By Nayan Shah, author of Refusal to Eat: A Century of Prison Hunger Strikes

In February 1989, I traveled to Durban, South Africa. I was twenty-two years old and had just graduated from Swarthmore college. I was visiting apartheid South Africa on a Thomas J. Watson fellowship to study religion and community in fifth-generation Indian South African communities.

But when I arrived, I was overtaken by the news of the hunger-striking detainees who were engaging in bodily protests against the apartheid regime. I had studied four hundred years of South African history in college, yet I hardly expected that my time in South Africa would daily test the question that we raised in seminar: what would cause the end of Apartheid?

The hunger strikes had punctured the secretive detention under which some people were held for up to three years. Short statements—in newspapers, in tabloids, and in magazines designed to teach English literacy to adults—relayed news of the Diepkoff prison hunger strikers being moved into hospitals from secret prisons, and of the daring escapes to European embassies and consulates, all filtered through the stringent government censorship. Lawyers, detainee family members, and ordinary people gathered at churches and mosques and in public squares to pray and go on short-term sympathy fasts for the hunger strikers.

In the months after the releases of the detainees, I heard one hunger striker share his story. His words still reverberate for me today: “I have endured the worst this regime can throw at me. We will prevail. Apartheid will fail and fall.” At the time, the audience of labor and community activists and students, many of whom justifiably feared being detained themselves, was doubtful. However, the mass releases of detainees did swell grassroots opposition and support for a defiance campaign five months later.

The detainee’s determination and clear-eyed prophecy stayed with me even after I returned home and became a graduate student in Chicago. On February 2, 1990, I watched the TV broadcast of Nelson Mandela’s “walk to freedom” after twenty-seven years in prison. The detainee had foretold the breakdown in the apartheid system’s durability—and offered a glimpse into the tenacious resolve of hunger strikers and their vison for a future society.

Twenty years later, I revisited this subject as I began to work on my new book, Refusal to Eat: A Century of Prison Hunger Strikes. I returned to South Africa to ask questions about that signature political moment, which had wider and deeper reverberations than I was able to comprehend in 1989. In the basement of the library of the University of Witwatersrand, I found boxes of documents of grassroots anti-apartheid organizations that had advocated for hunger-striking detainees and their families during that time. The archives revealed the relays of communication among strikers, lawyers, physicians, and prison authorities and offered glimpses into the behind-the-scenes organizing of media campaigns, solidarity fasts, and public demonstrations, as well as the physicians’ negotiations over the hunger strikers’ hospitalization. In 1989, I didn’t know that my trip would lead me to explore the history of hunger strikes. What I knew was that the power of these protests spoke to me and impacted me deeply—and still do.

The following passage is excerpted from pages 174 – 177 of The Refusal to Eat.

For the twenty young men at Diepkloof Prison who began a hunger strike on January 23, 1989, there was little hope that their strike would be any more successful than the thirty-six documented hunger strikes that preceded it. Yet within weeks, this hunger strike sparked a “national wave of hunger strikes” involving an estimated three hundred detainees in Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape provinces, as well as solidarity rallies and sympathy fasts across South African cities and in Western Europe and the United States, leading to the successful negotiation for a large-scale release of detainees. A number of factors contributed to this hunger strike’s broad influence, including successful coordination of mass striking within one prison; transmission of news between prisons; a media-savvy campaign run by local and national legal, medical, human rights, and religious advocates; the ramping up of attention from international media, particularly U.S. television; and capitalizing on the South African regime’s obsessive interest in amplifying scandals concerning Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie Mandela, which created an unexpected opening in media censorship.

This hunger strike began with a strong, clear statement by the twenty Diepkloof hunger strikers that they were making a “conscious, deliberate and voluntary personal choice” to hunger strike while fully aware of the “risks and dangers involved.” Many of the strikers had languished in detention for as long as two years; they had gained experience mounting protests within prison in that time, and had established networks for communicating outside prison through family, advocates, and lawyers, who had tracked them down over the years. Even though the government had “tighten[ed] up every knot and closed whatever existing legal channel there was to secure [their] release,” their words were smuggled out of the prison by lawyers and advocates, who were able (through fax and telex) to quickly transmit the information to sympathetic organizations and individuals. Within forty-eight hours, the South African Human Rights Commission publicized the Diepkloof hunger strike both nationally and internationally. The commission’s statement refuted government propaganda that the detainees were criminals and terrorists by emphasizing that they “came from all walks of life: workers, students, youth, teachers, trade unionists, Christians, parents . . . breadwinners . . . and students whose future is deliberately wasted here.”

Within Diepkloof Prison, solidarity for the hunger strike built, escalating its size and scale. Each successive wave of strikers was publicized along with news of the health and conditions of previous waves. On January 30, fifty-three more Diepkloof detainees joined the hunger strike. Seven days later, the remaining 118 detainees joined the hunger strike, and the prisoners issued another statement to the local press, saying that “this hunger strike is a life and death issue” that they were “prepared to take to its logical conclusion.” By this time, the initial group of hunger strikers was experiencing “deteriorating health,” to which the authorities responded with “insensitivity and intransigence.”

In a February 6 press statement, a fresh group of Diepkloof prisoners joined the strike. The press release charged authorities with abusing fellow hunger strikers by moving them to “extremely cold parts of the prison where they are not even provided hot water.” It also disputed the assumption that only adults were imprisoned, revealing that twenty-three teenagers, mostly aged fifteen and sixteen, were among the detainees, a source of outrage among the prisoners.

The Diepkloof strikes gained early support from medical and legal organizations. On February 8, the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Witwatersrand released a statement condemning detention without trial as “injust,” “inhumane,” “an abuse of fundamental human rights,” and “a serious threat to the health of the detainee.”59 Despite the official blackout of verifiable information concerning detainees, Lawyers for Human Rights, using scraps of news from lawyers, regional support committees, and the testimony of released detainees, assembled a census of detained hunger strikers, including their locations and conditions, eventually documenting the identities of 610 of them in dozens of prisons and detention centers across South Africa from February to April 1989. 

The Strike Snowballs

The weekly waves of fresh Diepkloof hunger strikers generated a momentum that radiated to other prisons and detention sites, inspiring other prisoners to join the strike. When 105 prisoners in St. Albans Prison in Port Elizabeth began their hunger strike on February 6, their supporters emphasized that the prisoners had vowed the “total end of all food consumption (liquid and solid).” Their previous hunger strikes, targeted at improving prison diet, recreation, and access to books, visitors, and mail, had failed to bring change or even normal judicial review, so now they would continue this “final action” until all detainees were released unconditionally. The advocates championed the resolve of the detainees, who claimed they had “no alternative but to take our lives into our own hands.”

The New Africa, an alternative news magazine, published an account by one of the hunger strikers at St. Albans: a fellow journalist, Brian Sokutu, age twenty-six. He described how gossip from the hunger strike at Diepkloof Prison had prompted discussions among the St. Albans detainees, during which they decided unanimously to join the fast. When the strike began, the warden sent prisoners in the hospital ward who joined the strike back to their regular cells. By the third day, the strikers shared complaints of pain and weakness. They “walked around in small groups and spoke to each other in low voices,” deciding to stop all of their usual activities such as playing sports and chess and engaging in political discussions.

Medical attention was haphazard. No physician appeared on the first day of the hunger strike. When the prison physician did come, he read aloud from the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo, an international physicians’ set of guidelines on the ethical care of prison hunger strikers. Mostly it was delivered to warn the strikers, since he mentioned the death of Irish Republican Army soldier Bobby Sands in 1981 as a caution. The physician’s manner was arrogant and defensive; he tested the prisoners’ urine but refused to give “medicines or treatment” to alleviate discomfort. On the fifth day, two hunger strikers collapsed and were whisked by stretcher and wheelchair to the prison hospital, but the doctor still refused to treat them.

On the sixth day, the security police visited the prison, asked for the detainees’ lawyers’ information, and promised their release if they stopped the hunger strike. The strikers decided to persevere. They were buoyed by news of “support from the community, the prayer services, the fast by journalists, international pressure,” and negotiations. For Sokutu, these signs demonstrated that the apartheid state was “cracking” and that the minister of law and order, Adriaan Vlok, was buckling to demands despite his vow that the government would not be “blackmailed to release.”

In vain, the South African government attempted to suppress information about the hunger strikes, banning all public gatherings that called for the release of detainees or expressed solidarity with the hunger strikers. By February 9, 1989, the news had exploded across the South African and international press. Newspapers in Johannesburg and Cape Town reported that seven of the original twenty Diepkloof hunger strikers had been hospitalized for kidney damage and failure, as the total number of hunger strikers across South African prisons multiplied.

But the information flow was not restricted to newspapers. The UDF affiliates mobilized their capacity for information dissemination, developed over six years, creating press releases and media events, and enlisting highprofile figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The use of “clerical robes” and “biblical civil rights sound bites” imparted a Christian moral righteousness to UDF messaging to European and North American media. Meanwhile, the alternative anti-apartheid press spread the news through its own networks, inflaming State President Botha’s suspicions of conspiracy and accusations that journalists were “media terrorists.”

The robust communication network from below created opportunities for UDF affiliates and church organizations to orchestrate letter-writing campaigns and public vigils, picketing, and solidarity fasts, an especially resonant form of public fasting, to amplify attention for the invisible hunger-striking detainees. The solidarity fasts proliferated in the cities. NAMDA doctors and dentists participated in a thirty-six-hour solidarity fast, joined by parents, families, and friends of the detainees. In Durban, members of twenty organizations joined in a sympathy fast, defying the government’s prohibition against meetings and publicity. On February 10, forty-two lawyers conducted a two-day sympathy fast in four cities in support of more than three hundred hunger strikers in detention in Transvaal, Cape, and Natal provinces. Solidarity fasting, vigils, and interdenominational services drew together white, black, and Indian faith congregants, as well as students and faculty.