History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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History of Women in Prisons during Apartheid by Justin Lawler

This article was written by Justin Lawler and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

During the times of apartheid, Blacks were continuously sent to prison for little or no reason making it even more difficult to resist apartheid. While it is well known that many black South African men were imprisoned and tortured by the government, women were also subject to this oppression. Women were the inspiration for the men and their children, but almost never was the South African woman free. Some female protestors and resisters were shot and killed, raped, tortured in various ways, and sent into prison where some of the worst came for South African women. Women in prisons, as if it was not bad enough on the outside, bore the same hardships as men such as lack of clothing and basic needs were often seen as what some call a ‘leftover category’. Women tried to resist but because they were subject to gender-based violence and did not always have the physical strength to object, it made them even more of a target. One of the biggest problems that made women such a large target was sex; they could be easily raped and some even voluntarily resisted less to male wardens in exchange for a better meal or a piece of clothing or blanket. During these times of apartheid prisons were undeniably horrific for the Black population, but the cruelty that women faced such as their sexual vulnerability, menstruation, and sometimes even pregnancy made them an easy target to many security guards.

Although life in prison for the woman was worse, confinement life was harsh for all South Africans. During the times of apartheid it was said that some prisons reached almost 200% of what the prison was built to hold. The Black community of South Africa filled the prisons during apartheid. Even in prisons Whites and Blacks were segregated because of the racial discrimination. The conditions for Blacks were worse for White South Africans. Other than the prisons being overcrowded and the inmates being tortured, Black South Africans were given lesser and in some cases unwashed clothes. In Winnie Mandela’s autobiography she says that some objects ‘have bad stories for about a quarter of the mat is full of blood’ (Mandela 2013; 10). The prisoners of solitary confinement kept calendars close by because the lights in the cells are never turned off so it makes it nearly impossible to tell when the sun is rising or falling and the prisoners were kept there for at minimum twenty two hours a day without even being able to walk out. The majority of the political prisoners and the general population of men would work in the quarries and mining fields during the day. Most, being told that they would only work for a couple months for a few hours a day, ended up working for years from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. When one first arrived in prison they would give him or her what they called ‘prison garb,’ a nickname they used for prisoner clothes. Even during these moments the social rules of apartheid amplified when the non-Africans would get long trousers and socks, while the Africans would get shorts with no socks. Non-Africans would get tea or coffee twice a day while Africans would only receive it once if they were lucky. For lunch non-Africans would receive grits and in addition to their dinner would receive a slice of bread while Africans would receive boiled corn for lunch and never a slice of bread for dinner. (http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu) For African women this struggle of everyday life in prison in general was enough for some to handle, but in addition to being Black in a White controlled world, women faced torture and rape created and thus additional emotional distress.

The prisons were generally over populated in every place and in most prisons men and women were separated. The prison guards who guarded the women were primarily women as well but not in every case. If the women prison guards were not terrifying enough, it would scare the women more when male prison guards would show up to search them or their cell. It was much different in prison for a female than for a male, the lack of physical ability and sometimes emotional weaknesses seamed to make females an easier target. In an interview in the book Lives of Courage a woman reported that a male guard told her after she had been strip searched that he ‘really loves interrogating women. I can get things out of them and do things to them that I can’t a man’ (Russell 1989; 31). This suggests that a woman’s time in prison could add up to being much harsher than a man’s stay. In addition to physical and mental disadvantages that women had compared to men, their work also had slight disadvantages. Most men would work in the quarry field or mining spaces and could often earn little pay, while women worked inside the prison cooking and cleaning with constant supervision, earning no wages, and regular contact with guards.

Posterbook Collective of the South African History Archive Image source

Perhaps a woman’s toughest job during this time in prison was the protection of their bodies, gender, and sexuality. But most women found this extremely difficult when they were not taken seriously and other women were involved in the torturing. Women took pride in their gender as whole not just Black women. Elaine Mohamed and some of her women friends were hurt more by the punishment or words from another woman interrogating them because ‘I felt like I had an alliance with women’ (Russell 1989; 36). They felt a sort of a betrayal from the White women because they saw the monsters inside them just like the men. Winnie Mandela writes that ‘As the cane lashes at them, sometimes a hose pipe, you feel it tearing at you own flesh mercilessly. It’s hard to imagine women inflicting so much punishment’ (Mandela 2013; 10). Here are examples of amazement from other women during this period of torture and complete shock that the women prison guards do not see the black woman population as part of society or part of a social class of gender on equal levels as them, but merely objects that some may even find it fun to torture.

Women faced many problems while in prison but there were some problems that women faced that no male prisoner had to deal with. A woman’s period, sensitivity of their breasts and sometimes even birth after being raped or thrown in jail pregnant added to the many difficulties of prison life for women. ‘As a woman, you dreaded the commencement of your menstrual period because it became so public under the notice of your interrogators,’ said Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin. ‘You had to ask them for sanitary pads. With your menstrual flow, they made you stand interminably as punishment’ (Mutume). This torture was often some of the worse for women; it was a way for guards to give them a sort of punishment no male could receive. On top of this sort of punishment the blood and embarrassment often reminded them of previous tortures involved with the blood and scars. They often felt as if ‘The feel and smell of the sticky blood was a reminder of imminent slaughter at the hands of the torturers’ (Mutume). The thought of the blood drying on their legs and ankles was a constant reminder of fear and disgust of guards and their actions. Another reoccurring problem with women was that some were beaten in the stomach and gut area that could result in permanent damage. Some women required surgery while stopped menstruating or lost the ability to have children. Connie Mofenkeng experienced this first hand because her ‘period stopped until July 1986. The doctor said that I had blockage in my fallopian tube because I had been kicked there repeatedly’ (Russell 1989; 53). These particular punishments made women unique to other tortures throughout the prison.

After time passed in the long days, months, and years, this loneliness and torture took a toll on the mental health and the way women began to act and think. Elaine Mohamed spent some amount of years in prison, the majority of which was spent in solitary confinement alone. The only person she would see or even have a chance to associate with during her days were the guards that would come and search her and bring her food. As her days in solitary confinement passed, she ‘started hallucinating in prison, presumably to try to combat loneliness’ (Russell 1989; 40). To help cope with her mental and physical pain along with her loneliness she created in her mind ‘a second person named Rose, I hated the name Rose, I think that’s why I called her that because I hated when she came out’ (Russell 1989;41). She goes on to explain that she created this character in her mind to help her deal with the pain, and that she could imagine Rose breaking down in tears so that she could stand tearless in front of the guards so she would not appear weak. When she was released from prison she intended on going back to the University of South Africa to finish her masters, but because her concentration and basic reading skills had become so bad due to lack of reading and writing material, she was unable to be accepted back into the University. School was not the only thing that Elaine affected her after imprisonment, her social skills lacked in a sense that she struggled to look people in the eye. Her father noticed that when someone was talking directly to her that ‘I looked away when someone started talking to me’ (Russell 1989; 33). And not from just Elaine herself but other women reported the struggles of lack of sleep and hallucinations of guards walking through doors to search their cells and men attempting to grab and touch them. (Russell 1989; 40). The wounds from torture and beating will heal after being released from prison, but the scar of mental health will permanently be there.

Women in prisons during apartheid experienced many of the same discriminations and emotional concerns as men. But they also survived gender-based violence and suffered indignities unique to their sex. Their role as mothers and women, who continuously fought for freedom, make them some of the toughest survivors of apartheid and the prison systems. This alone gives women the respect and honor that they deserve in their key role of fighting apartheid.

• (1989). ‘Anti-apartheid’ Leaders Recall ‘humiliation’ of Prison Life’ from The Toronto Star Newspapers, 19 October [online] Available at LexisNexis Academic [Accessed 28 October 2014]
•  Mandela, Winnie, and A.M. Kathrada. (2013) 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69. Athens: Ohio.
•  Mutume, G. (1997) ‘South Africa-Human Rights: Women Testify to Abuse under Apartheid’ from the IPS-Inter Press Service, 30 July [Online] Available at LexisNexis Academic [Accessed 28 October 2014]
•  Russell, Diana. (1989) Lives of Courage Women for a New South Africa. Basic Books Inc.
•  Suttner, Raymond. (2001) Inside Apartheids Prison: Notes and Letters of Struggle. Melbourne: Ocean.    
•   South African History Archive  This poster was produced by The Other Press Service (TOPS) for DPSC in 1988.
•  Bernault, Florence, and Janet L. Roitman (2003). A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa. Portsmouth, NH.
•  Buntman, Fran Lisa (2003) Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid. Cambridge: UK.
•  Dadoo, Yusuf (2003) Prisoners of Apartheid. Rep. New York: United Nations.
•  Mallaby, Sebastian (1992) ‘After Apartheid: The Future of South Africa’ from the New York Times. Available at www.nytimes.com [Accessed 28 October 2014]

Last updated : 07-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 15-Jun-2015