PRISON hunger strikes summon images of Suffragettes or the Northern Ireland troubles, but 25 years ago, in a largely forgotten episode, Pietermaritzburg experienced its own. The strikers were State of Emergency detainees held without charge, trial or access to the courts; in effect prisoners of a political police force able to hold them indefinitely subject only to the annual renewal of the Emergency. From 12 June 1986 over 2 000 people were held under such conditions in the Natal Midlands, almost all of them politically opposed to the State and its ally, Inkatha. From late 1987 numbers grew significantly, lengths of detention increased and conditions in prison deteriorated.

During 1988, seventeen hunger strikes involving 500 detainees were recorded nationally, including a three-day protest in Pietermaritzburg in November over food and general conditions. But the strike began in earnest in Johannesburg in January 1989 as a last-ditch attempt by long-term political prisoners, some held for longer than 1 000 days, to secure their release. It was explained at the time as a form of empowerment to counter the helplessness and trauma suffered as a result of indefinite imprisonment. Detainees suffered from the DDD syndrome – debility, dependence and dread – and a general sense of de-humanisation.

There was a three-day preliminary strike at New Prison, Pietermaritzburg in early January to protest about abusive warders and late delivery of food orders. Detainees gained an impression from security police about impending release but when nothing happened, frustration set in amongst the increasingly depressed long-term prisoners. Someone suggested donating blood to victims of violence to publicise their plight, but instead on 18 February a hunger strike was started by 100 Pietermaritzburg detainees.

This was several weeks after the beginning of the national strike, which had become an international scandal. Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok undertook to review the case of each striker and the local strike thus started just as the countrywide campaign was suspended.

The strike would last 18 days, but it was accepted from the outset that not everyone could hold out. After four days some strikers had lost up to three kilograms, their only nourishment being water. By international standards this was accelerated deterioration, possibly due to socio-economic background or poor prison diet. The prison authorities left the lights on, banned the radio and stopped family visits. By the sixth day detainees reported dizziness, headaches, joint problems, difficulty in urinating and feeling ‘very, very weak’. The number of strikers was down to 40. Their lawyers faxed Vlok, but received no reply.

On day eight the authorities dispersed the strikers to police stations in the Midlands: Boston, Dalton, Howick, Mid Illovo, Mooi River, Muden and Richmond. This had no effect except complicating the lives of the strikers’ lawyers. By day ten, it was necessary to admit seven strikers to hospital, including S’khumbuzo Ngwenya Mbatha, local United Democratic Front secretary. By chance his mother saw him at Edendale Hospital and told the Natal Witness: ‘He is very thin. His eyes are inside his head. He looked very weak and at first he did not recognise me.’ In all, 35 strikers would be hospitalised. By day 15 the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Medical Association of South Africa expressed alarm. Doctors and families persuaded strikers to accept drips containing glucose, dextrose, electrolytes and vitamins. And it was suspected that the security police, witnessing rapid physical deterioration and fearing deaths, were keen to resolve the situation although they would not commit to specific release dates.

On 7 March, two lawyers representing Pietermaritzburg’s hunger strikers spent over four hours with Vlok in Cape Town. After consideration of each case they came away with assurances that all detainees would be charged or released. On this basis from midday on 8 March strikers resumed eating. Most were released after a three-day observation and rehydration period by 15 March. Medical advice recommended soft, easily digested food, but Kentucky Fried Chicken proved more popular.

Pietermaritzburg continued to be out of step: the suspended national strike was about to be resumed as only 200 of 900 known detainees had been released. By 16 March, there were 85 detainees on hunger strike nationally including Sandile Thusi, a Durban detainee originally held in Pietermaritzburg who was into his 27th day.

During the strike there was strong solidarity activity in Pietermaritzburg. A 48-hour sympathy fast with the national hunger strikers began on 15 February, together with an inter-denominational service. Some local student leaders extended this fast to eight days ending with a vigil and prayer service on 23 February, well into the Pietermaritzburg strike action. An Ad-Hoc Hunger Strike Support Committee gave assistance to lawyers, who found themselves in an awkward position caught between strikers, families and police, particularly after the detainees were dispersed. The committee organised protest stands, services and meetings for relatives, and placed advertisements in the Natal Witness. Towards the strike’s end, the city’s mayor met the security police, the Chamber of Commerce was voicing concern, and prominent citizens were on a roster of 24-hour fasts. On 12 March, National Detainees Day, a well-attended service was held at the Metropolitan Methodist Church.

In the main the Minister of Law and Order honoured his agreement, releasing the majority of strikers without charge, although under Emergency restrictions. The daily report to a police station created vulnerability and marked out ex-detainees as targets, but restrictions fell away from mid-year as the defiance campaign started. On 1 April, a third local hunger strike started at New Prison amongst six remaining detainees. They were moved in two groups to Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein and released in mid-April and early May. This was repeated on 21 June under the renewed State of Emergency with two more strikers moved to Pelonomi before release on 30 June.

In the 1960s a hunger strike took place on Robben Island and Indries Naidoo recalled that ‘somehow the atmosphere on the Island was never exactly the same as it had been before’. So it was for Pietermaritzburg’s detainees in February 1989. The government could not afford a hunger striker death and wide community support for the strikers surprised and embarrassed the local securocrats. The number of people detained in Pietermaritzburg declined remarkably after the strike, even though violence reached new heights in March 1990. Mass and long-term detention without trial were at an end.

The hunger strike is thought to have had other effects. It played a part in encouraging the defiance campaign. And it showed that given discipline and conviction the seemingly powerless could assert themselves, although they had to threaten to starve themselves to death. In spite of government antagonism, human rights groups showed their ability to work together constructively with lawyers committed to the rule of law. And ultimately the strike showed the futility and weakness of using authoritarian measures that were fundamentally unjust.

Voluntary total fasting

First week weight loss of 3−4 kg, then 300 grams per day. Hunger disappears after about four days. With 10% loss, hospitalisation is necessary.

  • For two days there is carbohydrate depletion, then the body breaks down the fat store. After four weeks it has to rely on protein, which causes muscle wastage and brain damage.
  • Initially, lethargy, lack of concentration, sleepiness, headaches, abdominal cramps, bleeding gums, blood in the urine, and respiratory and skin problems are indications of vitamin deficiency. After 30 days brain dysfunction results from lack of vitamin B with a low pulse, poor circulation and heart trouble.
  • The final stage is a coma with death following any time after 40 days.

This article was first published in The Witness on 10 February 2014 and entitled ‘The hunger games’ and based on a contemporary survey by the Detainees’ Aid Committee (Pietermaritzburg). Hunger strikers were not identified, except where named in the press.