The Sisulu I knew

He could be the old man you’ve seen short-cutting across the open lot on his way to the station each morning. He could be among the mourners you’ve seen shovelling up soil at the graveside, or the old man presiding over a street committee meeting. · Like Nelson Mandela, Sisulu was no different from other prisoners either, when I served my term in Robben Island Prison. I spent three years of a seven-year sentence in the B-Section of Robben Island where Sisulu and the rest of the African National Congress Rivonia leaders were incarcerated. 

Convicted in 1980 under the Terrorism Act, I was released two years ago. Tshopo, as he was affectionately called by those close to him, had lost the light complexion of his Rivonia trial days. He was darker. Unlike Madhiba (Mandela’s clan name), Sisulu was not completely flat-bellied, but he had not developed the paunch that characterises many of his contemporaries in prison. Short and fully grey, Sisulu had a way of avoiding hassles in everything he did. He walked fast, with his hands in his trousers pockets, looking straight ahead or smiling with someone. He was different from his Rivonia trial colleagues, who were meticulous in their manner of dress. 

Sisulu spent very little time in ironing his prison-issued fawn trousers and green shirt. Fading was not an acceptable reason for the issue of a new jersey. A number of prisoners, however, managed to exchange their faded jerseys for new ones. Tshopo did not bother. He’d wear his old jersey until fellow inmates changed it for him. His partially creased pants were belted above the navel. He frequently pulled up his trousers, keeping them firmly above the navel. He wore heavy black-rimmed glasses. Like many schoolteachers of the 1950s, he had the habit of sticking his pen behind his ear. Behind his back he was called Mahlafuna (chewer), because of his habit of chewing without any food to chew on. 

Born on May 18, 1912, the same year as the ANC, Sisulu was the organisation’s encyclopaedia in prison. The ANC leadership in prison from time to time compiled political essays on various subjects in the struggle. They also assisted inmates in their academic studies or informal political education. I managed to read Sisulu’s work on the history of the ANC. Since his handwriting was difficult to read, 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, Govan Mbeki and Billy Nair had difficult handwriting and their works had to be reproduced for mass circulation.) Inmates in prison treasure their expensive dictionaries which they hope to keep for a lifetime, considering they are not earning an income. 

Sisulu, who excelled in Monopoly and draughts, was an avid scrabble player. He always offered his dictionary to the players. Half the pages of the Oxford dictionary were loose, and he would re-arrange the pages after the game at the end of the day. His cell was a hive of activity each day after lunch. Inmates thronged the 2,5m-square cell playing and watching the game. The four players engaged in the game sat around a tiny table in the centre of the cell. When it was his turn to play he would perch himself on the bed, sandwiched between two spectators. 

Then a Bachelor of Arts anthropology student, Sisulu spoke impeccable English. Unlike Mandela and others of Xhosa origin, his English was not tinged with a Xhosa accent. He had the habit of saying “you see” whenever he made a point One day after the game we delved in a 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 state; and that there was such a person as an “unbiased journalist”. 

At the end of the msiko (discussion) a colleague, Raymond Mhlaba, remarked, laughing, that Mahlafuna had chewed up liberal ideology. Sisulu was a lover of classical and choral music of the type that is sung in black schools. In his gayest moods he would trudge the courtyard with PAC president “Uncle Zeph” Mothopeng, who had been a music tutor, singing together some of Handel’s pieces, including the Hallelua Chorus. Unlike ANC leader Govan Mbeki, who never went to film shows, Sisulu never missed a show. Inmates kept to their permanent seats during the screening of films. I sat on a bench with Sisulu and Mandela, right at the back of the B Section auditorium. The back seat provided the best view in that our bench was placed on top of another, with a third bench on which we put our legs. 

During the screenings, Sisulu outstayed Mandela, who seldom lasted through the film, catching a number of catnaps or leaving quietly to relax in his cell or meet someone. Receiving letters and visits from friends and relatives was the most exciting event at weekends. Sisulu was among the inmates who did not consider letters from their loved ones as personal and confidential.  Often when I visited his cell he let me read his letters from home, including from his wife Albertina, whom he affectionately called Ntsiki. I did the same whenever he came to my cell.

Sisulu was apparently well preserved by prison life. Except for the ordinary cold, he seldom became ill. He began his day by walking and jogging in the courtyard early in the morning During hunger strikes older and frail inmates, as well as those men who had stomach ailments like ulcers, were optionally exempted from fasting. Sisulu refused exemption. He lasted through a week-long hunger strike staged some time before he and other ANC leaders were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. Some men, by far younger, collapsed during the fast. He, Mandela, Mbeki, and other older inmates. did not.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.



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