The Spirit Cannot Be Caged  

Gertrude Fester 




I have been forcibly removed out of my cozy and cushioned cocoon

To a group area reserved for Terrorists- Solitary confinement

I have been endorsed out of my community environment

Into the Homeland of my cell

Where everything is dark and grey

And where even a smile is scarce.

For 24 hours a day I am watched, perused, in case of some wrong move.

Whatever or whenever I eat, sit, shit, stand or sleep, this is recorded and telephoned to who knows whom.

I immediately think of the so-called Africans in my country  

When they walk into a supermarket or shop

The floorwalkers are on guard

“These are the people who steal!”

Their every turn is watched


So too am I watched 

My every twist and turn

But for a wee while.

Thousands, millions drudgingly eke out this existence every day of their lives

Without a pass to humanity

But not for long!



This is a celebration to LIFE

To LOVE to the CREATOR of us all


I want to sing 





teasing the sunlight

my spirit effervesces champagne

in finely cut chrystal glass

mineral waters bubbling,

sparkling out of the bowels of the brown earth



glowing of the moon on azure seas

I cavort on hills, frolicking like young lambs

I stretch my arms out wide

I grow tall as trees

I take a deep breath of beauty

I embrace the whole world wantonly

becoming one with it-

mingling my mind 

midst morning dews

As the spirit shall not be caged

They can imprison my body but not my soul; my ideas my commitment to freedom together with millions of others

I draw a deep breath of beauty 

red sun

turquoise moon




His booming voice bellows out instructions

Bullying you into instant servitude.

Deursoek haar sell!

You move robot-like;

The correct buttons have been pressed.

He shouts again:

Deursoek haar cell. Search her cell

Kom nou, deeglike, deeglik!

One of you gives him a subtle glance

(Is it conspiratorial or contemptuous?)

I cannot see as I stand, stock-still

Surveying busy woman’s hands scrutinizing woman victim’s property)

Trek haar uit! Deursoek haar!

The orders blast again

And I,

I don’t wait for you to peel off my humanity once again, my dignity

I hastily strip, defiantly scattering my clothes

All over the dark damp cell

You watch me 

While your fingers expertly feel 

Every fold, every seam

Of my clothes.

Your months hang slightly open.

You two are pawns in this pecking order

Pawns to him in his male arrogance and omnipotence

‘Deursoek haar beddegoed!’

Search her bedding!

You strip the bed lazily, languidly.

‘Haal af die kussingsloop!’

You raise your head slowly,

Staring him straight in the face.

‘Daar is geen kussingsloop nie!’

I look at you knowing that there is a pillowcase.

You stare back at me

And for one moment,

A split second

There is a sense of camaraderie between us…

Dare I hope?

Dare I dream?


Gertrude 6ss.jpg



I run up; I run down

I touch this toe; I touch that toe;

I bend and stretch; bend and stretch.

I swing this leg, then that leg.

And you all sit in a straight line, 

A black jagged line against the grey blue sky -

Gleefully watching me

An extended family’s outing to the zoo

Watching the monkey doing her antics.


It’s a pity you didn’t bring along a banana

It would’ve made a welcome change to my sparse section 29 prison diet.



Why do you mock me, mocking birds?

Cheerfully perching on the bars of my cage

Chirp-chirp conversing with your mates

While I jog around my

30 minutes, 5 by 2 freedom for the day?


You frivolously flirt with your mates

Beaks gently caressing

While I pant around another round.


You flamboyantly flaunt your freedom

Flitting from bar to bar

While I huff and puff one last desperate round-

My greatest challenge for the day

Full of nothingness.


Then you stretch out your wings and fly up

into the open sky

And I -

I stop jogging

and try not to cry.


July 1988

Day 90




Your office is impeccable.

Book selves lined with great revolutionaries,

Karl Marx to Kim Il Son


You apologise flippantly for the girlie calendar on your door

Hang your coat over it in deference for the feminist prisoner 


You’re full of self-importance

Proud that you’ve got you degree in Police Science cum laude

Some lame excuse why you couldn’t do your honours

Was it because your prisoner has her Master’s degree?

You’ve even taken down the photograph of PW and replaced it with your UNISA 

BA Degree

You -Promoted to major after this last scoop of terrorists, us


I do not confess

I do not sing away my acts of terror

You wish me to create

I- A danger to the state

Arrested under internal Security Act

And you expect me to endorse this fact?


I sit 



You’ve dropped your veneer of gentleman

You’ve forgotten how you’ve tried to impress me with your gabble about Radio Pulpit – 

What a good Christian you are

Quoting from your bible


You now sweat profusely,

You loosen your tie

Your hair is disheveled


And now you

Threaten me

You hover over me

Your sweat drizzling on me

Your hot rancid breath on my face

I cringe


Your threats deafen me

How when you’re done with me, the arthritic pains will not be the only ones that I’ll have

How you will break my bones

You have the power to keep me locked up for as long as you want to

Ten years are nothing

How I will rot in prison

For ever…for ever


I cringe


I believe you

I cringe further into my chair


You turn away

Straightening you tie

Dab your wet brow 

Then you pull straight your clothes and 

Try to compose your self


I shrink in my fear and pain 

Eyes greedily yearning

To gulp up some distraction 

Focus away this vulnerability


And there on your shining desk

Next to your nuclear family photo smiling with white South African confidence into the friendly sky


A shabbily hand made pencil holder, edges of glued paper peeling off 

And with a child’s scrawny handwriting

The words boldly and proudly announce:



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Gertrude Fester-Wicomb is a rather privileged descendent of Indigenous and Slave communities compared to the average black woman. Her studies BA UCT, Higher Education Diploma- UNISA, Master’s in Development & Women’s Studies-Institute for Social Studies, The Hague, PhD, London School of Economics). She has an honorary professorship at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. Some other positions include First Wynona Lipman Chair, Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University, professor extraordinaire (Women and Gender Studies), University of Western Cape, professor in Transitional Justice at the Gender Centre, University of Rwanda and recipient of various awards including American Council of Learned Societies African Humanities Programme. She publishes both fiction and non-fiction mostly on marginal people. Gertrude received the Hammet-Hellman Human Rights Prize for Writers (1997). Her play, Look alike Terrorist, was one of 4 best new plays for 2019 as nominated by ArtsCape, South Africa.  Her book, South African Women's Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Struggles: 1980-2014, documents her feminist political struggles in grassroots women’s structures. Post-1994 she had several political portfolios including MP (National Assembly) and Commissioner on Gender Equality. During the 1980s she established and was key in various grassroots women’s organisations. She was part of the Women’s National Coalition which advocated the negotiations to include gender issues in the new constitution.