Thoughts on Freedom Day, 2005

Eleven years ago on 27 April 1994, for the first time, South Africans of all races went to the polls to vote for a democratic system of government.  Since then April 27 has been designated Freedom Day.  And we will be celebrating freedom today; celebrating the fact that we voted out a government that believed in the hierarchical ordering of races and voted in a government that believes in equality and opened the ghettoes in which poverty and crime were dammed and freed them to flow all over the land.   
Massive poverty and crime, the legacy of the old regime, constitute the worst problems that face the new regime.  The problems are of such magnitude, that government and opposition attempt to obliterate them with a war of words.  Meanwhile in our new democratic dispensation, we now have black and white beggars on our streets and squatter camps, which we euphemistically call informal settlements, spreading right into suburbia.  And we are forced to take note of this poverty because of the rise in crime, so we call for better policing, for incarceration, for longer jail sentences and for the death penalty as though they are solutions.   We complain that there are not enough policemen and policewomen, but the number of law enforcement officers can never be adequate where poverty exists on a large scale.  
We have developed slogans such as “the war on poverty” and our strikes are against the poor, the enemy, whom we capture and incarcerate.  We hide behind a concern for “the poorest of the poor” but our prison population is burgeoning.  Judge Hannes Fagan, the Head of the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons, in an episode of the TV programme Special Assignment which dealt with overcrowding in prisons, referred to the locking up of petty criminals as vindictive.  Some of our biggest prisons are filled to four times their capacity and a single cell in such centres may hold as many as forty people. Most people initially enter prison for petty offences but once in that environment, they find and develop the opportunities to become hardened criminals. So throwing people in jail does not reduce crime; it multiplies it and prison is simply a training ground for the most debased and inhumane behaviour
Prisons stand as monuments to our inability to eradicate poverty.  They are not bastions against evil and crime; they are hotbeds of evil and crime.  But we focus on the crime and the criminal because instinctively we believe that evil is innate and that criminals are born, not made. A documentary on gangs in prison, one in a series entitled Our Nation in Colour, showed, however, how prison is a factory that produces criminals. Before they are imprisoned, people are transgressors not criminals; in prison they become criminals.  They become dedicated rapists, murderers and thieves. Inside the prison, perhaps to recapture lost self-esteem, they set up structures to control and order their lives but the structures are tyrannical, and inculcate strict adherence to authority through fear, hatred and coercion. Such control is a decadent display of naked power – power not cloaked as it is in society by the humanitarian idea of service. Vengeance and punishment become the creed of this locked-up community, a creed reinforced by incarceration, itself a form of vengeance and punishment.  And so inmates turn themselves into monsters, preying on each other and making their imprisonment a living hell.
Once they have been inside, God help the society outside when they are freed.  

And we become involved in schemes of prison reform.  But you can’t reform a prison; you can only burn it down.  The prison itself is the problem.  Human beings confined in small spaces, with no freedom of thought and movement, no privacy, lose their humanity and take to evil ways. But we keep the prisons because we don’t see them as inherently evil and we don’t see any alternatives. And when we hear of the depravity of that locked–up community, we are horrified so we embark on superficial reforms such as changing the language of incarceration, hoping that the concomitant attitudes and behaviours will follow from the new jargon.  We no longer speak of prisons but of Correctional Services, prisoners are “clients,” warders and wardresses, “members.”  Meanwhile the “clients” still live under strict supervision in confined and controlled spaces. Changing the jargon does not change the reality of imprisonment and does nothing to address the real problem, which is outside the prison.

And still we call for imprisonment and the death penalty as answers to the terrorism that arises out of poverty; and still we deal with the symptoms and not the root cause of our malaise.  Gandhi wrote that the worst crime is poverty and to ‘have’ in a society in which millions ‘have not,’ is to be privileged. But those of us who are the ‘haves,’ see the worst crime as our loss of privilege.  It may have taken a few centuries but we have eradicated the worst manifestations of racism – that was easy compared to eradicating poverty.  Now our ‘haves’ are both black and white and our ‘have-nots’ are both black and white.  Our government has come up with schemes of self-development, skills training, economic empowerment but these become the purlieus of the middle and working classes and the squatter in the squatter camp still ventures out of his makeshift shelter, to sit on pavements in cities, towns and suburbs, soliciting for work.  And when the frustrations of no money and no food get the better of him, he employs his creativity in finding new ways to rob, steal, hijack and take hostages often to the accompaniment of rape and murder.

On Freedom Day, I think of a visit I made last week to my nephew’s house to deliver a storybook, Monkey Business, for his children. I hadn’t been to his house for probably more than a year.  When I got to the address, I had to look hard before I recognised his place.  There was a fence up around the property and a motorised gate.  I couldn’t get in.  I had thought to slip the envelope under the door because I knew that my nephew and his wife would be at work.  But I couldn’t get near the door. Ironically, Seetha Ray’s Monkey Business, set in Calcutta, depicts a rich man who, having locked himself out of his home, tries to climb over the high fence, slips and is caught on the gate by his clothes.  He hangs there upside down until a poor man who makes his living on the street with trained monkeys that dance and sing, rescues him.  I had no intention of clambering over the gate so I looked up and down for a neighbour to whom I could entrust the envelope, but all I saw were fences and security gates lining the street.  They hadn’t been there the last time I had come this way.  And I said to myself, “Welcome to the new South Africa.”  All the haves, and that includes me, are living in their own home-made prisons and all the have-nots are marching towards the official ones.
    And today we celebrate Freedom Day.

Muthal Naidoo
27 April 2005