My prison years on the island

Political prisoners on Robben Island are being prevented from reading the Weekly Mail's series about life in the prison. Relatives who have visited the prisoners say that warders have censored the relevant pages from the newspaper, leaving only the "leasers" on the front page.

Asked to confirm this yesterday, a Prisons Service liaison officer said: "The head of every prison is responsible for the maintenance of the security and good order of the prison under his command. The Prisons Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder provide for a variety of measures that the head of the prison may utilise. "Therefore as in the case with all written/typed/printed material that is brought into prisons, newspapers are also subject to censorship for reasons of security or the maintenance of order."  

My prison years on the island

Journalist Thami Mkhwanazi continues his remarkable memoirs of the life on Robben Island. This week, more of the Island personalities, including Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada.

One of the hardest parts of being in prison is the frustration caused by the isolation from the outside world and particularly, one's family. People outside prison were often too busy with their own problems to pay much attention to those inside. Incoming letters were scarce for some inmates. There were prisoners on Robben Island who received only one visit a year, despite the funding of visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which pays the fare for 12 return second-class train tickets per prison every years.

Although the Freedom Charter camp organised many political activities to occupy its members, it was not enough to kill the frustration. Therefore studies assumed an overwhelming importance. To pursue academic studies meant to feel a link with the world outside as well as to occupy oneself constructively. Inmates organised academic classes to assist anyone seeking such help. In each section an "inmate was assigned to keep a register of both incoming and outgoing study mail.

Inmates submitted their study correspondence, be it an assignment or just a letter, to the section studies officer every morning on weekdays. He entered this in a register, serving as proof that such mail had been forwarded to the authorities, who did the final posting. The section studies officer also registered incoming mail before handing it over to the respective inmates.

In B-section "General" MDR Maqhutjana handled our study mail. The former ANC activist, who was sentenced in 1982 to 20 years for his involvement in a series of bomb blasts that rocked Durban, took his assignment seriously. He kept a mail box he had made out of cardboard attached to the wall inside his cell, just below the barred window opening into the corridor. Each morning at lockout time inmates on their way to the latrine threw their letters into the "post office box" in Cell 21.

The general would greet inmates with a smile and a "Good morning, comrade" and enter each letter in a register which he delivered, together with the mail, to the warder in charge of studies. The general also intepreted for enquiring inmates the notorious "Annexure A", the often ambiguous regulations on studies. Books and newspapers also kept us in touch with the world.

Ahmed "Kathy" Kathrada was the librarian. He was from a Muslim background and we used to go to "him for food parcels brought by the Mullana during Eid - in this way, we were reduced to acting like small kids, Kathrada didn't fast on Ramadan because prison conditions were considered abnormal, and you could only fast in a normal society. In any case, we were often on hunger strikes so fasted much of the time anyway. For the most part, prisoners - especially those serving life sentences, looked inward, making imprisonment bearable by trying to improve the environment in which they would spend so many years or maybe the rest of their lives.

Wilton Mkwayi, a hardy lifer, had made the Island pigeons his love. Every day he would take some scraps - mostly samp - from the dining room into his cell. In the evening, he would open his window, which overlooked the courtyard, and throw the scraps out on to the concrete. By the time he opened his window, the pigeons would all have gathered outside and on the walls. He would start talking to them, saying all sorts of things while he fed them. Some of the prisoners who cleaned the courtyard complained about the mess the pigeons made. But he insisted that it was both his hobby and his task, that it was how he had survived all his years in prison, so people left him alone.

Mkwayi walked with his torso tilted to the right the result of an operation. His was the most visited cell in B-Section. A lover of coffee, he made this drink available all the time, keeping two flasks available. He was about the most-travelled prisoner, having been to about two dozen countries around the world. He would speak about his escapades during his travels as a trade unionist. He was received in those days by heads of state. In all the years I knew him, he had been telling his travelling stories, and I left prison without hearing all of them. He used to criticise the government's contention that we were not political prisoners but criminals and therefore the same as other prisoners.

At the same time, we were not accorded remission, parole and the amnesty accorded those deemed to be the same as we. Apparently, he argued, this was meant for white political prisoners, such as Breyten Breytenbach, who served only seven years of his nine-year sentence, and Mike Hoare, who was released after serving only four years of a 10-year spell. Their black "counterparts" on the Island had completed 20 years in jail- and those blacks who got remission had already served at least 18 years. Kwedi Mkalipe of the PAC got remission with only three months left of his 21-year sentence to serve. These discussions went on all the time.

Walter Sisulu, born in 1912, the same year as the ANC, was the organisation's encyclopaedia. I managed to read his work on the history of the ANC. Since his handwriting is akin to the typical medical doctor's, the series was published in the prison's invincible "press" which circulated political writings of inmates. (We called it a press because people like Sisulu, Billy Nair and Govan Mbeki had difficult handwriting and their works had to be reproduced for mass distribution.)

The former general secretary of the ANC, Sisulu or Xhamela (his clan name) displayed a ready smile of the type that can win many over. His partially-created trousers were belt above the navel, a style which suggested he belonged to the old class of "beaux", careful dressers of the old school. He wore heavy black-rimmed glasses. Inmates on the Island treasure their expensive dictionaries which they hope to keep for a lifetime, considering they are not earning an income.

Sisulu, an avid Scrabble player, to generous enough always to offer his dictionary to the players. Half the pages of this dictionary were loose. Privately, Sisulu was known as Mahlafuna (one who chews) because of his habit of chewing without a food to chew on. There was one long discussion in which he expressed his views on what he considered various "myths" about the press: that a privately-owned press is not a controlled press, that privately-controlled newspapers are freer than those controlled by the government; and that there was such a person as an "unbiased journalist". At the end of this discussion, I remember a colleague saying that Mahlafuna had chewed up liberal ideology.

Harry Gwala, now 66 and suffering from a terminal motor neuron condition, is a short man with a ready smile. He is an eloquent speaker. During the last weeks of my sentence, I became seriously concerned about his health. He showed great courage, but because he was disabled by his illness, I had to carry his food to his cell. There I would sit and listen to him analysing the political situation. He would talk, for example, about the various deputations going to Lusaka to hear for themselves the views of the ANC. On this, he said the cracks in the "ruling class" had become visible to everyone. Everyone who came back from Lusaka, he noted, came back a convert to the idea of talks with the exiled organisation.

Bennette Pantis Komane or Bra Ray, the storeman and man-about- town in the prison, had an interesting history. At the age of 47, in the wake of the 1976 uprisings, he had fled the country and joined the ANC. He obtained military training in the Soviet Union and was a commander of the banned organisation's armed wing, Umkhondo we Sizwe, before he returned to South Africa on a mission. Fifty-five-year old Pantis was serving a 17-year sentence. As the storeman, his duty was to issue prison clothes, blankets and other supplies to inmates, exchanging old clothes for new ones. Once a week he visited each section to collect old clothes and returned with new ones.

Bra Ray was known for his love for jazz. His advice was frequently sought whenever it was an inmate's turn to select a favourite LP for the compilation of the week's record programme by the prisoners' recreation committee. You name any jazz album and Pantis would tell you the names of the artists playing in that album. Not only that. He also remembered the names of tunes. He took delight in quizzing and embarrassing inmates who claimed to be jazzophiles. "Tell me, who plays vibes in the album Plenty Plenty Soul," he would ask. If you didn't know the artist was Milt Jackson, he would laugh and bombard you with similar questions. But if you answered correctly, he would make his questions more difficult: "Why and where was the late Duke Ellington knighted a duke?"

Pantis was a good singer. He also had a bad temper and during his happy moods you would hear him sing favourite ballads like Misty and My one and only love. He also led freedom songs during commemoration services in A-section. On the Island each inmate had the opportunity of selecting his favourite LP to be played through the cell loud- speakers. But one had to wait long before his turn came. To enable them to select more than one LP, inmates formed record-selecting stokvels (or syndicates). Membership of a stokvel allows one to make use of selecting toms of fellow members, enabling one lo choose more than one LP. Bra Ray was instrumental in the formation of these stokvels. Shortly before my release this year he gave me a surprise. When it was his turn to select many records, he chose a few jazz favourites for my "farewell".

Born and raised in Sophiatown, Bra Ray spoke "clever-'taal" with everybody, including warders. Clever taal, or fly-taal, is basically a corruption of Afrikaans, meshed with a corruption of English and a sprinkling of black languages spoken in cosmopolitan Sophiatown. It was during his discussion one afternoon with Madhiba that I discovered the ANC leader could also speak clever-taal. It was at the beginning of this discussion that I heared Mandela say "Hoezet, Bra Ray."

Bra Ray used to confront and reprimand spies (enemies) who dared speak what he claimed was his own taal. He argued that words like tlakadunza (woman) did not belong to standard clever-taal and therefore spies were forbidden to use this taal. Inmates on the Island had their own prison jargon, which sometimes differed from section to section.

In B-Section, for instance, the phrase "to kalash" meant "to hit". The verb was derived from the Kalashnikov rifle. In B-Section, revolutionary theory was called, simply, "theory". The International Committee of the Red Cross was called "mGeneva". When you were engaged in deep thought after meeting a visitor, fellow inmates would say you were "watching TV '. Your visitor was the main actor, seen through glass (until contact visits were allowed in 1985).

A hunger strike was an "HS". When embarking on a hunger strike, inmates would say in Zulu "Beka icephe phantsi" ("Down your spoons"). Communists were called amabovu (Zulu for Reds). The unofficial vegetable gardens to which the authorities had turned a blind eye were called "the people's". The "niceties" which had been purchased collectively by the people for the people were said to belong collectively to the "golgos", from the Russian word for communal goods.

The former head of the prison, Major (now Colonel) John Harding, worked to get concessions for the prisoners. Behind his back, in A-Section, Harding was called "Destiny". No-one could explain why. I was often shifted from one prison to another, and that is when I came to realise how different Robben Island was from any other prison. Conditions in other prisons were very much tougher.

NEXT WEEK: Life in some of the mainland prisons; how it feels to go on a hunger strike; prisoners and the prison doctors; the hated 'bucket system'.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail



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