Thirty years ago, a 71-year-old Nelson Mandela walked out of the then-Victor Verster prison, an hour’s drive away from Cape Town. He had entered prison as a young fighter and emerged as an elder statesman, more open to negotiation, but still willing to go toe to toe when needed.
Clutching his hand was Mama Winnie Mandela, who, with countless others, kept the spotlight on him during those decades in prison. Their hands, raised proudly in the air, signified a victory. But when he stepped out, a battle won, there was still a war to be won. Ostensibly a free man, Madiba was not truly free. He remained under the governance of a racist terror machine masquerading as a legitimate government.
It was through intense negotiation and, both supported and led by those who put everything on the line, that a form of democracy was made possible. There were real gains in freedom through this democracy. That democracy, our democracy, was not perfect and, like all democracies, will remain imperfect. But it is the possibility and the potential of real democracy that we should hold on to. That we should fight for. The possibility of the unimaginable.
In stepping out that day, Madiba became more than a symbol to millions, not only in South Africa, but globally. He represented this unimagined dream. Yet, he also became a symbol of fear. He was seen as a violent terrorist and, even more worryingly for others, was seen as (god forbid) a communist! For many, he represented a nightmare in which their version of freedom was being shattered. What Madiba was able to do was to carve out a shared vision of freedom for the majority of us to hold ourselves to. It was with a clarity of purpose and a sense of social justice that he was able to shepherd South Africa and many of his enemies toward this vision. And he did this while operating in a constrained environment due to structural conditions in South Africa and globally.
Hundreds of people were involved in this release, the planning, the logistics and the content. What unfolded that day has become lore. From Madiba forgetting his glasses and having to wear Mum Winnie’s, detours to Saleem Mowzer’s house, to our favourite story of Madiba making sure that he took his daily nap before leaving prison. Yet, more powerfully, there were more than 100,000 South Africans who stood outside on the Grand Parade knowing that change was happening.
To those thousands of people, and to the millions across the country, the celebration was tied to them being released from various forms of prisons. These prisons were not just the literal prisons where hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were incarcerated for crimes which included political actions, the breaking of unjust apartheid laws, and due to a social system that made crime necessary.
There was also a figurative release from the prisons that shaped black life. For example, the prisons of mining compounds to feed insatiable greed, cities and roads that limited movement and an education system built to keep the mind in a continued state of captivity, unable to imagine a free life.
Yet today, many of these prisons continue to exist. The 11th of February also marks 54 years since residents of District Six were forcibly removed from their homes. The empty stands just a few kilometres from the city centre are a scar across Cape Town, a physical mark. The emptiness serves as a reminder of the pain that thousands had to endure.
Those removals led to new prisons on the Cape Flats where many were placed. Research has continually linked those removals with a destruction of self and place and there is a direct link to the gang culture we see today to those removals.
As Johnny Steinberg, author of The Number recently recounted, “Prison gangs long proceeded apartheid, but apartheid emphasised everything about them – sheer numbers, what they meant and what they were trying to do.”
The gangs on the Cape Flats have those links with prisons, as for many, life inside and outside is just a movement between prisons. The bars between literal and figurative prisons are blurred. And these conditions have not only imprisoned those we see as gangsters and criminals but all of us. Especially in our townships, daily life is marked by invisible bars. This is felt even more by women and queer South Africans who bear the brunt of a patriarchal system and high levels of gender-based violence.
Millions of us are neither free nor safe in our homes or on the streets. Many of our streets are just too under-policed to walk. Research from the Institute for Security Studies has shown that in 12 years of murder data for Nyanga in Cape Town, 222 murders were recorded in just two adjacent 267m by 267m blocks in the Brown’s Farm area.
Life for many is marked by prisons that confine them to a life without access and opportunity. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data suggests that it could take nine generations for a poor family to move to the middle class in South Africa. We have created vicious cycles of intergenerational poverty. For example, children with nutritional deficiencies will struggle in school and will find it almost impossible to break into the skilled labour market. They, in turn, will remain low wage workers unable to provide for the nutritional needs of their children. And so the cycle continues.
And when chances arrive, these are often single chances without redemption. A failed subject in school can mean a lifetime of poverty and articulations of justification for that poverty. “They just couldn’t cut it,” we will say, unaware of the myriad factors that led to that moment.
Our carceral system is reaching or arguably has reached the carceral states of the US and China. Those who are imprisoned often remain prisoners of circumstance, and recidivism rates in South Africa are estimated to be between 60 and 70%. We have a prison and social system that does not allow for exiting. Our policing, and often our social systems, remain cruel and violent. Thousands bear the indelible mark of an ex-offender, someone with a criminal record. We choose to focus on retribution rather than restorative justice and it’s clear that our system criminalises poverty and difference. To quote US attorney and rights activist, Bryan Stevenson, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”.
The prisons we have made and continue to make are brutal and violent. And sadly for us, we often do not see the bars or the chains.
But to break out of these brutal systems, to find freedom and to find real democracy, we must begin to change the psychological and the social. As Madiba noted in 1994:
Freedom should not be understood to mean leadership positions or even appointments to top positions. It must be understood as the transformation of the lives of ordinary people in the hostels and the ghettos, in the squatter camps, on the farms and in the mine compounds.
Khalil Goga is the director of the Dialogue Programme at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Nikiwe Bikitsha serves as a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Originally published in the Daily Maverick