An empty jail cell cannot convey the sense of isolation, nor can it make you feel the claustrophobia. However small the cell is, when it is without people, it gives a false sense of openness. And when it is filled with people, as the photographs on the walls of this jail indicate, it is overcrowded.
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I have entered this jail knowing that I will get out when I want to. Others have not been so lucky. The wall honours some of the individuals who were held here against their wishes, often for crimes they hadn’t committed, or for acts which weren’t crimes.
I am at the old jail in Johannesburg. It is set on a hill, and it shows South Africa’s inspired attempt to reconcile the story of its inhuman past with its optimistic present. The place is called Constitution Hill, and part of the property has made way for the country’s constitutional court. It is a deliberate choice.
Symbolic: The constitutional court in Johannesburg adjoins the jail where Mandela and Gandhi were held. Photo: Emiliano Homrich
Symbolically, the walkway between the jail and the court is made of bricks taken from the building, which was part of the holding area for prisoners before they were processed and dumped into those cells: from the past to the future. The court exudes openness with its tall glass windows and cheerful art; the cells are constricting and narrow. The dim interior and the grey mattresses are designed to emphasize bleakness.
When you enter the No. 4 prison, the wall carries a statement of Nelson Mandela’s: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” And the picture of this apartheid-era jail isn’t pretty. Think of the food the prisoners got: There are signs showing their rations, and the prisoners were divided into categories, created the only way the government knew how to separate people—race. The first drum had beef or pork, to which only the whites were entitled. The second drum was for Indian and coloured prisoners. It had porridge or boiled vegetables over which the cooks tossed some fatty meat from the discarded bits for the white prisoners. The third drum was for black prisoners—it was without meat, and it had porridge, boiled mealies (corn) and beans.
The prisoners were humiliated often. Upon arrival, they went without shower for months; weekly showers were contingent upon good behaviour. The recalcitrant ones were sent to Emakhulukhuthu (the deep dark hole), as the isolation cells were called. There, their staple diet was rice water.
The only black prisoner separated from other black prisoners, and kept in the white prisoners’ jail, was Mandela—not out of respect for him, but to keep him from influencing or inspiring—or inciting, as the authorities saw it—fellow blacks.
I was interested in another cell—the one in which Mohandas Gandhi was kept. When Gandhi challenged the rulers to live up to the ideals the British claimed to live by, the police used force—and Gandhi willingly took the blows. By not retaliating, he confused the government. By insisting upon truth, he unleashed a new weapon—satyagraha—which shamed his adversaries.
There is a permanent Gandhi exhibition inside the jail. Gandhi was born in India, but South Africa made him: To counter the injustice he faced, he opted for the morally superior alternative to violence, of civil disobedience, which he would deploy so skilfully against the British, after he returned to India in 1915. Explaining what South Africa did for him, Gandhi was to say: “It was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.” You find those words inscribed in this exhibition.
The walls tell Gandhi’s South African story without any adornment. You see the simple cap he stitched. You see the life-size image of Gandhi on translucent fabric, as if he is standing in front of you. There is the prisoners’ uniform of the kind he wore. And on the side there is a table, upon which sits the typewriter that he used when he edited the newspaper The Indian Opinion. The typewriter is accessible—I felt the tactile urge, to feel the keys, to press them, but thought the better of it. I felt unworthy.
I wanted to see the sandals he had made for Gen. Jan Smuts, whose job it was to confront Gandhi. In many ways, Smuts was a reluctant adversary. Gandhi could separate his opponent from his actions, the individual from his power. Smuts understood that, and it left him powerless. When Gandhi left for India, he presented Smuts with a pair of sandals he had made for him. Smuts accepted the gift. Many years later, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, he returned the sandals to Gandhi with a note saying: “I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”
The sandals were at the end of the room. They are kept in a glass case, and they have the look and feel of simplicity and comfort.
The heels of the sandals are flat. But you know that whoever wore them would get a lift that can’t be explained or understood easily. And that elevation had nothing to do with the wearer, but with the maker.
Their scale was human, and sliding one’s feet in those sandals would seem so simple. Walking like Gandhi, however, is a different matter.
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