In a recent interesting and relevant webinar on decolonising African prisons hosted by Jacana Media, author Ruth Hopkins expressed the view that the prison in Africa is a curious phenomenon considering the wave of decolonising sentiment that swept through South African universities recently. 

I can’t agree more. The idea of removing people from their community and incarcerating them in an “exiled” space, as the prison surely is, is so far removed from the African notion of ubuntu that it has become almost unrecognisable from African personhood, as Morris Kaberia argued. Ubuntu is the idea that personhood is achieved through communion with other people. 

Said in another way, imprisonment is a colonial importation par excellence. What makes its ubiquity on the African continent of the postcolony even more remarkable is the original reason or motivation for the existence of the prison as an institution in Europe.

According to Michel Foucault, who together with Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander probably constitute our most articulate philosophers of punishment, the prison became part of “our” social and political horizon (meaning European ancestry) around the second half of the 18th century and gradually overtook punishment as spectacle in becoming the West’s dominant punishment regime. The preceding punishment regime in Old Europe encompassed cruel public torture such as quartering, amputation and flogging which is partially the reason Foucault refers to it as “spectacle”. 

In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, which is well-worth reading in retracing the historical roots of something we take so much for granted, Foucault explores the perception that imprisonment is a considerably more humane form of punishment than the “outmoded” forms of torture under the preceding paradigm. 

The point is precisely that the paradigm shift from spectacle to incarceration was instead motivated by supposedly benign ideological considerations of ushering in a “disciplinary” regime. The massage is the message (Marshall McLuhan). In deriving their model for the “penitentiary” from the monastic lifestyle of pondering and penance, the prison provided a dark opportunity to install “internalised” discipline in the “offender” through potentially constant surveillance by wardens. The judge would subsequently be internalised in the offender’s psyche and would hopefully be in a position to “supervise” the prisoner.  

But the prison as a disciplinary regime was only a forerunner of a vast carceral network spreading throughout Western society, as Foucault famously argued. Punishment is only one of its objectives. Consider, for example, the similarities in the architectural designs of schools, hospitals, “mental asylums” and army barracks. Face-recognition technology and the cashless society, features which have recently appeared in 21st century society, complete the picture of a society transitioning to complete surveillance.

Even though the prison was a Western invention designed for a specific purpose — the “disciplining” of that society for capitalist purposes — its repressive features came in handy during the scramble for colonial space in Africa and Asia (and elsewhere on the globe where it could be exploited for monetary gain) by European powers and reached its height during the 19th century. Prisons were used extensively to subjugate and discipline the “native”. 

Although prisons are to be found in almost every country in the 21st century, this is certainly not a natural phenomenon but a result of both globalisation and American hegemony as an exporter of penal hardware. A notable example is the largely superfluous Ebongweni supermax underground facility in Kokstad, built in 2002 at a cost of at least R500-million. The irony of the ubiquity of prisons on African soil (and other former colonial spaces) is that the premise of prisonisation, as it was originally imagined, is based, not on communal correction, such as community service but on the extreme individualisation of punishment by way of socially isolating incarceration. 

Ubuntu is the other extreme of this continuum. As Mechthild Nagel, a scholar of African punishment practices, notes, “[i]mprisonment […] is the antithesis of ubuntu, a practice of separation of humanity”.

This is partially the reason that Nagel, building on the work of Ogbannaya Oko Elechi, argues convincingly that: “Today, the legitimating of prisons is greatly challenged in African countries and many rural and urban communities (even in the face of grave offences, such as rape and murder) would rather bypass the (neo) colonial justice system and go back to the pre-colonial ways of rendering restitution to victims harmed.”

It is curious that African peoples still tolerate this deeply repulsive colonial vestige, although the reason is not hard to find. This is itself a clear offspring of colonialism, namely business by way of neo-colonialism (in an age of so-called decolonising) or what Baz Dreisinger, another participant to the Jacana webinar, perceptively calls the “intersection of capitalism and justice”.

In the United States, this form of “disaster capitalism” (Naomi Klein) is known as the prison-industrial complex and is essentially understood as “prison expansion without any actual need”. Mass incarceration a-là-America was motivated in the late 1970s by Ronald Reagan’s so-called War on Drugs, but prison abolitionists have since unearthed its profit incentive — making money out of other people’s misery. 

Angela Davis has expressed this idea crisply in the following terms: “Well, the link that is usually assumed in popular and scholarly discourse is that crime produces punishment. What I have tried to do — together with many other public intellectuals, activists, scholars — is to encourage people to think about the possibility that punishment may be the consequence of other forces and not the inevitable consequence of the commission of crime. Which is not to say that people in prisons have not committed what we call “crimes” — I am not making that argument at all.”

The profit motive driving incarceration is one such non-juridical factor propelling people into prison. Two examples of this trend that she cites are that poorer communities and/or communities of colour are policed more rigorously than affluent ones (delivering more bodies for police processing) and that the prison is increasingly seen as the solution to a whole range of social problems (such as poverty and homelessness). 

Whereas slavery in the US was followed by Jim Crow laws which translated into another form of “slavery” (mass incarceration), Dreisinger points out that the current move in the US to release prisoners with ankle braces coupled with fees/fines is yet another way of “milking” the system. Davis has called this phenomenon of change which keeps the core of repression (slavery) intact, the “malleability of history”. 

A further irony of the prison’s presence on African soil, as she points out, is that the prison was designed to complement the white, individualistic European developmental trajectory, and was transplanted to colonial grounds solely as an instrument of oppression to “‘keep the natives in their place”. 

Prison is business by any other means, to rephrase Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist. Curiously then, prisonisation in Africa is a form of neo-colonialism which has surreptitiously largely replaced indigenous forms of justice and punishment regimes (and not rightly so). There is, of course, nothing wrong with making money, but we should at least aim to do so responsibly. 

It is perhaps also time that the department of correctional services (DCS) starts to experiment with “open” prisons (as countries such as Zimbabwe, the Seychelles and Finland have been doing successfully for years) in an important move towards de-incarceration, which is happening in the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, the US. Another valuable idea is to wipe out offenders’ criminal records automatically after 10 years — without the cumbersome process of application and fees which have become riddled with corruption — to facilitate reintegration into mainstream society as smoothly as possible. This will act as a powerful incentive against the cementing of criminal careers. We are fortunate that our current Minister of Correctional Services and Justice, Ronald Lamola, is a student of development studies (with no less than two master’s degrees under his belt) as the prison in the Global South is a very important development project. 

In this respect, the features of South Africa’s harsh stigmatising, shaming culture (which have proved to be extremely toxic in the sense of being criminogenic) need to be addressed urgently as these represent an important stumbling block preventing the sustainable resettling of ex-offenders upon their release from prison. No wonder South Africa has one of the highest reoffending rates in the world with projected figures of about 86-94%. Compare these disturbing statistics with that of China around the turn of the century of an admirable 6-8%, although their numbers are complicated since the Chinese have little patience with recidivism and routinely execute thousands of re-offenders for even petty crimes. 

Presiding officers should be reminded of the prison’s colonial roots when defence counsel seeks to justify non-custodial and/or African restorative sentences rather than incarceration by default since imprisonment is our existing dominant sentencing regime which is fueled by the shaming culture in the service of insidious neo-colonial business profit. 

To quote Canadian political economist Colin Leys, in an age of “total capitalism” governments routinely fuse their agendas with that of Big Business. Honour among thieves should not be encouraged, as a famous English judge once said. Business as a form of neo-colonial expansion has extended its tentacles into every corner of the globe. My point is that if we have to “punish”, we should at least do so for the right reasons and this should be a serious concern to everyone living in Africa.


  • Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated to North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom) as researcher extraordinaire.


Casper Lӧtter

Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated to North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom) as researcher extraordinaire.

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