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Football, Robben Island & The Relativism of Political Cruelty

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Monday, Jul 19, 2010
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President Zuma (right).

Well, the World Cup’s over and the teams and visitors have all gone home, but the afterglow of achievement hasn’t entirely faded for South Africans. The people of this struggling “rainbow nation”, especially its new president Jacob Zuma, can be deservedly proud of having successfully hosted this tremendous international sporting event. Over forty years ago Zuma was a player himself, in fact the captain of the Rangers club, one of the teams that made up the Makana Football Association, organized by the prisoners of South Africa’s notorious Robben Island state prison.

An article in the New York Times mentioned that in Robben Island “…soccer brought relief from the exhausting life of breaking rocks in a quarry. It conferred dignity on prisoners subjected to beatings and humiliating body searches.” An inmate, Lizo Sitoto who was imprisoned on Robben island from 1963 until 1978, claimed that “football saved many of us. When you were outside playing, you felt free, as if you were at home.”

Nelson Mandela was kept in an isolation unit and not allowed to play football, but it appears that he somehow managed to keep himself physically fit. On Thursday February 11, 1990, when he was released from Robben island and the whole world celebrated his freedom, some observers noticed how spry and energetic he looked in spite of his 27 years behind bars. His physical and mental fitness, was of course, in great part, the product of his own discipline, political focus and iron will.

But that same year I read an article in The Independent which described how the South African government was very careful with the health of prisoners on Robben Island. As brutal as life could be for the inmates, their diet was adequate and nutritious enough (though reportedly stodgy and unappetizing) and overseen by a government appointed dietician. The prisoners also had regular exercise routines and periodic medical check-ups.

I have interviewed or just talked to hundreds of Tibetans who had been incarcerated in Chinese prisons and labor camp, and no one has yet told me of playing football, basketball, or even taking part in any kind of basic recreational activity. The reason for this sedentariness was profoundly simple. The amount of food a Tibetan prisoner was allotted just about enabled breath to be kept in the body. But prisoners were also expected perform hard labor for twelve to fourteen hour daily, and after that to attend political re-education classes late into the evening. Of course, most of them quickly wasted away and died.

Many hundreds of thousand of Tibetans and millions of Chinese in prison and labor camps (laogai) were quite deliberately starved to death. This was an actual policy of the Chinese government. The death of many Tibetans through starvation, especially in the labour camps, did not happen because of natural events like crop failure or famines (though such catastrophes certainly made the situation worse) but were rather the result of a cold and calculated policy of the Chinese authorities to control prisoners and their productivity through slow starvation.

According to Jean Pasqualini (Bao Ruo Wang), who wrote the classic account on China’s labour camps, Prisoner of Mao, the Chinese authorities had developed the system to such a degree of efficiency and sophistication that Stalinist gulags and Nazi concentration camps were crude and unproductive by comparison. The Chinese did not have to resort to such primitive and wasteful ways of getting rid of people, like gas-chambers or bullets. Instead they simply starved a man to death, and during the time it took him to die, used the powerful incentives of slight variations in the wretched farce of a daily ration to extract the maximum amount of labour and submission out of him. It is probably as horrible a way to die as being gassed to death – and it takes a much longer time for a person to actually die.

Think about it. In the USA condemned criminals are regularly executed by gas or lethal injection, and a majority of the population doesn’t seem to have any problem with it. But if a prison warden deliberately starved a condemned man to death, don’t you think there would be a national outcry, even from hardcore death penalty advocates?

To relieve hunger pangs, prisoners in laogai camps drank so much hot water that their limbs and bellies swelled up with oedema and many died of the condition. Because of the shortage (and often complete absence) of tea or butter throughout the country even those Tibetans not in prison had to adopt the Chinese practice of drinking hot water (kai shui). Lhasa folks, in their mildly sarcastic way, dubbed it “socialist butter-tea” (chizo-ringlu nyakpa). The term nyakpa is used in particular to describe a full-flavoured tea with plenty of butter.

One Tibetan prisoner told me of picking undigested or partially digested grain from animal dung to flesh out his daily ration. Ama Adhe of Kanze told me of the giant labour camp she was sent to at Yakraphug in the high mountains of the baron of Gothan, north of Dhartsedo. The prisoners, about few thousand of them, were supposed to be mining lead, but when Ama Adhe got there most of the inmates were so weak with hunger that they only managed to crawl around the camp looking for scraps of anything edible on the ground. Those slightly healthier, and there weren’t too many of them, hobbled about, supporting themselves on sticks. Ama Adhe herself became so weak with hunger that the guards thought she was finished and they put her in a large pit with the dead bodies. But somehow she hung on to life. At one point, she tried to chew on a dried human corpse by her side but only hurt her teeth biting on the hard desiccated limb.

Even now prisoners in Tibet and in Chinese appear to be routinely underfed, though starving a person to break or eliminate him doesn’t appear to be the current policy of the penal system. But they have other methods, one being to lock you up in a cell with terminal TB cases, and keeping you there till your lungs show up a nice solid black on the X-ray machine. Your family is then contacted to take you away. The onus on the state of you dying in prison is hence neutralized. A more modern, even scientific way of breaking you is the subject of a whole book by Human Rights Watch* which I have discussed in my own work Buying the Dragon’s Teeth. Dissidents are locked up in state psychiatric units (Ankang) where you would be injected with an array of psychotropic drugs or, if the need arose even undergo psycho-surgery.

But the recent case of Karma Samdrup, sentenced to fifteen years in prison, seems to indicate that starvation, as a method to break prisoners, hasn’t entirely been relinquished in the PRC. Named “philanthropist of the year” in 2006 by CCTV, and embraced by the Chinese Communist Party for his environmental work and his willingness to give the government pieces from his art collection, Karma was arrested last August along with two of his brothers. He was brought before a People’s Court court in Xinjiang this year on 22 June. His wife Dolkar Tso wrote an appeal to the Chinese government which has been translated into English by highpeakspureearth.com.

Dolkar Tso and Karma Samdrup.

Karma was a big man, and Dolkar Tso writes that he was tall and heavyset even a “little chubby”. But when she saw her husband in the People’s Court she did not recognize him immediately as he had lost so much weight and had become “small and skinny”. He claimed that he had been beaten and tortured so that he bled from his orifices, and that he gone deaf in his left ear, probably from a blow that had ruptured the ear-drum. But he also said that he had not been allowed to sleep and “he had not been given any food.”

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*Munro, Robin. (August 2002). Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and its Origins in the Mao Era. New York and Geneva: Human Rights Watch/Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry.

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