Banished to our very own gulags

In 2001, Dumisa Ntsebeza and Terry Bell wrote in Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth that "like so much of South Africa's recent brutal history, we shall probably never know exactly how many people were banished and what happened to all "of them".

Now a new book, The Forgotten People: Political Banishment under Apartheid, that I have written, answers many of these questions about banishment and reveals a largely unknown aspect of our "brutal history".

During the apartheid years, those resisting tyranny were killed, assassinated, hanged, imprisoned, banned, detained, deported, endorsed out of urban areas, forcibly removed and forced to flee into exile.

In the early years, political opponents from rural areas were condemned to the living hell of banishment: an administrative weapon used to expel opponents to distant and desolate places for unlimited periods.

Banishment was used to punish, intimidate and control political opposition, part of a wider strategy for maintaining apartheid rule.

In anti-apartheid fighter Helen Joseph's words, apartheid's opponents were plucked from their families and communities and cast "into the most abandoned parts of the country, there to live, perhaps to die, to suffer and starve, or to stretch out a survival by poorly paid labour, if and when they could get it".

Between 1948 and 1986, 160 people - 150 men and 10 women - were banished. One hundred and 40 of those people were from rural areas; 78 were from seven rural places: Mabieskraal, Witsieshoek and GaMatlala, Bahurutshe, Sekhukhuneland, Thembuland and Mpondoland. Common to all these rural areas was widespread resistance to new apartheid policies and measures: "betterment" schemes that affected land and livestock possession and use; the new Bantu Authorities system and the creation of bantustans; and the introduction of Bantu education and passes for women.

Banishment was not created by the Afrikaner Nationalists who came to power in 1948. The law that permitted it was introduced during the colonial period in Natal, presided over by Britain. It became national law in 1927: section 5(1Xb) of the Native Administration Act.

Those who were banished had no trial in court. They were neither charged nor told of the nature of their crimes.

They were given no opportunity to defend themselves, yet they were deprived of their liberty, of their homes. They were punished within the law, but outside justice.

The banished were people who broke no laws and who possessed no hidden information, but whose very presence presented a problem.'

Often these were community *(elders or elected chiefs in the rural areas who did not accept without question government edicts; leaders who were perceived as insubordinate - "cheeky" by one or other authority figure.

For the state it was a most efficient piece of legislation. It did away with the time-consuming-necessity of judicial procedures and allowed the authorities to decide on the appropriate place to send each individual, and do it quickly.

Those banished were located across the length and breadth of South Africa, in mainly far-flung rural locations.

Fifty-two people were banished to the Vryburg, Mafeking and Kuruman districts of the Northern Cape; 22 to the Sibasa and Pietersburg districts in the northern Transvaal; and 11 to the King William's Town district. Two inhospitable camps at Driefontein and Frenchdale in the Northern Cape were gulags to 26 people and 14 people respectively.

On average, banishment orders were in force for nine years. One hundred and 10 people were banished for more than five years; eight for between 15 and 20 years; and three for more than 20 years.

Some of those who served banishment orders did not go into banishment, but escaped into exile. Elizabeth Mafekeng of Paarl and Gilbert Hani (father of Chris Hani) of Cape Town fled into exile soon after they were served banishment orders.

Ben Baartman of Worcester, Anderson Ganyile of Bizana and Jackson Nkosiyane of Mthatha journeyed into exile from their places of banishment. For 17 banished people, there was no journey back home, they died in banishment.

Theophilus Tshangela was involved in the Mpondoland uprising. In 1974, he was the last person at Frenchdale, although his banishment order was withdrawn in 1972. He refused to return home until the government met certain conditions, including complete freedom from all restrictions.

"I want to be free," he said. Tshangela died in banishment.

Banishment was feared by ordinary men and women. A teacher in Sekhukhuneland recalled that other words that caused fear were St Helena - a reference to the island to which Dinuzulu was banished after the 1906 Zulu rebellion. A Cala resident said about banishment: "That was a punishment those days."

The harshness of banishment forced some to agree to various restrictions to secure their release. Others bore banishment with great courage, refusing to collaborate or compromise with the state.

In the Tugela Valley, Kenneth Mosenyi of Bahurustshe looked on his banishment "as an honour in the struggle of our people". He refused to request release, saying: "I did not bring myself here. If he feels like it, let the native commissioner send me home. It is not for me to go on my knees to ask for a favour."

Banishment was a kind of social death. The banished were no longer able to live among family and friends and in communities. They were summarily removed... for a bitter and lonely life in a far corner of the land among unknown people. Inter-personal and communal social bonds were broken, sometimes permanently.

The banished were stripped of personal authority and power. Some had previously been notable traditional leaders and counsellors to such leaders. They lost everything; their homes, their families, their liberties...

They did not know when, or whether, they would ever go home again. Their common experience was isolation, boredom, hardship, dislocation and estrangement.

Banished to remote and foreign habitats, they were strangers in strange areas who could not speak the local language, and often had little in common with the locals and even less in common with those who kept them under surveillance.

The late Cosmas Desmond's comment on the forced removal of three million black South Africans under apartheid applies to banishments: "It is impossible to say whether the physical degradation or the mental torture of living in such a place is the more terrible."

Fifty years ago, Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia, Joe Morolong and others undertook a remarkable 11 000km car journey to visit banished people across South Africa.

Joseph recorded the journey in Tomorrow's Sun, which was banned in South Africa. She wrote: "Our anger has been aroused by what we have seen and heard" and that "sometimes the plight of these people, the stories of what they have endured, was almost too unbearable to behold, to hear."

Banishment was a slow torture of the soul, a living death. The Human Rights Welfare Committee did much to highlight banishment, to draw attention to South Africa's "Siberias" and to mobilise support to assist the banished and their families.

Through its efforts, it could be noted that the banishment camps of Frenchdale and Driefontein now stand empty. Men no longer sit there in the desert sun and the dry hot wind waiting for death or release, whichever comes first.

Banishments declined after the mid-1960s following the crushing of mass political opposition, and as South Africa became increasingly militarised. New laws such as the 1967 Terrorism Act and the 1976 Internal Security Act made provision for detention without trial, bannings, and the banning-banishments of political activists, and use was made of them to deal with political opponents of 'the state. Political notables such as Frances Baard, Winnie Mandela and Mamphela Ramphele were banished under the Internal Security Act.

So, too, were a number of political prisoners after they were released from prison. In 1986, during a period of great mass struggles against apartheid, the law that provided for banishment was repealed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ruled that banishment constituted "severe ill-treatment" and was "a gross violation of human rights" and held "the former government... accountable".

But, the banished were largely ignored by the TRC; only 14 were recorded as having their human rights violated under apartheid.

The banished heroes and heroines of popular resistance in rural areas remain the forgotten people. Unlike the Islanders, there is no monument or memorial for them. They remain banished from consciousness. Colin Bundy observes that "if the (TRC) archive becomes the official repository of memory... it is simultaneously a crucial site in the process of forgetting."

With respect to the banished, the TRC has aided forgetting and a skewing of social memory As a result, rural people continue to be excluded from Struggle narratives. This perpetuates the idea that urban people were the only or principal leaders and heroes of the national liberation struggle.

The Forgotten People challenges this portrayal. By showing the link between the brave resistance of rural communities to apartheid during the 1950s and 1960s and banishment, the book highlights rural communities and leaders as courageous actors and shapers who fought apartheid and helped to create democracy in South Africa.

Ariel Dorfman insists that a fragile democracy is strengthened by expressing for all to see "the deep dramas and sorrows and hopes that underlie its existence and that it is not by hiding the damage we have inflicted on ourselves that we will avoid its repetition".

Indeed, it is true to say that to hide the horrors of the past in a collective amnesia would leave posterity with a legacy of festering guilt and unrelieved pain. The late Neville Alexander puts the challenge nicely: "The strategic-political and ultimate moral-historical question is how to move towards understanding without ever forgetting, but to remember without constantly rekindling the divisive passions of the past."

Such an approach is the only one which would allow us to look down into the darkness of the well of the atrocities of the past and to speculate on their causes at the same time as we haul up the waters of hope for a future in South Africa of dignity and equality.

  • Saleem Badat is the vice-chancellor of Rhodes University.


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