Hunger striking is an ancient Celtic tradition. In the Middle Ages it was given recognition in the Irish legal system. An individual who had a complaint against another would hunger strike on his doorstep, either until the dispute was settled, or until he died. If he died, the law recognised the justification of his grievance and the person who was the target of the protest action was required to pay compensation to the bereaved family. As such, hunger striking was an appeal of last resort; the ultimate stand on principle and an act of some nobility.
The tradition was maintained, or rather resuscitated, in the 20th century by the Irish Republican movement, which staged a series of hunger strikes, essentially in protest at British occupation of their island.
The most recent and famous example was the hunger strike by Bobby Sands and nine fellow Republicans who starved themselves to death on Margaret Thatcher’s doorstep over her refusal to grant them political status. The principles involved were perhaps more contentious, but history is also likely to give recognition to the nobility of their stand.
More recently, the hunger strike has been adopted as a weapon by South Africa’s right-wingers, with less obvious nobility. In 1992 we had three of their number “hunger striking” in pursuit of indemnity for murder. After abandoning their fast, it transpired that they had been secretly guzzling chocolate bars. Now we have the case of Willem Ratte.
There is no evidence that Ratte has been pigging on chocolate. But he is apparently taking sustenance in the form of glucose and vitamins. This raises a question as to what constitutes a hunger strike. Why stop at glucose and vitamins? He may as well have the occasional meal. Or emulate the example of some protesters from the Unionist side of the Irish struggle who, it used to be said, tended to hunger strike between breakfast and lunch.
More seriously, however, Ratte’s protest is compromised by the question of principle and by his failure to treat hunger striking as an avenue of last resort. As has been said, the early Celts used it as a means of final appeal. Even Sands and his comrades, whose paramilitary organisations denied British jurisdiction in the north of Ireland, exhausted their legal right of appeal before they went to their deaths.
Ratte has been invited by the government to make a bail application and lodge an appeal with the courts against his five-year sentence. He has refused to do so. The implication is that his purpose is not to gain redress for his grievance, but to make a mockery of the legal system and force the government into a humiliating back-down.
Ratte does have a grievance which many would regard as justifiable. His occupation of Fort Schanskop was a non-
violent, political protest, even though he was convicted of storing explosives there. With many killers currently wandering around free on state pensions, it seems invidious that Ratte should be serving five years for a minor (some would say comic-opera) incident in which nobody was hurt.
But that is a case to put to the Appellate Division. And if it fails there, it can be taken further by means of a petition for a presidential pardon. If all such appeals failed, we would view Ratte’s hunger strike with more sympathy. But until then we would suggest President Mandela keep his nerve and ignore the man on his doorstep.