The treatment of sixteen middle-aged women, imprisoned without bail for demonstrating against poor service delivery, says a lot about South Africa.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the ways and customs of the Zulu people, but respect, dignity and personal responsibility are some of my people’s most important values. The worst thing a young man can do to his family is deface its name by getting into trouble. My mother, a churchgoing woman, and my father, a policeman, cared so much about keeping their children out of trouble that they always prioritised discipline over our feelings.
So I never thought I’d see the day my mother was in jail. She hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but she’s now been in prison for more than 60 days. The magistrate in South Africa has refused her bail because he claims she is a threat to the investigating officer.
You might be wondering what my mother did to deserve this punishment. Well, her offence was to protest peacefully with her friends against government service delivery in our local community of Colenso in rural KwaZulu Natal. The community demonstrated because it feels civil servants are not doing their job properly, leading to poor services.
The group is now being held in a crowded jail in Newcastle. Many observers, including prison guards, are commenting on the strangeness of the situation. No one can believe that sixteen women are being charged with pubic violence for holding a protest. No one was harmed in the rally, nor was any public infrastructure damaged, yet my mother and her friends are being treated like violent criminals.
They have to sleep on lice-infested mattresses, eat their supper at 13:00 and are forced to take showers at 02:00. When friends and family are allowed to visit (which is just twice a week) and bring food, it must be consumed in one sitting because they are not allowed to take back to their cells. Visits are only allowed twice and on weekdays, which means working people can’t visit their loved ones.
Most of this women are mothers from homes of little means. Colenso is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone. It came into existence in the 1920s when Eskom, the state electricity utility, built a plant nearby. The men who came to work there brought their families. Their little working compounds eventually spilled out into a township with a population of thousands.