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Political Prisoners in Azania

Poster calling for the release of all political prisoners in Azania (South Africa)

Any discussion about Azania has to start with an anti-colonial understanding of that region of Southern Africa. First, Azania is the original and proper name for the country commonly known as South Africa. Pan-Africanist formations like the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), as well as Pan-Africanists worldwide, have been calling Azania that for decades. Speaking through an anti-colonial lense, the name South Africa clearly represents one imposed by those from Europe who invaded the country and have occupied it for centuries.

Second, like with any settler colony i.e. the United States, Australia, occupied Palestine (better known as Israel), any analysis about incarceration in Azania – who is incarcerated, and why – has to start with a strong anti-colonial focus. Without such a focus we are left with subjective anecdotal perspectives instead of historically based critical analysis.

Certainly, even in 2022 and beyond, any analysis about incarceration within Azania has to be framed by the intrusion of European colonialism into Africa. The British, Germans, Dutch, etc., colonized Azania hundreds of years ago and imposed one of the most vicious and anti-human systems in human history. The system of apartheid, which was according to its colonialist defenders, heavily influenced by the racist segregation systems imposed within the U.S. against the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, existed as the law of the land for generations. Apartheid as a system in Azania legalized racial oppression. Africans were forced to live, work, and exist, only within conditions sanctioned by the racist colonizers and the systemization of this process was institutionalized by requiring every African to carry documents confirming their status 24/7/365. Being caught without these documents – commonly known as the passbook – meant immediate imprisonment and even death. It’s important to note that the attractiveness of Azania to the colonizers (like all of Africa) was the vast potential of wealth that exists there. Diamonds, gold, steel, zinc, etc., are all plentiful in Azania and by controlling the country, the emerging European capitalists understood they could and would control the entire planet. This history is important because it framed the basis for how incarceration worked and continues to work in Azania.

During the anti-apartheid movement years of the 50s through the 80s, the colonial government in Azania practiced systemic brutalization of the African masses as daily policy and their ability to do this was supported 100% by the imperialist U.S., Britain, Zionist Israel, etc. Many of the world’s treasured national resources required to build automobiles and other motorized vehicles exist in Azania. The diamond and gold industries, much of which finances much of the national economy in occupied Palestine, are rooted in the existence of these natural resources in Azanian soil. Consequently, just as mass incarceration of Africans (and Indigenous people) in the U.S. is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining political and economic domination of the U.S., the same applies for colonial/capitalist control of Azania.

With this colonialist institutionalized narrative of Azania as the birthright of Europeans and their descendants, the African masses, the true caretakers of everything African, were reduced to being viewed as criminals and threats to the peaceful existence of European capitalist domination. Under this pretext, the daily brutalization and imprisonment of PAC, AZAPO, Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and African National Congress (ANC – when they were a liberation movement engaged in armed struggle against the racist regime) was accepted throughout the imperialist world as justified and necessary.

From the Rivonia trials of 1963/64 where ANC, PAC, etc., fighters, including Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela, were railroaded and incarcerated on a mass scale, the institutionalization of imprisoning Africans simply for standing up for our dignity is clearly operational throughout Azania. The South African Terrorist Act, as it was ironically called, came into existence in 1967 as the latest at that time of a number of terrorist policies instituted by the racist government. The purpose of this act was to serve as additional legal grounds to hunt and brutalize freedom fighters against racist apartheid. This act is significant because the definition of terrorism within the act was so broad that two or more people gathering to meet about the simplest of community concerns was often grounds to accuse any and everyone of suspected sabotage against the apartheid regime. As a result, thousands of Africans were routinely arrested, sent to trial, and imprisoned for nothing. This period from the 70s until the end of apartheid in the early l990s represented an extended period of mass terror for the African masses as everyone from BCM activist and leader Steve Biko to PAC leaders David and Elizabeth Sibeko to everyday people in Azania who were just trying to support their families were targeted by a racist and immoral government, backed by racist and immoral allies like the U.S. and so-called Israel.

Although apartheid as the law in Azania has ceased to exist since 1994, and the ANC, the former liberation movement against the apartheid regime, has been the governing body in Azania for this entire time, the institutional elements of mass incarceration in Azania are still alive and well in 2022 and beyond. According to statistics provided by the ANC government in 2019, the country had an overall population of approximately 59 million that year. Of that number, about 47 million are Africans. A little over four million are Europeans, five million are so-called “Coloured”, and the remainder are Asians and other nationalities. Keeping in mind those population statistics, a staggering 98% of the people incarcerated today in Azania are Africans and less than two percent are Europeans. Without question, this is a classic example of the ruling class writing history, with the oppressed classes being defined as the criminal element while the oppressive classes are designated as the “legitimate” occupiers of stolen land.

Although the liberation struggle in Azania has certainly taken on a much different character today than it had during the armed resistance years of the 60s, 70s, 80s, etc., we recall the words of former U.S. political prisoner Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) when asked about incarceration within the U.S. Ji Jaga stated that since the U.S. is an illegal settler colony built on exploiting the masses of people, everyone in prison, regardless of why or how they got there, is a political prisoner because in a society without systemic oppression, those people who are incarcerated who did commit so-called crimes would have had different options. So, it’s politics that defines people’s existence and Ji Jaga’s statement applies internationally.

In Azania, the continued legacy of African exploitation continues even with people in elected office who look like the African masses. If nothing else, this reality should help us understand clearly that the overwhelming preponderance of African imprisonment in Azania is a signal that our struggle, regardless of where we live, is one and until Africa is free, unified, and socialist, these challenges will continue to plague us. We say this because a free, united, and socialist Africa means an end to capitalist/imperialist domination of Africa, her resources, and her people, everywhere. It’s the vehicle that will finally force those descendants of the original European thieves who benefit from the exploitative system their forebears set up to race to catch flights, ships, and even kayak if they have to, back to Europe because our day of freedom and justice will have finally arrived.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.

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