Lesson from South Africa for Palestine: Support the political prisoners

Last week, I discussed with Ghadija Vallie the lessons learned from resistance in apartheid South Africa, particularly involving political prisoners. Ghadija coordinated the Western Cape Relief Fund that supported prisoners on Robben Island, a maximum security prison for political prisoners in apartheid South Africa. Vallie also worked with most prisons in the Western Cape province and visited political prisoners on death row. 

Ghadija Vallie

Adri Nieuwhof

The Western Cape Relief Fund (WCRF) was founded in 1985 when the apartheid regime once again declared a State of Emergency. Ghadija acted as a coordinator between lawyers, detained persons and their families, NGOs and donors. People of diverse backgrounds who were committed to the resistance joined forces to build the WCRF from scratch. The European Community supported the work of the WCRF through the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. I was involved in providing this support.

South Africa persecuted anti-apartheid activists under section 29 of the Internal Security Act. Ghadija tells me: “Normally the South African forces came during the night while people were asleep, when they are the most vulnerable. They would be taken from their homes and detained. People could disappear without a trace. They could be held in solitary confinement, were tortured. Then after months, people could suddenly appear in court or were traced in a hospital.” 

The detention-related practices in apartheid South Africa under section 29 are similar to Israel’s practice of administrative detention. The WCRF was founded to meet the needs of detainees held under section 29. The climate changed when the State of Emergency was declared in July 1985. “We decided to serve these prisoners as well. If possible, the WCRF would pay for the bail of activists who were awaiting trial. The fund evolved into an organization that served all political prisoners and their families.” 

I showed Vallie letters I received from Palestinian prisoners, including a letter from Ali. He wrote: “I was surprised when I got your letter, because it didn’t take a long time as the ‘prison time’, where is no value for time. (..) I became 46 years old and 23 years of my life I’m in prison, so I am enough experienced.(..) Today, we live with eight prisoners in cells of about 20 square meters. The cell includes a bathroom and shower. We have to stay in the cell 20 hours a day. We eat, sleep, watch television, study, have a bath, …all in the same cell. But all those years, hope still exists.” 

Vallie comments: “Why do we keep talking about Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison. Why don’t we speak about the Palestinian political prisoners who are also spending so many years in jail?”

I asked Vallie about campaigns in support of the South African political prisoners. She explained that there was an ongoing “Release the Detainees Campaign”. “Our political leaders from inside and outside South Africa gave directions for the campaigns. We called for the release of our leaders since the 1950s. Prisoners went on hunger strike. It is important that prisoners know that they are not forgotten. We did a lot of work for women and child prisoners; they are more vulnerable.”

Hunger strikes have also been used by Palestinian prisoners to protest against Israel’s prison regime. Ali wrote me about the hunger strike in 1992: “At that time we were 13,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. Twenty days we did not eat or drink anything except water. One of my friends from Jerusalem died at the last day of the strike. Our demands were to improve our life conditions in prisons, such as studying at open university (to be paid for by our families). The food was so bad we demanded to improve it and to raise the amount of it because it was not enough for us. For example, I was suffering from malnutrition. I still suffer from its consequences.”

Vallie thinks that support by South Africans in exile for resistance differed from that of Palestinians today. For example, exiled ANC members protested in front of South African embassies. Kader Asmal, who died this year, played a key role in the International Defence and Aid Fund that raised financial support for the political prisoners, tells Vallie.

She continues: “Sometimes activities just happened. For example, when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s son went missing in the desert during the Paris-Dakar rally in 1982, Thatcher asked people to pray for him. At that time, women with relatives in detention or awaiting trial held a meeting in Cape Town. One woman said: ‘Thatcher is crying for one child, but we are crying for a nation of children who are held in prison.’ On the spot we decided to march to the British embassy and deliver that message to Thatcher.”

“When family members of prisoners or ex-detainees came to my office to ask for support, we cried together. Then I would say, ‘What can you do to change it?’ And people became active, protested outside court and detention centers, informed the media, and found ways to communicate with the prisoners inside. It is so important that prisoners know that they are not forgotten. I found ways to deliver messages to prisoners on Robben Island. Some guards were helpful. I am still in touch with Christo Brand, Nelson Mandela’s prison guard who became a friend of Mandela”, says Vallie.

“The Palestinian people need to tell us how they feel which support should be given. They know, they live under oppression, they feel the pain. They must drive the vehicle to change this”, adds Vallie. “Sometimes the vehicle needs a bit of a push. International solidarity activists can assist in the pushing of the vehicle.” 

This week, Palestinian prisoners announced the start of a campaign of disobedience to protest an escalating series of punitive measures taken against them by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) in recent months. Prisoners have decided to undertake a hunger strike on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday of every week beginning this week. Prisoners have also declared that their campaign will include a range of other forms of disobedience, including refusal to wear prison uniforms, to participate in the daily roll call, or to cooperate with any other IPS demands. Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association calls for solidarity with the striking prisoners. Let’s give the vehicle a push!




On 27 September, Addameer called for solidarity with the striking prisoners mentioned in this article. You can find our statement here: http://addameer.info/?p=2244#m....

Addameer will continue to provide updates on the strike, which so far is taking place in Nafha, Ramon, Naqab and Ashqelon Prisons. These updates will be published on our website (www.addameer.info) and on our Facebook page. Please join us in supporting the prisoners!


First, I want to say that I strongly support the call for civil disobedience among detainee. That being said, I think this specific article is based on some faulty analogies. I've studied the system of "administrative detentions" in the OPTs for several years, and have also published on the topic. I don't think we can argue against the system if we don't first have a proper understanding of what it really is, how it works, and in what contexts it can/cannot be implemented.

The literal definition of “administrative detention” is detention carried out by an administrative power and not by a judicial power or authority. Administrative detention is not a substitute for criminal arrest: the putative goals of administrative detention are not arrest, trial, conviction or punishment but to prevent an action that may or may not take place in the future.

In Israel and the OPTs, there are three distinct forms of detention by admin order: 1) administrative detention with the intent of deporting the detainee; 2) detention within Israel under the Administrative Detention Law; and 3) detention of “unlawful combatants."

In general, the legal structure supporting these kinds of detentions derives from (and is often a mere extension of) the legal order promulgated under the British mandatory period. This legal structure is different in both form and content from the one instantiated under apartheid. It is important that those differences not be elided simply because it makes for a good rhetorical punchline.

If you're looking for a good and helpful comparative example, I would suggest looking at the system of administrative detentions authorized under Egypt's emergency law. Like Israel and the OPTs, the Egyptian emergency law (and especially the clause pertaining to administrative detentions) is also largely derived from the legal order of British Mandatory rule.

I have much more to say on the subject, so feel free to leave questions if you wish.


While all those points may be of great importance to jurists – and thank you for them – they probably don’t make that much difference to the experience of prisoners, their families and those in solidarity. In any case, we recently published a detail article on the experience of one Palestinian family with administrative detention and it provides a lot of the legal background: Israeli “administrative detention” punishes entire family


The comparison is indeed based on what it means for detainees and their families. Under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act people could be detained for committing or intending to commit crimes ranging from terrorism to the promotion, by certain secified means, of constitutional, political, social or economic change in South Africa. People could be detained without an arrest warrant and could be held indefinitely. It was the apartheid regime's intention to preclude any form of judicial intervention on behalf the detainee. Any police officer of or above the rank of luitenant-colonel had the power to detain activists under section 29. Do remember that Nelson Mandela and many others were branded as a "terrorist" for their resistance against apartheid.

Jeff Handmaker and I also wrote about the use of administrative detention by Israel in 2005.


I think Opposing the views expressed in the article on the basis of an academic argument is a red herring. It only serves to detract from the reality that lived experiences of Palestinian detainees & their families in Israel mirror and are often worse than those of apartheid South. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid with a father held for ten years as a terrorist on Robben Island brings a familiar ring to the Palestinian experience described in the article. I find it unfortunate that such painful human experiences can be reduced to an academic debate about the meaning of 'administrative detention'.


I read the letter of demands by the comrades and I thought of you. Comrade prisoners, I see you. I feel your strength, your determination in the core of your being. I salute you. A luta continua. May sweetness, light and beauty be your friend.

Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh