mentality and its exile history is controversially splattered with chilling tales of its own brutality. ANC had its own prisons in its exile bases, which according to many survivors, were even worst then the apartheid prisons. No wonder then that ANC’s most notorious prison in exile in Angola was named after Prison Number 4 in Johannesburg. It was called Quatro (Number 4 in Portuguese).
It is this possibility, or rather a dystopian reality of postcolonial nationhood given how frequently this has happened right from the French Revolution, of the oppressed becoming the new oppressors, perfecting embodying VS Naipaul’s evocative term ‘mimic men’, that makes liberation a very slippery terrain. Therefore, the most remarkable story to emerge out of ‘Number 4’ is of its post-1994 reincarnation. In the same complex that holds this notorious prison, Nelson Mandela’s post-Apartheid South Africa chose to do something remarkable. From the bricks of the walls of the prison, it created a new building next to the prison to institute its Constitutional Court. What could be more pleasingly ironical that at a site that reminded South Africans of the rapacity of apartheid, they sat down to create arguable the most progressive constitution in the world. The Court was intended to be a palimpsest – physically, metaphorically and literally – serving not to erase every memory of the prison but to write over them and create new ones, to subvert its imposing presence by creating a bigger, more humane behemoth, and to museumize it by letting the past speak to the present as a reminder but cushioning the future with no traces of its bitterness.
(I would like to express my gratitude to Ahana Banerjee for sharing some of these pictures. -Author)