#BLF26 prison diary: Part 1
By Yerushka Chetty
During my 9th year of age, months went by without any sign of my dad. He just stopped visiting us. I was troubled by this but as there was an unspoken rule at home that we don’t speak of him, I didn’t ask. My father was into hard drugs and in his lucid intervals between fixes (which were many) he was an extremely abusive husband. Somehow, to his credit, he was never physically violent towards his children.
After some considerable months of his absence my family considered that I was now old enough to be exposed to his other side. This is the side about the psychology behind his actions, the side that would have him take my sisters and I forcibly from the safety of my granny’s home and keep us for days in the hope that my mum would come back to him. In the process we would sometimes sleep in cars or be left by him with arbitrary ‘friends’ or strangers for days on end while he indulged in drugs he had been consuming from the age of 12.
Once he threatened to take my sisters and I to the beach and drown us as well as kill my mum if she didn’t go back to him. I misunderstood what he said. I was young and loved the beach and the thought of going there excited me. He took us from my mum by force and I spent the rest of that day (and night) begging him to take us to the beach – but to my utter disappointment he had no intention of going there.
My younger sister, Teakshania, once saw a picture of my dad on the front page of a newspaper. He was the center of attention dancing with a group of men all dressed in orange prison uniforms. She took the picture to my mum and questioned her about it. We were subsequently told that night that my dad had been sent to prison months ago to serve a 8 years sentence for robbing a bank and that they didn’t know how to break the news to us.
On visits to my father at the Westville prison, we would first pass by the women’s prison. Being a curious kid, I always wondered what was life inside prison for women. I thought a lot about what women were facing inside jail. Many questions went through my mind. How did women survive being separated from their children, parents and friends? What did they eat? Where did they play?
But you know what they say – be careful what you wish to know. As the black condition will have it, I will myself in time get behind bars to figure out the questions that concerned me as a child.
I woke up on the 18th of July 2016 feeling that something bad was going to happen. It was Tata Nelson Mandela’s birthday and we, as Black First Land First (BLF), were getting ready to honor him with 67 minutes of public service. We had chosen to honor the young revolutionary Mandela and for this occasion we had decided to protest at the Office of the Public Protector, then headed by Advocate Thuli Madonsela (Madonsela). We had until then made several demands that Madonsela, completes her investigations and releases her reports to the public in two matters namely, state capture; and the theft of R26 billion from the South African Reserve Bank (SARB).
I had been part of many protests but this morning was different. There was no revolutionary explanation for the feeling I had so I couldn’t explain my uneasiness politically. Our BLF President would say, we must move from the verifiable. So undeterred, I charged both my phones and decided that I was going to record the entire protest so that, at the very least, we would be able to tell our side of the story for historical purposes. Many of the 26 participating in the protest were part of the leadership structures of the movement and had been involved with many other protests before. These are brave and skilled comrades. Our media capacity in terms of documenting actions during protests was however very underdeveloped at that stage. It was now critical that we build that capacity.
BLF had officially launched on 14 May 2016 – just 2 months earlier – and conceived on 15 August 2015. In January 2016 I was appointed as the Secretary General by BLF President Andile Mngxitama. I formed part of the protest as a leader of BLF and I knew that documenting the protest action was vital. In BLF we say that we are black before we are male or female because this is how the white supremacist system views us and unleashes its violence on us. In this light it did not matter that I was the only female amongst my comrades. That morning I was a comrade amongst comrades.
When comrades moved past the guards at the foyer of the Hillcrest Office Park in Pretoria in which the Public Protectors office is located, I grabbed my phones and followed. We took the stairs and as we entered the 3rd floor I switched on the camera.
I remember seeing Madonsela in Parliament in 2014. I was working during that time with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) caucus in parliament and she was addressing a committee on the budget allocation to the Office of the Public Protector. I was in awe of her. I felt obliged to protect her from what I thought were unfair attacks by a ‘corrupt’ President Jacob Zuma. The dominant narrative suggested that Madonsela was the symbol of justice, and President Zuma was the symbol of corruption. I unwittingly thought then that defending Madonsela was defending justice.
On the 18th of July 2016 twenty six of us – including BLF leaders and student leaders from Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal, North West Province and Western Cape – led by our President, Andile Mngxitama, had engaged in protest action in defence of black people’s constitutional right to justice. In this case it was justice against white monopoly capital (WMC) which had committed fraud, corruption and other economic crimes by stealing in the region of R563 billion of public monies from SARB during the apartheid and post 1994 period.
By now though I had been exposed to the other side of Madonsela – the side that would only prosecute black people; the side that spent the 5 years before protecting the richest, most powerful, and racist white families in South Africa (SA) from prosecution; the side that used public monies to protect and thereby strengthen WMC’s capture of the state; the side that dodged numerous attempts and pleas from BLF to get her to conclude her report on the CIEX findings which had been sitting on her desk since August 2011, and which implicates WMC interests like Johann Rupert, Sanlam, Rembrandt and Absa.
The Public Protectors office had called the police on us claiming that we were armed robbers. In retrospect it explains why the police came running towards us, cocking their guns and threatening to shoot us. Madonsela in a radio interview that night said that after watching certain videos uploaded by BLF, she can confirm to the public that we had kidnapped her staff and committed various other offences. BLF President, while in the holding cell in the Pretoria police station, had during the said interview with Madonsela denied that such offences were committed. The presenter ended the show mockingly asking who would you believe, Andile Mngxitama or our Public Protector Adv Thuli Madonsela? I was in a holding cell by myself at the other end of the police station listening to this interview on my phone.
A few hours earlier on, I had managed to send the videos that I had taken to BLF comrades outside via a co-detainee, Comrade Tshidiso Tsimong, as I was fearful that once the police gets hold of my phones, the evidence could vanish. We expected to at most be held at the police station overnight but thanks to our ‘trusted’ Public Protector what was supposed to have been a few hours in a holding cell, ended up being 8 days behind bars, 7 of which was spent at the Kgosi Mampuru Maximum Security Prison in Pretoria.
In retrospect being the only woman isolated from my comrades in a separate holding cell and later in prison to put it lightly, sucked. I spent the night at the holding cell trying to make light of my first experience of what felt like solitary confinement by reflecting on the years spent by Winnie Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Assata Shakur and other Black Panthers in solitary confinement. They had spent years in solitary confinement, what’s one night? The distant sounds of my comrades singing and chatting in their cell put me at ease. I was not alone.
I also had time that night to ponder over Madonsela’s lies. She had lied with such confidence. I concluded that those listening to the interview who didn’t know that Madonsela was lying, would not bother to watch the videos. They would conclude just by listening to her testimony that we had kidnapped her staff and committed all the other crimes that we were being accused of. She lied with such confidence that even I, for a moment, began questioning my direct experience of the events in and around Madonsela’s office and the footage I had filmed in this regard. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry or to be in awe, in relation to her brilliant performance.
I pondered over how a woman, and a mother for that matter, could consciously decide to put children in jail for serious crimes she knew they didn’t commit. The youngest amongst us was Comrade Gadget who was doing grade 11 at that time. The irony of this situation is that the Public Protector was not giving us, who were mainly black youth, our much needed protection but was instead unleashing the violence of the anti black justice and prison system on us
Who would you believe Andile Mngxitama or the Public Protector, Adv Thuli Madonsela? Who would you believe a black man or a black woman? Who would you believe, a revolutionary or the symbol of democratic justice? Who would you believe, Vice Biko (Mngxitama) or the female Mandela (Madonsela)?
At that moment I understood what Madonsela already knew when she lied with mesmerizing confidence. I understood at that moment that the truth played a very small role in politics. When the media is on your side, the truth is of no importance.
It has taken me two long years to overcome the shock and disappointment I experienced that night. I had been exposed to political analysis that deconstructed how Madonsela was protecting WMC, but I was naïve in that I believed that being a black woman she would have empathy for the youth in her own community. I believed that she would never willingly mean harm to children. It was heartbreaking to experience a black woman with so much political and social power use it to consciously destroy the future of the youth as young as 16 years old and many in their early 20’s.
The presenter on radio that night was correct. The video footage really didn’t matter. The public would, and did, without question believe the Public Protector. It’s been two years since she lied and there has been no media and public outrage. The public though is none the wiser because the WMC owned and controlled media refused to run the version of BLF – the evidence uploaded online just a few hours after my comrades and I were arrested – and expose the public to the truth. I lay behind bars that night with the violent and sobering reality that those who control the mainstream media, control the mind of the public. The media, owned and controlled by WMC, fabricates what the public considers to be the truth. There is little to no interest by the media in telling the actual truth. The media portrays whatever its owners and funders want.
In the last 2 years my comrades and I have been victims of a gender based violence that is not spoken about and is difficult to articulate – a violence that is passed from white supremacy to black woman; black woman to black woman; black woman to black children; black woman to black men.
My parents met in 1979. My mum was a factory worker and my dad was selling fruit and vegetables on the street. By the time my parents had my sisters and I, doing and selling drugs had consumed most of my dad’s days. My paternal grandfather was a strict disciplinarian. He played a major role in my dad running away from home, which in turn led to him being exposed to mandrax (buttons) from a very tender age. My grandfather employed generally violent methods to discipline his children. My father began acting out against this by not going to school and hanging out on the streets. He often complained to my mum as he spoke of his childhood that he was not allowed as a child to voice his opinion. He said that he soon became numb to the violence – that’s how he coped. But when my grandfather later insisted on taking a second wife with the permission of my granny, which my father was not happy about, he simply left home.
In the interim my paternal grandmother had influenced my mum to go back to school and further her education. She later died while my mum was doing matric. My dad then honored his mother’s wish by paying from his inheritance (which was R20, 000 in 1987) for my mum’s first two years registration fees towards a law degree at the University of Durban Westville – an act that changed the course of his family’s life. The rest of the inheritance my dad smoked away in a few days to the delight of his smoking buddies.
By August 1987 my mum had to leave my dad as he stood in the way of her development linked to our future. Staying with my dad could have led to us staying on the streets and my sisters and I becoming drug addicts ourselves. My dad was a wife beater, a drug addict, a drug pedlar, a bank robber, a hobo… He was also a very popular, charming, generous, kind, socialable and an all round lovable person.
Years later I began to understand how the apartheid government had pumped drugs into black communities; how it had targeted children; and how my dad had become a statistic and later died a week before his 40th birthday because his organs had eventually given up. I began to understand how the so called Indians – who were mainly Dalits and themselves British colonial subjects in India and who had been brought to SA as slaves to work in the sugar cane plantations, the railways and the mines mainly in KwaZulu-Natal – had themselves mimicked the violence of slave masters over fellow slaves in their own communities. The violence that the so called Indians (of all genders) endured at the hands of the slave masters in the plantations, the railways and the mines was internalized and unleashed at home on men, women and children. I began to understand how utterly depressing existence was (and still is) for black people living under white supremacy – for blacks living in a society that is designed to treat us as charity cases or cheap labour or as simply nonexistent. I began to understand how the black condition – which reflects all the ills of white supremacy brought to bear upon black bodies – adversely influences young black kids to self-medicate on drugs, alcohol and food so as to numb themselves from the naked violence and its attendant unspoken psychological pain that comes from structural exclusion.
Blacks (people of colour) across all genders and ages internalize this violence – including the psychological pain endured under white supremacy – that characterizes the black condition and express it in different ways. None of us in the black zone are excluded from being both victims and perpetrators of gender based violence – which in turn is a secondary contradiction – within our black communities. By extension none of us blacks are excluded from mimicking slave-master relations of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny. Moreover none of us are excluded from expressing bourgeois and racialistic tendencies notwithstanding the fact that blacks cannot be racist.
Madonsela thrust her internalized violence on us. She aggressively violated her children, her brothers and her sister on 18 July 2016. My dad inflicted violence on his family in various forms. He was a black man with black man’s issues in a white supremacist world. He used drugs to numb himself and escape the pain and violence of all the ills of white supremacy.
My dad’s violent behavior was accepted by society. There is an unspoken acknowledgment that black bodies and violence (including poverty) go hand in hand. If he had killed my mum and his three children that day, his actions would have been of no moment even if he was subsequently prosecuted and punished for his actions. It would not have served the purpose of driving society towards fundamental change in terms of the protection of black bodies against such violence in the future. Madonsela’s violent behavior is also accepted by our society and the WMC controlled state. Even if Madonsela was exposed for attempting to destroy the lives of 26 black people by blatantly lying that we had kidnapped her staff etc, it would do nothing to change society in a systemic way to protect black bodies from the violence of the anti-black state in future. Madonsela after all does not control the anti-black state. She only manages it for settler WMC interests like Johann Rupert locally and western imperialist interests like Lord Robin Renwick internationally.
BLF’s politics has taught us blacks to love our messed up families and extended families. We are made to rise united to the level of real politics; to pursue real justice; to end racism (and every other problem) through correcting the colonial theft of black lands… All else will follow (we know) once the land is taken without compensation. This is why when white supremacists attack black people we stand united against these attacks and say “Hands Off All Black People”, “Hands Off All Land”, “Hands Off Our Chiefs”, “Hands Off Zuma”, “Hands Off Malema”, “Hands Off Caster”, “Take Your Bloody Hands Off Blacks”….
My dad stood in the way of his family escaping the cycle of drug addiction. My mum made a determination to leave him and even fought him head on when he would not get out of the way. My dad is not my enemy. I love him and understand he was a product of a patriarchal, racist and capitalist system. I understand that in as much as he had loved us in the ways that he could, his condition and inability to fight the system would have destroyed us and weakened our fighting capacity as a unit and as individuals.
Madonsela has also not escaped internalizing violence, patriarchy, anti-blackness and self-hatred and it has resulted in her expressing it in gravely destructive ways that tends to defend WMC interests at any cost, even if it means destroying the lives of black children and her own community. She is not the enemy of black people though. She is just a product of an anti-black society and to this end is a self-hating, greedy and power hungry black person who also happens to have both social and political power – power that is ultimately controlled by WMC interests in a white supremacist society. She is no different from most black people who comply with the structural logic and dictates of white supremacy by mimicking the behavior of racists – such as treating black bodies as non-human, exploitable and disposable, while simultaneously doing whatever it takes to protect whites from any and all forms of violence.
We need to do all that is necessary to protect blacks from the systemic violence unleashed by WMC, even if this will mean fighting other blacks (irrespective of gender) who consciously prevent us from dealing with white monopoly capitalists like Johann Rupert. Hence we fight Madonsela, like we do Cyril Ramaphosa or Julius Malema only when they stand in our way – not because we consider them to be the enemy but because they position themselves as an unavoidable obstacle to our liberation. If they were to move aside we will not waste our precious and limited resources on them. If they were to join forces with us to attack WMC, we would welcome them back home. Black women and black men are not our primary enemy – as violent as we are to each other. Even though we often pose as obstacles or threats to the growth, development and security of our fellow blacks we are still not each other’s enemies. Our primary enemy remains those who own the means of production and the black being. It remains white supremacy which expresses itself on the economic sphere as WMC.
On the 18th July we had no choice but to confront Madonsela because she positioned herself as the protector of WMC and not as the protector of the public, as she was appointed to be. Two years has since passed and she remains unchanged. In fact Johann Rupert, as chancellor of Stellenbosch University, has given her a comfy job as a thank you for her years of loyalty to WMC and for not proceeding against him for being involved in the theft of R26 billion from SARB.
Madonsela lied about what really occurred on 18 July 2016 when we protested against her conduct. She knew full well about the implications of her lies on the lives of the #BLF26, but chose to lie anyway. The truth is that she was not paying attention to white corruption, deliberately so, and thereby hiding it. The #BLF26 had protested against her conduct on that day (so that WMC criminals can be brought to book) without committing the offenses of kidnapping, public violence, trespassing and assault as she had falsely alleged. We had faced these bogus charges until the matter had eventually been struck off the roll, two years later on 25 July 2018. It is actually shocking that this matter was dragged by the state at the instance of Madonsela who insisted she had evidence when in fact none existed. We had maintained throughout that while the colonial courts are incapable of dispensing revolutionary justice, the absence of evidence on the state’s part would render it extremely difficult for the court to convict us – we were right!
During the two years of awaiting trial, we were unable to find employment because of the serious charges against us. Intensifying unemployment, poverty and hunger are systemic means through which white supremacy thrusts its violence on blacks for fighting injustice or for just being black. A conviction on any of the charges would have also meant that the two law students amongst us, may not have been able to practice in the legal profession. Thankfully Comrade Gadget completed his matric last year and has registered to study at Unisa this year. This court case, it must be said, has not deterred BLF from fighting against WMC crimes especially its capture of the state.
There are black men and women in our communities who actively prevent us from liberating our people from the clutches of white supremacy. This includes those who we may love the most – our lovers, spouses, friends, parents, children, brothers, sisters, comrades, as well as religious and political leaders. Via mimicry of the conduct of the beneficiaries of white supremacy (who are whites) they hold their fellow blacks down, often violently.
BLF President, Andile Mngxitama, was correct in saying that when white supremacy (even through its agents in black communities) unleashes its violence on blacks, it sees no age, gender, tribe, class or religion. None of us are excluded from this violence.
It is also clear that not one of us (as gendered bodies in various forms) are excluded from indiscriminately mimicking white supremacist violence on black bodies. This pattern of conduct will in the main continue until white supremacy is obliterated. In the interim those blacks who come into consciousness of the nature, effects and operations of white supremacy will have a fighting chance to guard against such tendencies whenever it rears its ugly head which in turn happens on a daily basis. Blacks like Madonsela however, who have this fighting chance but choose to side with the enemy and are unrepentant, must be made to account fully for their wrongdoings!
In ‘ #BLF26 prison diary: Part 2’, which will follow in due course, I will give insight into my experiences in the women’s section of the Kgosi Mampuru maximum security prison.
Yerushka Chetty is the former Secretary General of BLF. She is currently a BLF National Coordinating Committee member, heading the Afrikan Indian Accord (AIC); and is the BLF Provincial Administrator in KwaZulu-Natal.