In March 1956, Nelson Mandela received a banning order for his activism with the African National Congress—already the third order he received of this kind, though well before his sentence to life imprisonment at the end of the Rivonia Trial in 1964. As he recounts in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, “For the next sixty months I would be quarantined in the same district, seeing the same streets, the same mine dumps on the horizon, the same sky.” This five-year period of house arrest ran concurrent to the Treason Trial, in which 156 activists, himself included, were accused of planning to overthrow the state. All were eventually acquitted. What is important here, however, is that political life continued. Mandela did not go silent, nor did he stop organizing for a coming revolution. Being quarantined was not the end of politics, but a time for the regeneration of politics—a lesson that can be applied to our current moment.
Versions of quarantine are not uncharacteristic of political struggle; they are an indispensable feature of it. The exile of Lenin, the imprisonment of Gramsci, and the incarceration of Angela Davis, among many examples, underscore the urgency of this fact. The practice of medical quarantine under COVID-19, which has been forcibly imposed in countries like China, Italy, and South Africa, while still remaining voluntary in the US, Britain, and elsewhere, is different in scope and purpose from these preceding political examples. It has been underscored that social distancing and self-isolation at home amount to a new form of class and racial privilege under emergency conditions, with medical, sanitation, and transportation workers, many of whom remain on the frontlines of the crisis, being unable to adhere to these safety measures for reasons of social urgency and economic livelihood. This developing form of pandemic inequality should not be disregarded. Neither should a global rise in domestic violence nor episodes of state brutality committed in imposing quarantine in South Africa, Uganda, and elsewhere be ignored.
Against this backdrop, and in contrast to expressions of isolation, of being alone, we should recognize the long, if scattered and seldom synthesized, history of quarantine politics and its potential for emergent forms of solidarity. Taking such a stance isn’t to equate the present with the past, but to learn from the past and put the present in context. This recognition can reframe what is at stake. Apart from arguments against quarantine made several weeks ago by the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who viewed it as only enabling an authoritarian “state of exception,” we should recognize instead that the time of quarantine can equally facilitate a collective effort against such state measures; that united actions are essential for establishing and sustaining solidarity against the aforementioned issues of eviction, police brutality, and the reinforcement of social inequities. Quarantine is not a political interregnum, but a time requiring innovative forms of critical engagement and activism.
In the case of South Africa, Mandela was not alone, of course. For countless anti-apartheid activists, political quarantine was a stark rite of passage across generations. To be banned, placed under house arrest, or imprisoned following the passage of the Suppression of Communism Act (1950) and related legislation from the 1950s through the 1980s meant that you were doing something right. These actions by the National Party government were designed to blunt the momentum of the struggle, and in the short term, it worked. A number of leaders and activists passed away prematurely in these circumstances. Both Albert Luthuli and Robert Sobukwe died under house arrest. Rick Turner was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet while under house arrest. Steve Biko broke his banning order, which led to his arrest and death at the hands of the Special Branch.
But, in the long term, such measures failed. A different form of politics took hold—critical, tactical, and creative—that continued to undermine the dictates of white minority rule. These quarantine politics remain instructive. Indeed, rather than turning to so-called “pandemic literature” while under the confinement of COVID-19, the writing and memoirs of these activists and others can provide not only a salve, but also a framework for enduring the uncertainties of the political present.
Beyond the autobiography of Mandela are many accounts of imprisonment and house arrest that detail not only the experience and mechanisms of political oppression in microcosm, but also the critical and creative agency that could take hold under such conditions. During his five-year banning order starting in 1962 for membership in the South African Communist Party (SACP), when he, too, survived an assassination attempt by an unknown government assailant, Alex La Guma wrote his short novel And a Threefold Cord and drafted his later novel The Stone Country. These two works of fiction depicted the plight of shack dwellers and political prisoners, respectively, thus contributing to the struggle by amplifying to an international audience the systemic racism and repression of ordinary life in South Africa.
Another example is fellow SACP member Ruth First, who wrote about her detention without trial (for possession of illegal propaganda) in her prison memoir 117 Days. As Angela Davis emphasizes in the introduction to a recent edition of the book, First sought to depict her personal story of incarceration in such a way that it would be emblematic of “a radical community of resistance.” First herself was married to Joe Slovo, a leader of the SACP who, along with Mandela and the ANC, established Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC-SACP alliance. Published in London shortly after her release and departure for exile, 117 Days outlines the perils and absurdities of detention: the precarious routine of police interrogation, the perversity of racial segregation within the prison system, and the maddening passage of time. As her narrative proceeds, she incorporates the voices and histories of other imprisoned activists, creating a polyphonic text that decenters and exceeds her own detainment. Yet her account retains an immediacy throughout. The psychological torture of questioning and misinformation eventually lead her to a mental breakdown. As she writes at one point, regarding the dehumanization of incarceration, “Prisoners became the unnumbered, the nameless, the scattered, the lost.”
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela recounts a similar set of feelings in her dossier of journal entries, correspondence, and reflections collected in 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69. With regard to her detention and solitary confinement at the Pretoria Central Prison in 1970, she recalls, “I had horrible nightmares and woke up screaming in the night. I discovered I spoke aloud when I thought of my children and literally held conversations with them. I cried almost hysterically when I recalled their screams on the night of my arrest.” And yet, despite this harrowing experience, she boldly undertook the risk of breaking her house arrest in Brandfort during the late 1970s and early 1980s in order to recruit for the ANC. “Especially over the weekends, I would sign in at 6pm and then get back to the house, change, dress like an auntie who was selling apples and get into the car, a different car,” she remembers. “I sometimes went to Soweto. I recruited right through the night in Soweto from Brandfort.”
Unlike a certain rhetoric at present, the lesson to be drawn from these stories is not that a sense of normality should persevere, nor that a status quo should be returned to in the future. Rather, it is to recognize and seize upon the ways in which the experience of confinement can further reveal the structures of social injustice and cultivate sharper critical sensibilities toward such systemic conditions. Embracing this lesson in the present is not to imply that the medical quarantine under COVID-19 is the same as a five-year house arrest, or a sentencing of life imprisonment under the apartheid regime. But neither should the understanding, creativity, and communal endurance of political life under these former conditions be marginalized or overlooked.
Ruth First was later assassinated in 1982 by a letter bomb in Maputo, Mozambique. Alex La Guma died from a heart attack in Havana, Cuba, where he lived in exile as the ANC representative for the Caribbean and Latin America. Unlike Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, they never lived to see the achievement of non-racial democracy in South Africa, despite its flaws in the present. Nonetheless, as with Lenin, Gramsci, and Davis, these activists together recognized the ongoing importance of organizing, of the continuing possibilities of political solidarity, that political quarantine was not a time of inaction, but a time of attention, planning, and continued discipline, whatever the cost, if not under conditions of their choosing. Such focus and collective insistence are needed now as we confront measures of social repression in the COVID-19 era, whether evictions among informal settlements in Durban, anti-LGBT arrests in Uganda, or the recurrence of anti-Asian violence in the US.
Mandela captured this potential, his commitment to it, and his acceptance of the indeterminacies of time in a poignant moment contained in a letter to Winnie, during his period of imprisonment on Robben Island. Dated November 16, 1969, he wrote, “Already the months you spent in detention have been a severe test for you and when you come to the end of the case, you will have got a deeper understanding of human nature and its frailties and what human beings can do to others once their privileged position is endangered.”
Just over two decades later, his own test would come to an end.