Recently, while reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk To Freedom,” a very tragic thought came to mind and that was: Apartheid is still alive and kicking right here in the U.S.A. If anyone has ever read about Apartheid in South Africa (the systematic segregation and oppression of Blacks), or simply heard about it, I’m sure there is no denial of how horrific this system was. Infact, it was one that ran a parallel image to the racial disparities Blacks faced here in America. The similarities between these two systems continue even until today.
While African-Americans gained partial “visual victories” against Laws like Jim Crow in the mid-1900’s, Blacks in South Africa would not gain these victories until 1989 when President F. W. deKlerk, due to the persistent struggle of the ANC and the masses of Black South Africans began to dismantle Apartheid. However, it wouldn’t be until 1994 that democratic elections would be instated among Blacks there. “One Man One Vote” became the right demanded by the oppressed.
After studying Mandela’s book I’ve come to see that Apartheid lives on disguised and unseen from the people in this society. While I’m personally familiar with the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC – which will be analysed in this article), and recognize it as one of the most racist prison systems in the U.S., it is not the only prison living on the long legacy of atrocities and oppression. This ideology is shared all through the U.S.A. The semblence of rehabilitation has been abandoned by the American government. Punishment and cruelty is open and blatant. It’s obvious that the mass media constantly broadcast crime, violence and fear of terrorism to manipulate the people in society into believing that such a repressive system is needed. However, this cycle is a purposeful scheme to preserve a classist and racist regime in America and we would be fools to think otherwise. Let me unravel the legacy of Apartheid thriving in America.
Under the Apartheid prison system inmates were classified in 1 of 4 categories: A, B, C, and D (A being the best and D the worse. Political prisoners were automatically placed under level D upon arrival). In TDC there are levels 1, 2 and 3 (1 being the best and 3 the worse). Through punishment these levels act as a behavior control system. On the best level of both systems inmates were able to receive money from their families, buy books and food. They had slightly more freedom to move around and mingle. The chance to buy food was a great benefit considering the Apartheid diet consisted mainly of “mealies” (corn kernels). It’s a benefit for prisoners in the U.S. also as meals, for example like in Texas, are constantly flooded with undercooked pork and horded of beans and potatoes. Level D’s were allowed only 1 visitor and could write and receive only 1 letter every 6 months. Through the U.S. Penal Institutions the repressive rules vary, some allow prisoners to only write between 5 and 10 people. Under the Apartheid system officials were adamant on keeping political prisoners separated for fear that they would incite rebellion in the other prisoners. Many U.S. prisons prevent inmates from writing to each other for similar reasons. In Texas, level 2 and 3 inmates mirror the restrictions of the Apartheid prisoners as level 3’s can only get 1 visit a month and level 2’s only 2 visits a month.
The wide hypocricy of this rule, specifically to those on death row, is upon being sentenced to death a jury of 12 agreed that the prisoner could not be rehabilitated in anyway. Contradiction is weaved in the fabric of the Judicial System in America. While rehabilitation is truly not desired or expected, when faced with punishment by the extraction of privileges, and in many cases by force, inmates do reform their behaviors. Unfortunately, the downside to these methods, which are void of counselling and treatment is, it brews anger in the inmates towards the system and society which supports, thus keeping the cycle of violence going and the doors to prisons revolving.
Visitation was a divide and conquer method. Visits in both systems were held in small cubicles where you are separated from your loved ones. Prisoners had to talk through holes drilled in the glass, or cage wire (some prisons today have installed phones). Robben Island, where Mandela and his comrades were imprisoned, stood several miles away from the shore of Africa. Most prisons are built far into the country to dissuade family and supporters from reaching the prisoners so easily. Texas, being the biggest state in the U.S., is home to nearly home to 130 prisons, many being scattered in the wood and empty terrains. With so many prisons, Texas has even rented out housing to prisoners from other states, thus another example of how the Industrial complex is an Imperialist venture. As Mandela noted, “The remoteness of the prison made the authorities fell they could ignore us with impunity. They believed that if they turned a deaf ear to us we would give up in frustration an t the people on the outside would forget about us.”
Wars were waged on a deeply rooted mental plane. Harassment became a weapon to inflict mental anguish. Prisoner’s mail, under Apartheid, was constantly scrutinized and censored with razors and sometimes flatout denied to them. The same is experienced today, just without the usage of razors. Grievances against decrepit living conditions were never investigated and corrected. Prisoners were considered sub-human and they were to suffer their sentences out. The living quarters of prisoners then were extremely small and overcrowded, ill-equipped, insect ridden, plagued with leaking ceilings, sewage back-up and more. Today you can find these exact same conditions at prison units all across the U.S. Prison administrations have always been guileful when humanitarian organizations and officials would visit the prison. On those days better clothing would be issued, the prison would be cleaned up and even better meals served to carry out the illusion with success. These are common tactics still used by U.S. prisons to deviously pass their inspections. The list goes on and on and as it goes it only paints the picture of the twin systems of atrocities.
While Mandela and fellow ANC members were on Robben island they took a stance against their oppressors. This wasn’t done through violence, but a persistent defiance through not submitting to the sub-human conditions. Advocates of the present unequal system propagate how these prisons aren’t so bad or how ones did the crime and must do the time. Others find solace in making references to how there are prisoners harbouring under far worse conditions in underdeveloped countries and how U.S. prisoners should be thankful. These same people want to be congratulated as citizens of the most advanced country in the world, yet their comments don’t meet that bar; and they wonder how/why this society continues to decay. If people in this country continue to rate it by the worst of other countries this country will never rise to the best it can be. Mandela made a passionate statement about struggling against these conditions when he said: “The campaign to improve conditions in prison was part of the Apartheid struggle. It was, in that sense, all the same: we fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large or how small, and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity.”
I reciprocate those thoughts, but until prisoners, along with the concern and support of society as a whole, decide to take a fervent stance, the well-being of this country will remain in the face of peril.
The similarities of Apartheid does not stop with Prisons, it extends right into the make-up of society. Today, under the Bush administration, the Apartheid regime has come into play full force. Under Apartheid, the South African government could oust Black residents from their homes simply by declaring that area a “White Area.” The legacy of segregation has been long lived through urban ghettos. There was 2 Laws-the 1967 Terrorism Act and the Ninety-Day Detention law which waived the right of habeas corpus and empowered any police officer to detain any person without a warrant on grounds of suspicion of a political crime. We have the same Law today called The Patriot Act! Blacks, and other people of color, often face harassment and abuse under many different laws. Then, banning laws kept Blacks from visiting people or placed them on house arrest. Today, we have the same and youth are targeted in their communities, many times simply for fitting a stereotypical description. In November of 1992, as plans to instil a democratic government were taking place, evidence was unearthed of the Apartheid government being involved in the murders of political activist. Most famous was the slaughter of ANC members by a group called Inkatha. This group was rumoured to be funded by the South African government to carry out these slaughters. Haiti experienced this same fate as the U.S. helped carry out a coup there, but the U.S. government has been an expert on assassination since murdering Black leaders in the 60’s under FBI program COINTELPRO:
There came a time in South Africa’s history when the conditions there could no longer be tolerated and the ANC was not only successful in creating a militant faction, Unkhonto We Sizwe (The Spear of The Nation), but they mobilized the people to overthrow their heinous oppressors. Unfortunately, we Blacks in the U.S. cannot say the same; and the jingle of the shackles still accompany our every step. The ANC realized that, “at a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire, “and that “the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.” Today, we see too many of our so-called “freedom/justice fighters” taking orders and allying themselves with our antagonist. They have added to extinguishing the fire of revolution that our true liberation fighters once stated. Many prisoners have suffered the same ailment and thus can’t get the over-seers boot off their throats.
What the ANC had was the willingness to suffer and sacrifice, even if that meant death, but the doses of materialistic morphine that America administers to its citizens have part of the masses subdued while the other half is so bombarded by poverty and violence that the struggle to just stay clothed, fed and protected is the most demanding aspect of their lives. Through the ruling class painting the picture to the middle class Americans that their problems come from those below them they have been successful in deflecting the fear and discotent or middle class Americans, and their possible opposition. “By dividing each, they’ve conquered both,” as Frederick Douglas put it.
Apartheid doesn’t have to exist today. We must remember that Struggle is not an overnight process or victory. We have to be it in the long run with a firm commitment to win. This means years of dedicated educating, organizing and sacrifices. African-Americans have not achieved liberation. We suffer from the same atrocities as we always have, it’s just implemented in a more advanced way. Mandela laid the blueprint out for us to follow and while we’ve taken extraordinary steps within oppressive America, until we mimic the ANC struggle we still will have a long walk before getting to true FREEDOM!