Mr. Daniels is one of the most powerful individuals I’ve had the privilege of hearing speak. I first listened to Daniels at the film series on October 28th, and again in the course ANT 220: Introduction of Cultural Anthropology on November 4.
With the ever growing influence of media, most Americans are no stranger to an ‘amazing’ story. Every day, we are told about incredible people, how they have survived a tragedy or changed the world. Sometimes, movies and books are made about these people, nearly de-sensitizing the viewer of these stories. I consider Daniels to be one fo these amazing people, having survived more than most can imagine, and he continues the fight for human rights today. This being said, I was not prepared for how different of an experience listening to him speak in person would be from hearing about his life from an outside source.
Daniels shared several stories, from both his youth and time in prison, and is very humble about his experience with the Liberal Party in South Africa. Born ‘colored’ in District 6 of Cape Town South Africa in 1941, the apartheid government had a strong impact on Daniels and his family. Unable to finish high school so he could work, Daniels had many jobs in his youth, including deep-sea fisherman, diamond miner, and photographer. However, Daniels saw the injustice that South Africans who were not labeled ‘white’ faced. Generation after generation of farm workers were paid in alcohol, forcing alcoholism to become a problem in many families and communities. Children, such as Daniels, could not finish school because their families needed them to work. Eventually, people were even forced out of their homes, because the white government would claim those districts as ‘white’ districts. This happened with District 6, forcing Daniels family to move from their home.
Wanting to make a difference and searching for people he relates to, Daniels begins to stand up against the government. This caused many of his friends to abandon him, no longer inviting him to parties or holidays. Looking for hope and a new group of friends, Daniels finds the Liberal Party in South Africa. The Liberal Party was a small group, only 56 people, compared to the large African National Congress, who had members such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. For three years, Daniels and the Liberal Party have great luck, until all 56 members were arrested and questioned for sabotage against the South African government. After being held in detention for 92 days, Daniels was tried and found guilty. Now, he was facing a 15 year sentence on Robben Island, Daniels did not know if he would survive.
During his 15 year sentence (1964-1979), Daniels in befriended by Nelson Mandela. A political prisoner on Robben Island, such as Daniels and Mandela, lived in much worse conditions than even a murderer. Daniels could only receive one letter and one visiter every six months; the letter no more than 500 words, the visit no more than half an hour. To sleep on, they had a thin mat and three thin blankets. Their cells had no more than a bucket, for a toilet, and these blankets which much remain folded during the day. Also, the black prisoners faced even worse conditions. Because the black prisoners were not served the daily bread the colored and Indian prisoners received, Daniels would help organize a redistribution of bread. Careful to avoid the guards, Daniels used a small hand mirror to watch the prison halls while he collected the bread to ration to all the prisoners.
Hearing Daniel’s share this story, about something so simple as daily bread, emphasizes exactly how wrong the apartheid was. How can a political prisoner be considered more dangerous than a murderer? However, this aspect of apartheid is shared by many governments, perhaps even the United States to an extent. Is a person who is a threat to the entire government more of a danger than a person who is a threat to other people? In the United States, the First Amendment allows its citizens the freedom of speech, assembly, press, and protest. These rights were not given to South Africans under apartheid, especially to any person who might have something negative to say against the government. Imagine if the thousands of college students in America protesting on the behalf of South Africans be placed in a small cell for 15 years. Thankfully, we do have these rights, but perhaps some injustice still exists. Is the killer of a political figure more dangerous than the killer of an average person? Their trial would certainly gain more press, and they may would likely receive a harsher sentence. How can the death of one person ever be considered more tragic than the death of another? Obviously, this is a very extreme scenario, but it still holds truth. These questions have no right answer, but we should not forget how easily the extremist government in South Africa was able to succeed in imprisoning any person who spoke out against apartheid.
I feel very lucky to be a student at a university that searches for guests such as Daniels to enhance my experience as a both a student and a human in a diverse world. I feel a strong respect for Daniels, for his survival of apartheid, and his willingness to share the story. Hearing Daniels certainly made me more grateful of every privilege I’ve had in my life, while encouraging me to more conscious of the injustices which occur on both a local and world level.