Penal discourse and imprisonment in South Africa : an examination of the evolving discourse surrounding imprisonment in South Africa, from the colonial period to the post-apartheid era, and it's effects on the human rights of prisoners.
Peté, Stephen Allister.
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The focus of this thesis is on the evolving public discourse surrounding imprisonment in South Africa from the colonial period to the post-apartheid era, and its effects on the human rights of prisoners. Although the punishment of imprisonment has dominated the penal landscape for around 200 years it is clear that, in terms of its stated aims of reducing crime and rehabilitating criminals, it has proven to be an abject failure. The influential philosopher Michel Foucault maintains that the failure of this form of punishment was apparent from the very beginning of its rise to prominence in the Nineteenth Century. It turned out, however, that the very failure of the prison system – its propensity to "create" a class of criminals separated from the rest of society – was useful in the context of developing capitalist industrial societies. As a result, this form of punishment did not wither away, but continued in existence despite repeated crises and widespread public acknowledgement of its failure to reform criminals or to reduce crime. The above may be true of the manner in which imprisonment, as a form of punishment, evolved in France and in the developed world in general, but the question at the heart of this thesis is whether or not Foucault's theory holds true in the South African context. In other words, by carefully tracing the public discourse surrounding imprisonment in South Africa from the colonial to the post-apartheid periods, a primary aim of this thesis is to establish whether the evolution of imprisonment in South Africa follows the same pattern as that outlined by Foucault – a pattern of apparent "failure" from the very start, with regular and repeated, but ultimately futile, attempts at "reform". By showing that this is, in fact, the case – that the South African prison system has been lurching from crisis to crisis since its inception, with the same "solutions" being suggested from one decade to the next – this thesis suggests that the "problem" with imprisonment in this country lies at a structural and ideological level. If this thesis is correct, "reforming" the South African penal system will not be possible without completely rethinking imprisonment as a form of punishment at an ideological level. Precisely what such a rethinking might entail, this thesis leaves open for future scholarship. An important secondary aim of this thesis is to trace the evolution of penal ideology in the South African context. In other words, it sets out to trace the development of the perceptions and ideas which have underpinned the punishment of imprisonment in this country over its history. Starting in the colonial period and focusing in particular on colonial Natal, these ideas may be described as the articulation of the penal theories and assumptions of an industrialised metropolitan political economy – Great Britain – and those of a rural colonial political economy – the Colony of Natal. A unique ideology of racially defined punishment emerges strongly towards the end of the colonial period. Moving to the apartheid period, through a careful analysis of various themes which arise in the public discourse surrounding imprisonment, the thesis traces the penal ideology operating within a society rigidly segregated according to race. Finally, once again through a careful analysis of the public discourse surrounding imprisonment, the ideas and perceptions which underpin punishment within post-apartheid South Africa, are examined. The thesis thus provides a unique overview of the manner in which penal ideology has developed within a uniquely African setting, by tracing the evolution of a set of ideas reflected in public discourse. A tertiary aim of this thesis is to trace the manner in which the role played by imprisonment within the social, political and economic structure of the country as a whole, has changed over time – together with social, political and economic developments. The use of imprisonment as a mechanism of social control during various periods – particularly the colonial and apartheid periods – as well as the constant problems which arose within the South African penal system because of this, is particularly important. Finally, as part of a detailed analysis of the public discourse surrounding imprisonment in South Africa during specific periods in the colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid eras, this thesis examines selected themes and sub-themes which emerged at various times. Taken together, these themes and sub-themes provide a series of "snapshots" of what it was like to be imprisoned in South Africa at particular times in the country's history. A constant focus throughout the thesis is the manner in which the human rights of South African prisoners have been abused from the time that prisons rose to prominence in this country almost two centuries ago – to the present day. This thesis strives not to lose sight of the human suffering which has characterised imprisonment in South Africa from colonial times to the present.
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