He sat in his prison cell in yellow “detainee remand” pants and shirt.
The prison warders didn’t use his name; they simply said “prisoner”. But they watched this curious-looking young man, with his academic books scattered across the floor. The other inmates have no books – some play football or smoke dagga to pass the time – but Bonginkosi Khanyile (26) was there in his quiet cell, reading.
Khanyile was taken into police custody during the #FeesMustFall protests last year. He was a student leader in the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Student Command, which stood on the frontline of protests at the Durban University of Technology (DUT). He was arrested in September last year. After six months in Durban’s Westville Prison and multiple court appearances, the Constitutional Court finally ordered his release on bail in March.
There are eight charges against him, including public violence, participating in an illegal gathering and inciting violence. But after six months in jail, Khanyile has emerged victorious: he will graduate from the DUT cum laude after writing exams in prison for his national diploma in public management and economics.
During the student protests, the slogan “protest and pass” was widely echoed among the Fallists. Khanyile has surpassed the expectations of many, but he believes he could have done better if he had not been in jail.
“I dropped a little bit. I never performed at my normal [standard]. I’m sure if I wrote the final exams outside, I would have got the dean’s commendation, [which] is when your aggregate is very high,” he says.
He wrote to prison management to ask that he be moved into isolation so that he could focus on his studies. For the first month, he was in a crowded area with about 48 other inmates. The noise, squabbles and drug consumption crowded his mind.
For the next five months he was alone. He missed human interaction. Often, in his normal world, he would study with friends and they would have lively debates. He could stretch his legs in fresh air. In his bleak cell there were no such privileges – but there were books, strewn across the hard floor.
Prison was traumatic, he says. But he fought the depression he saw in other inmates by reading “revolutionary books”. The syllabus books, he says, were “colonised”.
He read Dikgang Moseneke’s autobiography My Own Liberator, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Oliver Tambo Speaks.
“Those stories, they bring about a reality that it’s you who’s in control of your mind,” Khanyile says.
“You can either choose to play soccer in prison, smoke woonga and dagga, or you can choose to say: ‘I’m also in prison, but this is not my final end. When I come out of here, I want to become better than I was yesterday.’”
Khanyile sneaked these books in by claiming they were part of his academic syllabus. The prison managers didn’t know any better.
Books aren’t usually allowed in jail cells, and neither are tables and chairs – apartheid-like conditions, says the young student leader.
“I scored some small victories there. I was able to fight for a chair and to also fight for a table. I was very celebrated because I was the only prisoner there in Westville who had a chair and a table inside his cell,” Khanyile says.
Initially, prisoners and warders were wary of Khanyile. Inmates believed he was a sellout or a spy, sent to watch them. Warders had heard that he’d assaulted police. They thought that when he was arrested he had bombs hidden in a bag.
“They expected to meet a rebel who’s anti-progress and anarchic. But when I came, when they saw me reading books, they couldn’t believe that. I got a chance to engage them.”
Police and students have had an uneasy relationship since the #FeesMustFall protests, in which teargas and stun grenades were used. Khanyile says students fear going to jail, and his imprisonment has made the possibility more real for protesters.
His time in jail has strengthened his resolve. “If you really believe in your ideas and you go to prison for your ideas, then you have two options: either you surrender or you continue with the struggle.”
His experience with the judicial system has led him to consider studying law. “I dislike the judiciary by its nature, but when I went to prison I saw a great necessity of going into the judiciary.”
He claims an Afrikaans magistrate at the Durban magistrate’s court had considered him dangerous because of the number of supporters that packed the courtroom. At the Constitutional Court, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was less wary.
“With one Constitution, one judge can send you to prison, while another one can set you free,” he says. “The Constitution depends on who is reading that Constitution.”
Khanyile will graduate on May 9. A pretrial conference is set for May 12, when he will be back in court.