South Africans are set to launch a 24-hour hunger strike at 6pm in solidarity with the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners. Picture: Nasser Nasser/AP
Johannesburg – Former Robben Island political prisoners, as well as ordinary South Africans, are set to launch a 24-hour hunger strike at 6pm on Tuesday in solidarity with the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners, which is now on day 16.

The Kathrada Foundation is calling on South Africans to join the 24-hour hunger strike as an act of solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners, who are engaged in a hunger strike for better prison conditions, such as food, medical care and family visits.

The symbolic show of solidarity is part of the Global Day of Action. Ordinary Palestinians will be engaging in a similar hunger strike on May 15 and 16 in solidarity with the political prisoners.

“The Kathrada Foundation is also calling on South Africans to participate in the May 15 hunger strike and pickets are planned to take place outside all of the nine South African provincial legislatures to ask parliamentarians to express their solidarity with the hunger strikers,” said spokesperson of the Kathrada Foundation Zaakirah Vadi.

Students at the University of Manchester in Britain have already been on a hunger strike in solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners since last Thursday.

Hunger strikes by political prisoners in apartheid South Africa proved an effective means to improve prison conditions.

“There were 69 of us who engaged in a 10-day hunger strike under the first State of Emergency in 1985 in Diepkloof Prison, against poor food, dirty blankets and bad prison conditions,” veteran Struggle stalwart Laloo Chiba said.

Chiba was incarcerated for 18 years on Robben Island and served in the isolation section with Nelson Mandela.

“During the 1985 hunger strike we were tempted with food by the prison warders, better food than we were usually given, such as yoghurt, but none of us touched it,” Chiba said. “After 10 days we ended the strike, as the apartheid prison service began to address our demands.”

The Palestinian political prisoners have also been tempted with food in an attempt by prison authorities to break the current hunger strike.

Luay Akka, from the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs, said that the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) has been confiscating salt that hunger strikers have been using to balance their health amid the strike, and that prison officers have also been taunting prisoners by placing food in front of them, which Akka has denounced as “psychological torture”.

IPS spokesperson Hana Herbst responded to the accusation, saying that “prison staff offer the prisoners meals and some of the hunger strikers choose to eat,” claiming that the practice has lowered the number of hunger striking prisoners to under 1000.

Prisoners in Ofer have reported that IPS officers have confiscated their clothes, leaving them with only their prison uniforms that they are permitted to wash just once a week.

They have also been deprived of access to cold water, despite the warm weather, according to Akka. “We were never punished for engaging in hunger strikes either on Robben Island or in other prisons,” Chiba said.

“Our clothing was never taken from us and while they initially tried to take away our sugar, which we were adding to our water during the strike, they returned it after a day. In the 1985 strike we would drink three mugs of warm water a day, each with a teaspoon of sugar. Our Struggle was a picnic compared to that of the Palestinians, theirs is a very difficult struggle.”

Israel’s internal security minister, Gilad Erdan, earlier said over army radio that 300 hunger strikers had “agreed to take food without having obtained their demands”.

He added that 920 Palestinian prisoners remained on the hunger strike.

However, Qudwa Faris, head of the prisoners unit in Palestine, denied the Israeli claim, saying in a telephone interview that all 1500 Palestinian prisoners were continuing with the hunger strike.

Independent Foreign Service