The hunger strike has ended

The last remaining hunger striker, Section 29 detainee Zelile Zwane, resumed eating at 11am yesterday after 29 days without food. He had earlier appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court charged with several offences. According to his lawyers Ismael Ayob and Associates, Zwane, 23, faces charges of possessing firearms, ammunition and explosives, and attempted murder. This meant that his demand to be charged or released bad been met.

According to the Human Rights Commission, there are now no more detainees on hunger strike anywhere in the country. Since the protest began on February 14 about 900 Emergency detainees have been freed. A representative of the Law and Order Department, Brigadier Leon Mellet, said on Tuesday that fewer than 100 detainees were still being held under the Emergency regulations. Six weeks ago Vlok told parliament that between Febuary 16 and March 2, 235 Emergency detainees had been released and the release warrants of another 400 had been signed. Another 400 people were in detention. This indicates that a total of about 1 000 were being held before the hunger strike started – suggesting that about 900 have now been released.

According to Mark Swilling of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Policy Studies, there are signs that the spate of releases has exacerbated the conflict between two of the central pillars of state power. He quoted sources within the National Party as saying that the hunger strike was a major factor leading to a shift in the balance of power between the once all-powerful State Security Council and the cabinet. The strike reached its climax when the State President, PW Botha, was convalescing after his stroke. Vlok took the dilemma of how to handle have hunger strike to the State Security Council which decided against released the detainees, Swilling said. He said the cabinet met the next day and overruled the SSC decision for the first time in Botha' s 11-year rule.

In recent years the cabinet has tended to rubber-stamp SSC decisions on key security-related issues. "This might indicate the beginning of a National Party re-assertion of its political power over the securocrats," said Swilling. "If this is the case, the hard-line security strategies of the past may be softened, but the optimists are wrong if they think that FW de Klerk will dismantle them altogether."  Human rights groups have welcomed corned the releases, but have warned that the state is finding new ways of restricting the political freedom of its opponents.

According the Human Rights Commission, most of those released been issued with restriction orders under the Emergency regulations, under the Emergency regulations with some former detainees being held under virtual house arrest. About 700 detainees are believed to be subject to restrictions in South Africa, most having to report to police stations daily and having remain into doors for at least 12 hours a day. "We see what has happened as a great victory for detainees," said HRC representative Audrey Coleman. "Through their united action from within their detention cells, they were able to expose the whole system of detention without trial." But, she warned, the restriction orders not only prevented many former detainees from earning a living, "and in some cases even living with their spouses", but also exposed them to new dangers.

On Wednesday, seven Eastern Cape detainees became the first group of former hunger strikers to be released without restriction orders, report Karen Evans and Sizwe Zondanl. The released detainees include the former national president of the now banned Congress of South African Students, Lulu Johnson; Cosatu's Eastern Cape general secretary, Dennis Neer; the general secretary of the restricted National Education Crisis Committee, Ihron Rensburg; and Port Elizabeth Youth Congress leader and Idasa worker Monde Mtanga. Six of the seven had been held for almost the full two years and 10 months of the national State of Emergency.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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