My years on Robben Island

On Robben Island, Section-B held those the prison authorities considered the leadership of all political organisations on the Island, including not only the ANC but also the PAC, the Black Consciousness Movement and Swapo.

I had been on the Island for just over two years when I was transferred to B-Section, following a raid on A-Section, where prison officials found some letters which I had received from Nelson Mandela and failed to destroy. Despite the leadership role played, even in prison, by the Rivonia trialists and the fact that they were regarded with awe by many members of the Prisons Service, they were treated no differently from the rest of the inmates in Sections A and B. They participated equally in the cleaning of their section, although those who were considered too old for heavy work were given light tasks by the community. Their rations were the same as other inmates, except for individuals who were on medical diets.

However, there was one way in which all inmates in Sections A and B were treated differently from the other inmates on the Island. Whereas prisoners from other sections would go out to do carpentry, painting, building and all sorts of work around the prison, the A and B-Section people did not work, except in the phaka span (the dishing up team) or in their own cleaning spans. 

In fact it was our impression that the prison officials didn’t want us to work because from time to time we would get injured and for a minor injury we would demand proper medical treatment. Some among us had been doctors. So to the prison authorities it was a blessing that we refused to work. The ANC leadership always wore a smile, despite the intransigence of the Prisons Service. Since the Sixties they had worked together with cadres of other political organisations in tackling problems with the authorities.

Indeed, rivalry between leaders of the ANC and those, like Zeph Mothopeng of the PAC, was hardly noticeable. Irrespective of political affiliation, inmates stood united whenever prison authority was being challenged. It was this unity which made Robben Island different from mainland prisons. There were exceptions, of course. But only rarely did anyone go on a hunger strike, for example, that had not been debated at length and agreed to by the community. Goals and strategy were determined democratically.

It was in B-Section that I met Rivonia trialist Govan Mbeki, now 77, who has spent 23 years on the Island. The father of the ANC’s director of information, Thabo Mbeki, he is known as “Zizi” - his clan name - to his fellow prisoners and as “Gevangene 21/67” to the warders. Govan Mbeki never went to film shows and watched television only for the news. He never went to church.

He was notorious from the state’s point of view for what they considered his uncompromising communist leanings. Yet at weekends this same Mbeki would strum his guitar and play Afrikaans folk songs like “Hasie, hoekom is jou stert so kort ...” and “Jan pierewiet staan stil ... goeie more my vrou, goeie more my man ... daar is koffie in die kan.”

Mbeki had developed a strange habit of switching off the lights whenever he saw one on. Most people just attributed this habit to old age. But we were told that in the early Sixties, when he arrived, the authorities insisted that all the lights be turned off during the night and when they were not needed. Since B-Section inmates refused to be ordered around by warders, Mbeki had been assigned the task of turning them off.

Since that time, Mbeki would walk through the corridors and switch off any lights that were on. Sometimes when it was cloudy and there was not enough sunlight coming in to read, he would walk along the corridor past your cell and switch your light off, just from habit. Later he would say, “Sorry, Comrade”. This habit was made more poignant by the trouble he has had with his vision.

Ten years ago, the authorities began sending him to a specialist in Cape Town, who prescribed spectacles and eye drops. At the beginning of the Eighties, as his sight began to blur, he was sent to another specialist at Woodstock Hospital, who diagnosed glaucoma. His eyes were operated on in 1983. Two years later, the left eye developed a cataract; an artificial lens was implanted.

At the time of my release in March, Mbeki was using eye drops again, and one of the inmates - Theo Cholo - had to read for him, because if he read for as long as an hour his eyes would need a long rest. Mbeki’s task was to clean the cell windows. He did it almost daily with a cloth and water - comparatively light work because he was one of those prisoners whom the community had exempted from hard work by virtue of his age.

Mandela, whom we called by his clan name, Madhiba, was also exempted, as was Walter Sisulu. My cell in B-Section was directly opposite that of Swapo leader Herman Toivo ja Toivo. He was the only member of Swapo in the section; the rest of the Swapo inmates were housed in D-Section.

Toivo was as tall as Madhiba. He was bald and wore a full grey beard. He and Mbeki still wore prison-issue knee-length trousers, instead of long pants; Toivo would not change to more “formal” dress, even for visits. He was militant and hostile to members of the Prisons Service. He refused to appear before the institutional board for classification, thereby denying himself any chance of upgrading so he could buy food or subscribe to newspapers.

He, like me, was forbidden access to newspapers. But prisoners who had the right to subscribe to newspapers would take some of them to the courtyard and we would assemble there, sitting in the courtyard as if we were enjoying ourselves. Two inmates would read the highlights of their respective newspapers, in turn, then some of the longer pieces.

He was the only inmate outside the Freedom Charter camp who had access to the camp’s political syllabi; his political views were in concert with those of the Charterists. Almost on a daily basis we sat outside analysing the Namibian struggle and its relation to the South African struggle. A master in Namibian politics, he read extensively from voluminous books borrowed from the prison library. Tight security in B-Section made it virtually impossible for us to communicate with prisoners of other sections, but from time to time Toivo would peer through the bathroom windows and engage in a lengthy discussion with Swapo inmates doing work outside. He had the habit of saying “unlucky” whenever an inmate was faced with a problem.

I also met PAC leader “Uncle” Zeph Lekoama Mothopeng in B-Section. Bending forwards, he would pace up and down the courtyard, humming Mozart, often Eine Kleine Nachtmusiek—he was a former schoolteacher who had also taught music. He subscribed to the Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport, I used to slip out of film shows and visit his cell to glean a few articles from it. We chatted, but I would leave whenever I sensed he was about to engage in politics with fellow PAC inmates walking into his cell.

At 74, Mothopeng is serving a 15-year sentence; and when I was transferred to Johannesburg Prison at Diepkloof he was there. It became known he had cancer of the throat, which led to attempts to secure his release on medical grounds, but these attempts have failed so far. There was harmony between the PAC and the Freedom Charter camp, but we had to work at it.

Kwedi Mkhalipe, who completed his 20-year sentence last year, was very good at maintaining peace. Mkhalipe, a thorough Africanist was the most likeable man in the PAC camp. We were in the same cleaning span, in B-Section. As we swept the sprawling combined dining room and movie hall, our brooms moved forward in unison, and so did our discussion. We often found ourselves trapped in opposing political views. For the sake of peace, Mkhalipe would subtly turn the subject to the Organisation of African Unity. The importance of the OAU was a subject on which all camps agreed.

Very different was my good friend Jeoff Masemola, a PAC lifer who foreswore PW Botha’s “foreswear violence” offer of release. Bra Jeoff and I were bound by the principle of telling the prison authorities where to get off. He had declared a one-man war against the authorities. To him, careful plans and lengthy debates by inmates before action could be taken was a waste of time.

He staged one-man hunger strikes, winning a lot of rights and privileges for himself - and also losing many battles, ending up behind bars within bars, gaining nothing at the end of a lengthy and painful hunger strike. Armed with a BA degree which he earned in prison, he argued intelligently in his letters to the prison top brass. His letters were like declarations of war or indictments. He called a spade a spade.

Bra Jeoff was an agitator. Perhaps I was one too. He called me “fighter” and I called him “soldier. For some reason we were constantly having brushes with the authorities. Like me, he was transferred from section to section and eventually from prison to prison. (In the seven years I was jailed, from April 1980 to March this year, I was moved around the country between seven different prisons. The longest stretch, three years, was spent on the Island).

We met in A-Section, shortly after my arrival on the Island. I was his “home boy” - we both came from Atteridgeville, near Pretoria, where he had been a schoolteacher at the time of his conviction in 1963. Inmates are always anxious to learn of events back home and I promised to inform him about Pheli, as Atteridgeville is called. It took me two weeks to revisit his cell, and he was so angry he told me to get out. He told me he believed I was being inducted into the Freedom Charter camp and that whatever I would tell him would be censored by the Charterists, playing down any PAC gains. A week later we were laughing together.

I understood his problem. Many prisoners had to vent their anger from time to time on someone. We saw it as therapy when anger was vented on us by fellow inmates on the Island and we didn’t take it hard. Also one had to consider the fact that the man was a lifer.

Masemola was a skilled artisan - a carpenter, builder, plumber. In the early Seventies he made all the cupboards in the cells in his section out of scrap wood. That was not all he made. In the Sixties, I was told, he made a jail key which was offered free to anyone who cared to try the daredevil swim to freedom. No-one took up the offer. No-one did in the Sixties and it is not likely anyone would today, if the offer were still in force. The inmates made adaptable codes that changed to meet changing situations - and eventually it became part of the code of conduct that there should be no escape attempts. We felt it would retard the struggle. Any attempted escape could lead co a death - and the only ones to benefit would be the state.

Elias Motsoaledi, 63, another Rivonia trialist, was the haircut man. He would set up a chair in the courtyard and give you any style of haircut you needed, especially for special occasions such as a visit, or a pending release. But he was a very busy man -one had to make an appointment to get a haircut. He was also the handyman - and I always had this or that to do. For example, he made rubber plugs for all the sinks. The sink plugs provided by the prison were always too loose and light and they would often come out while one was using the sink.

Motsoaledi had a huge piece of rubber that had been washed up on the shore. It was so hard and tough - he needed a hacksaw to cut it - that he would joke that it came from Inner Mongolia. He used it to cut sink plugs. He would store lots of things like this in one of the empty cells. When the prison authorities would raid and one of the warders would want to confiscate it, he would resist and argue and eventually they would say, “leave the old man alone.” 

But his real love was his garden. For years he had cultivated the area around the courtyard. He had planted grass and flowers - over the years he had managed to acquire seeds - and cared for them every day. He collected rain water by placing plastic drums under the drainpipes, carting them around to the flower beds when they were full and reserving some for dry days.

He treasured soft water for his garden and when inmates had finished bathing he would collect the leftover soapy water for his flowers. It was an unofficial garden - not sanctioned by the prison officials. However, it was really beautiful and they turned a blind eye to it. In the end, the prison officials themselves were proud of it and would show it off to visitors. At first everyone would pick flowers from the garden and put them in their cells. But this spoiled the garden, so a rule was made that only Motsoaledi himself could pick them. Every week, he would take a few flowers, put them in a tin or similar container and place them in the corridor or the dining room.

Motsoaledi was concerned at one stage that mice were destroying his garden. So Jeoff Masemola made him traps from scraps of wood and metal, and he put them around the courtyard. When in the early morning he would find a successful “catch”, he would cheer and chortle and show it off to everyone.

The Red Cross delegation that visited the Island last year included a woman for the first time, Francine Pass -Regrosio. Motsoaledi picked some of his freshest flowers and gave her a large bunch as a token of our appreciation for their work.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail



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