As a ‘born-free’ I was desensitised quite slowly to the images and videos showing the violence that occurred during Apartheid. Listening to radio shows and watching documentaries about struggle heroines and heroes painted a pretty good picture in my head of what really happened during those enraging years. But does this mean I feel nothing when I am exposed to the heinous cruelty that those who came before us were subjected to back then?
I visited the old Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill to gather more knowledge about what women in this country went through before 1994, and to compare that with the status quo. A rather disturbing fact about the old Women’s Jail is that when the Johannesburg security department took over the jail in 1983, they made some changes to the original infrastructure which played a pivotal role in punishing political prisoners. For example, many of the dreadful sink cells where black female political prisoners were held, are now enlarged and changed beyond recognition.
Those artefacts are essential parts of our history. Revisiting such memories is significant because it reminds us of where we come from, where we are, and aids us to hold each other accountable where necessary, because nobody wants our country to go back to our painful past.
The buildings within Constitution Hill are now offices for organizations that work with gender issues. The grim bathrooms have been renovated, and tiled sheets of glass have been built into walls to note the changes the security department made.
Something else to note when you decide to visit Constitutional Hill during this women’s month, is The Western Courtyard. This is where prisoners were counted every day. It is also where they ate their breakfast. The food was prepared in the men’s prison and taken there in two big metal drums marked ‘blacks’ and ‘whites.’ I found this quite symbolic. Food being made in the men’s prison then transported to the women’s prison conveys that patriarchy is deeply instilled in humanity, even amid racism and discrimination, they still found an opportunity for sexism/patriarchy. Comparing that to the current day, women are in a different kind of imprisonment. Women are scooping leftovers from men’s salaries – women are making 30% less than men in the same jobs. This is the legacy of this country and yet every year we commemorate women’s month, and honour those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and equality of this country.
Prisoners of different races were given different diets. In 1972 the daily buckets budget for the feeding of prisoners was 60 cents a day for whites, 30 cents for Asians, and 15 cents a day for coloureds, and Africans. The late Nurse and Political Activist Maggie Resha said, ‘’I was shocked and horrified to see what people were given to eat, it was so bad that merely by looking at it one became nauseated, yet the regime had no shame in asserting that it was scientifically prepared.’’
I believe that the shackles have been positioned differently – Women’s salaries are in shackles, job positions, access to funding/opportunities, control over their own bodies, and the most painful – safety; South African women are not safe, gender-based violence cases are skyrocketing! One of the objectives of the struggle against apartheid was to live in a country that is safe for everyone and create institutions where women will find solace and be protected, yet young girls are man-handled in those places. The journey is still long.
The answer to the question I asked in the first paragraph is “No”. I feel rage, sadness, detestation, sickness, guilt, hate, grief – I cannot be desensitised to the cruelty our people had to go through. I am here because those that came before us dreamt of this South Africa we live in today. But is the dream complete? Again, “No”.
This coming National Women’s Day, may we remember Seipati More, who was punished for simply moving her neck while cleaning the prison floors, let’s remember Nolundi Ntamo who was arrested for not having a passbook while she went to buy food for her family, or Linda Xamesi who was forced to wear a beret because of the texture of her hair. There are many women who formed the foundation of democracy in South Africa.
I believe that a good step towards decluttering inherited trauma as a country, and particularly as black people, is to visit these kinds of museums in order to understand where the trauma comes from and begin to resolve them within ourselves.
You can book your highlights tour at Constitutional Hill here.