Detainees during the liberation struggle


IN the mid-1960s, Rhodesian authorities unveiled new areas that were specially established to restrict and detain ‘subversive’ persons who, in the opinion of the Rhodesian Minister of Law and Order, presented a threat to the maintenance of law and order.
Reports from the National Archives of Zimbabwe on Ian Smith’s Hostages: Political Prisoners in Rhodesia and Amnesty International documents on: Campaigns for Detainees, 1967-1980 paint a gloomy, but brave picture of some of the living and now dead political detainees.
To accommodate the increased upsurge in African political detainees, Rhodesian authorities established three major centres of detention: Wha Wha Detention in February 1964, Gonakudzingwa Camp in April 1964, and Sikombela Camp in June 1965.
The geographical location of these detention centres was striking because they were all established in remote and inaccessible parts of the country.
Although Rhodesian authorities gave no reasons as to why they chose to establish detention centres for political offenders in such remote areas, the state’s intention was not lost to detainees. Gonakudzingwa, for instance, was in the extreme south eastern parts of Rhodesia, near the border with Mozambique.
It was exceptionally remote because it was located within the expansive wildlife zone of Gonarezhou, an area home to wild animals.
Before 1963 Rhodesian authorities only focused on detaining leaders of African political formations in existing prisons using laws such as the Unlawful Organisations Act (1959) or the Preventive Detention (Temporary Provisions) Act (1959) and there was no need to establish new detention areas.
After the declaration of an ‘Emergency’ in 1964 and the consequential arrests of hundreds of African political activists, newer centres of detention had to be established.
In addition to detention provisions in the Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA), the 1966 Emergency Powers (Maintenance of Law and Order) Regulations generated an enormous number of Africans detained for political reasons.
The purpose of detention, according to Rhodesia’s Minister of Law and Order was, to cut off African political activists from circulation in their communities.
Whereas previously, Rhodesian authorities could restrict political activists from entering or exiting certain areas in Rhodesia, newer and repressively sweeping security laws gave Rhodesian authorities the power to round up as many political activists as they could and detain them in specially designated detention centres.
As the Rhodesian Minister of Law and Order remarked: “Without the new emergency laws, I can do nothing except restrict him (meaning political activists) to an area, but with the emergency.
“I can put him in detention to keep him away and out of circulation.
“This is most necessary with saboteurs, because when we are investigating the cases of saboteurs they must obviously be kept out of circulation.”
Indeed, Rhodesian authorities used both detention and imprisonment to remove political activists from their communities and to suppress African political opposition to Rhodesian white minority rule.
However, whereas some political prisoners could hope to serve out their imprisonment terms and re-gain their freedom, the majority of ‘political offenders’ served with ‘Detention Orders’ and sent to detention under Rhodesia’s repressive LOMA faced indefinite confinement in remote detention centres across Rhodesia.
From the Rhodesian authorities’ perspective, the intended purpose of detention went beyond merely removing political activists from their communities.
Cut off from the outside political world by lack of basic means of information such as radios and newspapers, and lack of communication and limited visits, Rhodesian authorities hoped that detention would short-circuit the circulation of anti-colonial politics and ideas.
Out of sight, African political activists and their active supporters would no longer foment anti-colonial activities that had led to urban political unrest and rural peasant opposition.
However, far from being centres of isolation, detention spaces failed in their objective to completely isolate and cut off political activists from the political world of Rhodesia.
Despite Rhodesian authorities’ concerted attempts to physically isolate African political activists to remote spaces of detention, detention centres were spaces in which detainees actively negotiated their incarceration and challenged rules of detention.
Through re-organising the detention spaces themselves and through practices designed to take control of these spaces, detainees creatively negotiated significant say over the routines of their daily lives.
For example, instead of conforming to the dreary and disempowering monotony of detention life, African detainees took advantage of their captivity to empower themselves through academic and political education, political debate, and also developed powerful critiques of colonial rule through writings that were smuggled out of detention.
Second, contrary to contemporary opinion about the nature of detainees’ experiences, Rhodesian detainees were neither defenseless nor weak victims of Rhodesian
resistance, in particular, was key to the survival of these detainees and also accounts for the fact that detention failed to strip activists of their political commitments to the struggle for liberation.
Basically, resistance in detention meant securing basic conditions of mental and physical survival.
To do so, mental adaptation and resistance were key to detainees’ endurance.
Such things as defiance and various forms of protest against detention regulations constituted this type of resistance.
Acts employed by detainees to ensure physical and mental survival developed into a second type of resistance, that which responded to the negative and psychological effects of detention. For example, in order to resist the state’s attempts to render detainees intellectually, politically, and socially dead, detainees in Rhodesian detention centres developed an academic and political life within detention.
These were important forms of resisting the state’s intended purpose of prostrating African political detainees because
Detainees defined the nature and quality of detention life, as well as day-to-day organisation of the detention world.
Growing out of the resistance to survive, detainees struggled to maintain their political identity and activism in detention in order to shape politics inside and beyond the detention centres. Obtaining contraband news through smuggled radios or newspapers, for example, was a refusal to submit to the authorities and was a positive step towards challenging the ‘inside-outside’ divide that detention and confinement in general created.
Other detainees, particularly influential political leaders, were able to smuggle out political critiques of the colonial regime and even directed outside anti-colonial activities.
Indeed, political detention/imprisonment featured prominently as a method of choice for other colonial powers battling anti-colonial insurrection.
In Kenya, Caroline Elkins described the British detention sites of Mau-Mau political activists, the ‘world behind the wire’, as she called it, as spaces of ‘social death’.
The sheer number of Africans detained as a result of these laws was exacerbated by the fact that political detainees’ length of stay in detention centres was usually ‘indefinite’, meaning that, upon the expiration of a ‘Detention Order’, Rhodesian authorities could simply impose another order of detention.
The above Rhodesian Minister actually touted this aspect of detention as he was on record for having remarked in the Rhodesian parliament that, “every time he (the detainee) comes out, I can restrict him again.”
But their spirits were not dampened.


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