Island doors may swing open soon

Prison doors on Robben Island are expected to swing open, releasing 300 political prisoners within days, lawyers believe. The agreement reached by the joint government-African National Congress working committee, established in terms of the Groote Schuur accord, includes a broad definition of political prisoners and has raised hopes of an early release. 

Previously, the government held that people guilty of acts of violence should be excluded from the terms of any amnesty. It appears the ANC has succeeded in arguing that it include people guilty of politically motivated crimes of violence. Lawyers representing Robben Islanders said this week they had been inundated by calls from prisoners’ families. While no date has been set, expectations are that some releases may take place next week. 

Among the 309 political prisoners remaining in Robben Island’s maximum-security prison are men who played key roles in the ANC’s internal high command machinery. They were jailed after treason and terrorism trials in the 1970s and 1980s. Among them are Black Consciousness Movement and Pan Africanist Congress leaders. Some Robben Islanders are “new boys”, such as Ashley Forbes, a commander of the ANC in the Western Cape who was convicted for terrorism last year. Others have spent most of their adult lives behind bars. 

Anthony Xaba, 68, was tried in the 1977 Pietermaritzburg terrorism trial. He had completed a 10-year jail term only two years before he was sentenced to life imprisonment. So far he has spent 27 years in jail. In April he was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation after blood vessels burst in his brain. He was readmitted to hospital last week with a high temperature and a heavy cold. Xaba’s wife, Regina and their children live in exile. One of Xaba’s fellow accused, John Nene, was 19 years old when be was first sent to Robben Island to serve a 10-year-jail sentence. After his release he lived under a house-arrest order until his sentencing in the terrorism trial. He is now 46. 

Among their co-accused on the Island are Matthews Meyiya, 76, who was sentenced to life and is studying for a BA degree, Joseph Nduli, 50, who received an 18-year sentence, and Z Mdlalose. Cleophas Ndhlovu and V Magubane were sentenced to 15 years’ and were released last month. 

Other Island prisoners include: 

  • Mosima Sexwale, 37, a member of Umkhomo weSizwe, received training in Mozambique and the Soviet Union. Fourteen years ago he was tried, with 11 others, on charges of conspiracy and terrorism. He was sentenced in 1978 to 18 years’ jail after being found guilty of throwing a hand-grenade into a police vehicle. Sexwale is secretary of the General Recreation Committee on Robben Island. He is studying for a B Comm degree. One of his co-accused, Naledi Tsiki, who was serving 14 years, was released early last month. 
  • James Mange, 44, was sentenced to death in the 1979 Pietermaritzburg treason trial. His 11 co-accused were sentenced to a total of 184 years in jail. It was the first treason trial to be heard in South Africa since 1961 and the convictions were the first for high treason outside of wartime. Mange was 24 years old at the time. He and the other accused stood in a specially constructed shatter-proof glass dock, where they held placards proclaiming “Apartheid is High Treason” and “Never on our Knees”. Mange’s death sentence was com¬muted to life imprisonment on No¬vember 16 1979. A Rastafarian, he is a talented musician and artist. His four-year-old son, Prince, lives with his mother in kwaXuma, near Johannesburg. 
  • Mzukisi Madlavu, 38, is a BCM member who was sentenced to 18 years for sabotage in June 1978. Mzukisi is studying for a master’s degree in administration.
  • Johannes Shabangu, Bobby Tsotsobe and David Moisi are the Sasol II bombers. All three left South Africa for training in the wake of the 1976 Soweto revolt. They were found guilty of high treason on August 19 1981 and sentenced to death, the court finding them responsible for attacks on Booysen’s police station, the Sasol II plant at Secunda, the West Rand Administration Board offices and a section of the Soweto railway line. The three lived under the shadow or the gallows for almost two years before their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in June 1983. 
  • Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, 52, an ANC leader, was abducted from Swaziland to stand trial on reason charges with Mandla Maseko and Simon Dladla. Ebrahim, who has previously served 15 years on the Island, was sentenced to 20 years. Maseko, 38, who is completing a law degree through Unisa, was sentenced to 23 years and Dladla, 42, to 12 years. 
  • Lizo Bright Ngqungwana, 30, 1 former Western Cape MK commander, was jailed for life in 1987 for terrorism. Six of his 12 fellow accused were also convicted of terrorism, the others for harbouring alleged terrorism. 
  • Achmad Cassim, a PAC member, was found guilty on several counts of terrorism and sentenced in October 1988.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.



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