Inside Robben Island
For the first time the inside story of life in South Africa’s most famous political prison can be told in a South African newspaper. The Weekly Mail this week carries a detailed - and unprecedented - account of the dally life of some of the world’s best-known prisoners.
The story was made possible by the release from prison earlier this year of journalist THAMI MKHWANAZI. Mkhwanazi was a journalist on Post when he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for conspiring to help people leave the country illegally.
When his sentence was completed in March this year, he joined The Weekly Mail. This week, in the first of a three-part series, we publish his account of life on the Island, where he spent three years.
MY YEARS ON THE ISLAND
Part One: The University behind locked doors
April 1980. The Susan Kruger, a tiny Prisons Service boat, ploughed the Atlantic in the direction of Robben Island. I and the eight young colleagues with me had been sentenced the previous month to between five and seven years under the Terrorism Act for conspiring to recruit youths for military training so they could return to overthrow the state. My own sentence was seven years.
During those years I was moved around the country between seven different prisons, spending months in some prisons - and three years, my longest spell, on Robben Island. We had been driven from Leeukop Prison in the Transvaal the previous day. We had left there at 3am, spending the day in a van with a toilet inside and the night in the Victor Verster maximum prison in Paarl. Early the following morning we were taken to Cape Town harbour for the early-morning trip to the Island, 45 minutes away.
We embarked on to the Susan Kruger in single file, carrying the little luggage we had. All our private clothes had been sent home after our conviction and we carried only toiletries. We all wore the prison-issue green shirts and green trousers that was to be our uniform for the next seven years. On the boat, we were given paper bags in case of nausea. The occasional “Bly stil’ (Keep quiet), barked by a warder, made me feel even sicker. The atmosphere was drab. The sea that always appeared green or blue in photographs and maps was suddenly black. April was strangely cold.
Occasionally a regimental flight of dark birds - one of the flocks we would see many times from the Island and during trips to and from it - flew alongside the Susan Kruger. I asked myself If they formed a guard of honour for us. At first a tiny patch on the horizon, the Island became larger and more visible. There was no sign of a prison building. The boat cruised around boulders, towards the dock. We disembarked in single file. Warders, members of their families, their vehicles - some unmarked - and the common law prisoners who man the boat and harbour were gathered at the dockside, near a small administrative building. A few hundreds metres away, I could see another building, which I was to discover was where we would meet family members who would visit us on the Island.
We were met, according to tradition, by the then-head of the prison, the athletic, bow-legged Major John Harding, who walked us to his prison. Harding, a Frederik van Zyl Slabbert look- alike, was clearly in command and knew his charges very well. He remembered some of the prisoners in our company who were returning to his prison a second time after a retrial. He had prior information about me. He asked me my plans. It was a surprising query, as prisoners did not plan their lives once inside.
However, Harding knew I planned to marry on the Island. My fiancée, Amanda Kwadi, and I had been hoping to get married during my trial. But the marriage officer had not arrived at court in time to tie the knot—and I had applied for permission to marry while in Leeukop Prison. (As it happens, the Commissioner of Prisons turned down my application while I was on the Island and I left prison without getting married). Harding was also curious whether I intended appealing against my conviction. He wished to know if I’d like to study in prison and whether I would continue to work as a journalist upon my release. He already knew I was a journalist. He was anxious to know if I was a Christian. I thought he liked to appear concerned about prisoners’ problems as a way of getting used to the various inmates.
Harding projected an image of a jailer who had nothing to do with apartheid, but he was exposed by the regulations he had to enforce. I told him my case was on appeal against both conviction and sentence. I also informed him I was going to utilise my time constructively in jail with studies. Harding had been well spoken of during our stay at Leeukop Prison by some of the inmates who were returning to the Island with us. He was reputed to be innovative and to have negotiated successfully with prison headquarters for concessions in favour of inmates.
As we walked towards the prison, he told us more about it, attributing some of the bad conditions to the intransigence caused by bureaucracy at headquarters. We walked along a tarred road, past the visitors’ bay and a tall watch-tower, one of four around the complex. The prison came into sight as we passed the visitors’ building. It appeared deceptively small. In fact it was a sprawling complex, with about 500 prisoners in seven separate sections, with a kitchen and a hospital.
I was to spend time in three sections: Section-C, where all new prisoners began their time, A-Section, which housed those the warders considered “radicals” or “agitators”, and B- Section, which housed the leadership of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress with a sprinkling of non-leadership inmates. There was also D-Section, which housed Namibian political prisoners, and E-, F- and G-Sections, which were much larger. We were kept for two weeks in C-Section, a filthy part of the prison that was in a state of collapse.
We were told we were there so our files could be scrutinised to determine where we should be housed. Medical check-ups were a part of the routine. Almost daily we were given lectures on various issues regarding the rights and privileges of inmates. One day, Harding briefed us about the uniqueness of the Island compared with other prisons and the existence of various political camps within the prison. Inmates regarded C-Section as a place of punishment and an attempt by the authorities to coerce new arrivals to “behave” once taken to a permanent section, and they had made representations over the years for its closure.
At the time of my release, the section was used officially only for segregating those inmates the authorities thought were uncontrollably violent, as well as those inmates who were doing dietary punishment incommunicado - although anyone staging a peaceful protest was also held in the section. The first few days in C-Section were unpleasant. I found the food unpalatable, the days and nights depressingly long, despite the card games and other indoor games we played during the day to amuse ourselves and the music that was played to inmates between lock-up time (4,30 pm weekdays, 3pm weekends) and about 10pm.
The speaker in my cell churned out favourites such as Miriam Makeba’s Promise and a range of jazz from the swing era to modern-day fusion. Bob Marley’s reggae was popular - especially among the inmates who had arrived in the wake of the 1976 uprising, and Makeba, especially her song Gauteng (about migrant workers), was a hot favourite among ANC members. Weary Blues from Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington’s album, Back to Back, flooded my mind with memories, creating a feeling of nostalgia. The selection of more than 500 LPs, made by the prisoners over the years, helped one adjust. It was during these first nights that many prisoners spent their time retracing the steps leading to their conviction.
I would analyse my argument in defence, curse accomplices who had made careless mistakes and a colleague who had testified against me. I would vent my spleen in letters to my fiancée. I learnt quickly that Robben Island was different in the extreme from any other prison. In the other prisons I spent time in on the mainland, it was every prisoner for himself. The authorities would not even recognise prisoners’ committees.
But the political prisoners on the Island had – through years of hunger strikes, representations, deputations, protests and court battles - won recognition for their committee system, extra rights (such as visits by children and extra letters) and additional facilities (such as tennis courts and soccer fields). Prisoners often talked about the early days in the 1960s and early 1970s, when conditions were much harder. But over the years, the prisoner had forced changes to this - ending up with some rights denied others in mainland prisons.
Political prisoners often pointed out to the authorities that they were not there to be rehabilitated. “Criminals need rehabilitation and we are not criminals. We are a highly disciplined group of people and warders must be equally disciplined,” we would say. Upon conviction, prisoners either automatically identified with a particular political organisation, because they were cadres at the time of theft conviction, or they chose an organisation. There were four “camps” in the prison: supporters of the Freedom Charter, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness movement and Swapo. Some inmates switched allegiance, moving from one organisation to another. For instance a sizable number of inmates from other camps had been entering the Freedom Charter camp.
The overwhelming number of inmates were Freedom Charter supporters. To maintain peace in the prison, strict rules governed how the different groups related to each other, part of the prisoners’ self-imposed codes of conduct built up over the many years some had been in prison. For example, there was a policy prohibiting one camp from recruiting members of the other camps; a person had to make his own decision to switch camps. If a person decided to change camps, he would have to approach a special contact person in his new camp and that person would then notify the rest of the camp. The man would be called in front of a panel and told of the policy, the code of conduct and the discipline in that camp. Only then would he have access to the political facilities - education and discussions - of that camp. Sometimes a new member would be kept under “observation” for some time before being fully inducted into the camp by his fellow inmates.
Shortly after my arrival, one of me camps broke this agreement. I received letters attempting to recruit me, some of them villifying my own camp - and passed these on to my colleagues. No action was taken. The prisoners’ codes of conduct were unwritten – but they governed every aspect of prison life, from how prisoners related to each other to how we dealt with prison authorities. They were taught painstakingly to each new person and a transgression would lead to disciplining by a special prisoners’ panel in one’s own camp. If, for example, the Freedom Charter camp had a complaint about a PAC person, they would have to send a delegation to see the relevant PAC people. Another example: prisoners had the habit of pacing up and down the prison courtyard all day, like wild animals in cages. They would walk up and down in rows of fours, in processions known as “taxis”. The rule was that in a “taxi” you could not hold a confidential discussion. In order to avoid conflict and prevent new prisoners from feeling isolated, it was forbidden to tell anyone he couldn’t join your taxi because you were talking privately. If you wanted to talk privately you would have to go inside the building, to a cell or the dining room.
The committee system was a major part of prison-life on Robben Island, and one Part of the extensive organisational structure in each political camp. Every activity was run by a committee of prisoners - elected annually and democratically by the inmates themselves. Each section and each camp had a communications committee governing the relationship between different sections of the prison. One was forbidden to communicate with a member of another section without the permission of a committee. All letters, messages and meetings between prisoners from different sections had to go through a committee. Meetings between inmates in A-Section and B-Section were prohibited until a concession was made shortly after my arrival, allowing B-Section people to participate in sports events with A-Section. Individual meetings were not permitted. But from time to time this rule would be broken, once the need for such meeting had been sanctioned by the relevant committees for strategic reasons. It frequently became necessary to allow meetings between Nelson Mandela and certain individuals. But the matter had to be very pressing to allow such a meeting.
The committee system extended to discipline panels run by the prisoners themselves. A prisoner who breached the code of conduct would be brought before the disciplinary panel of his political camp. Punishment handed down by the prisoners’ panels could range from a strong reprimand to expulsion from a particular camp. The panel members were realistic. They took into consideration the difficulty prisoner had in adjusting to prison, provocation on the part of the warders and family problems. It was felt prisoners of the calibre of those on Robben Island should not be ordered around by warders, but should run their lives themselves.
Thus committees made up of members of each camp in each section organised tasks for the prisoners, dealing with the running of the prison. A person might be put in charge of running the library, organising the newspapers, supervising the cleaning, placing orders from the prison shop, or acting as liaison with the authorities over studying or medical issues. A delegation of inmates would meet the authorities with certain queries. Teams for cleaning the section were selected by the committee in that section, which would exempt those who were physically unfit to engage in such work. The rest would be divided into swaps to do a particular cleaning task.
A boycott against cleaning the office and toilet of any warder was common when that warder did not “cooperate”. The prisoners would also choose a team—known as the phaka span (dishing-up team) - to dish up food brought from the main kitchen in drums and large pots. After wiping the dishes, the phaka span would dish up and signal to inmates to collect their food by shouting phaka or hitting a steel dish with a Spoon. Matters concerning the community generally and prison authorities were handled by the Geneva Committee, named after the Geneva Convention, the international code which governs the treatment of prisoners.
When I arrived, I was told I was to be placed in B-Section, and I asked whether I would be allowed to visit a relative in A-section. Instead, I was conditionally allowed to be housed in A- section, so long as I met certain conditions (such as that I should “behave”, which was interpreted by inmates to mean I should not agitate other inmates). Inmates in A-section were mostly former ANC guerrillas. Among them were the accused in the 1979 Maritzburg “show trial”, in which the caged accused defiantly chanted revolutionary slogans and war-cries before the judge. This defiance continued in A-section, where commemoration services were held for June 16, May Day, Women’s Day, MK Day, with freedom songs, speeches and poetry performed in the-full glare of jailers in charge of the section.
War cries, freedom songs and slogans extolling ANC leaders were a common feature of exercise time, early every morning. This defiance was seen by some as an attempt to force the authorities to close the section, which most jailers scorned as a place of drifkoppe (hotheads). The only work allotted to residents of A- section was cleaning their section - and prisoners chanted and sang slogans and freedom songs in unison during this work. Unlike the tolling of a bell, which signals the beginning of the day in most prisons, on Robben Island the day began with a musical piece from the first LP selected for the day’s programme. Until he performed at Sun City, Frank Sinatra’s music was for many the right medicine to start a good day. Tunes like Don’t Worry About Me warmed my cold cell on winter mornings, and I used to keep beat for cell exercises with his bouncing hits, backed by Billy May’s big band and the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Shirley Veal’s “Good Morning Show” on Saturdays was a favourite programme, especially among the older prisoners.
After my early-morning routine of musical press-ups, I would quickly make my bed. The steel bed covered with a foam mattress was about 60cm wide and 40cm high. Five blankets were issued in summer and seven were issued in winter. But these were not used as blankets in the conventional sense: they were spread on top of the mattress to absorb the humidity, and one went immediately on top of the body. There were no sheets until last year, when inmates received one dark grey “sheet”—so small that it often disappeared when one turned in one’s sleep. One “brick” straw pillow – so called because of its size and hardness was also supplied. By the time my cell was unlocked at 7am in the mornings, I was as strong as a lion and ready to dash outside and run around the courtyard to warm up for a demanding physical training programme in the company of former guerrillas.
At the beginning I could not keep pace with these young men of the bush, because theirs was military-style physical training. But two Maritzburg show-trial guerrillas, Willie Sekete and Tito Maleka, spurred me on. Exercises were interspersed with a cruise-running “break” during which the guerrillas replied to slogans shouted in toyi-toyi fashion by the exercise leader, praising all the figureheads of socialist countries, from Augustino Neto and Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro, as well Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. After training, we would proceed to the bathroom for a shower in lukewarm brackish water before the call for “breakfast”. Thereafter, the cells would remain open during the day. We would be called for lunch at 11am and supper at 3pm weekdays (and 2pm weekends) before being locked back in the cells at 4pm. In some prisons, we would be locked up for an hour in the middle of the day; however, on the Island, we were free to roam around the cells, the dining area and the courtyard between 7am and 4pm.
During the day, there were a number of activities. Some people would play sport, such as tennis, or card games. In some areas of the section, informal political discussions would be held. In others, prisoners would be giving formal academic lessons to others. Tokyo Sexwale, for example, an ANC guerrilla sentenced to 18 years in 1978, would teach accountancy to matric and university students, and I would teach Afrikaans and English to students studying from Std 8 to matric; I had passed both subjects for my law studies. Former Communist Party member Harry Gwala, a bookworm and former schoolteacher sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977, made it his task to educate inmates who were neither working nor engaged in formal education. His view was that political education should take precedence over all other education. I was one of those who attended his classes, alongside classes in political economy by Laloo Chiba, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe fighter serving an 18 year sentence (he was released in 1983), who had majored in economics at university.
Some prisoners would read newspapers, or simply sit in their cell, or in the courtyard sun, and study. Regulations did not allow daytime study for most prisoners, because they would be occupied in work spans, but in A and B- Sections this was ignored. After lock-up, one would be able to read in one’s cell. Lights would be turned off at 10pm at first, and later, after a protest, at 11pm. However, prisoners had learnt various ways to keep their lights on and they could read or study all night if they wished. The cells were simple, but many had been filled with paraphernalia over the years. The standard cell had a wooden door and a barred window which could be opened into the corridor. Cells were furnished with a bed, a small stool and a table. Some prisoners with back problems had chairs ordered by the doctor. ” Most of the cells had shelves that had been installed - unofficially, but with the authorities tacit consent - by fellow prisoners over the years. Others had lockers made with scrap wood. Everyone had boxes under their beds in which they kept their belongings. Many cells also had “mufflers”, a removable wooden box stuffed with towelling or cotton wool fitted over the radio speakers to muffle the sound, which was always at a set volume.
At the time of my release, my cell was rated the best in B-Section. I had made it most beautiful - under the circumstances. I had stuck pictures on the walls cut from calendars and reproductions of oil paintings. I also had photographs of my fiancée taken during a Women’s Day commemoration, as well as photos of Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela, Hilda Dude and Esther Maleka executive members of the Western Cape United Women’s Congress and Fedtraw, and my lawyer, Priscilla Jana. In fact, at one stage, the prison authorities brought a television crew to film my cell as a model cell. The only thing they removed before the filming was a picture of Winnie Mandela, given to me by her husband. On the Island, you hardly ever see the horizon. And we Ionged to see Table Mountain, which seemed so close, and yet was so difficult to see. That is one of the reasons it was so exciting to get a visitor. Apart from the joy of seeing one’s loved ones, one had the opportunity of leaving the section and walking to the visitors’ bay, set about loom from B-Section. It was a chance to see outside the prison and, best of all, to see the horizon.
Some time after my arrival on the Island, I was having a chat with Elias Motsoaledi, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial. “Have you ever seen Table Mountain?” he asked. “How can you see Table Mountain here? It is difficult even to see the horizon,” I said, gesturing at the walls that blocked off any view. “Come,” he said. “Let me show you.” He took me to a small ramp that ran from the B-Section cells into the courtyard. I had walked up and down that ramp every day for years without noticing anything special. Motsoaledi showed me how one could stand on little bench at an exact angle and peer over the wall and see Table Mountain. Not Cape Town; no houses or people just the mountain against the sky with the tablecloth spread over the top. After that day, I always wanted to see the mountain. On certain days, I wouldn’t be able to see it and I would go to Motsoaledi and tell him the mountain had vanished. “It’s just the mist” he would say, and I would wait to try and see the mountain because I was anxious. Sometimes, I would have to wait a whole week.
Security on the Island, particularly in B-section where Nelson Mandela and other Rivonia trialists were kept, was so tight that some people had spent 10 years on the Island and had never cast eyes on Mandela. But after I had been in prison for a while, A-Section prisoners were allowed, to attend weekly movies in B-section. Movies were chosen by inmates from a catalogue, and we saw all sorts: Sophie’s Choice was a hot favourite. So was Under Fire. The inmates like films related to struggles. Searches were conducted from time to time during the tenure as head of the prison of Major Badenhorst who succeeded Harding in 1981. The searches were carried out either in the evening after lock-up or early morning before lock-out. All staffers in the prison would pounce on one section at a time and remove anything which was not supposed to be possessed by an inmate. It was clear Badenhorst intended these raids to unearth political literature; and two years after my arrival, a lot of it was seized during a search of A-Section.
Within a week on June 21, 1982, five of us, including Harry Gwala, were ordered to pack our stuff as we would he transferred to B-section, where most of the ANC leadership were incarcerated. The others were Gwala’s co-accused, Anthony “Mfen Endala” (Baboon) Xaba, who is also doing life, as well as Naledi Tsiki and his co-accused in the 1978 “ANC 12” trial, Mosima “Tokyo” Sexwale. No reasons were given for this transfer.
I attributed my transfer to letters I had received from Mandela known in prison as Madhiba. We had carried on a correspondence through the secret prison channels, but our code of conduct demanded vigilance. I regrettably violated this code when I kept Madhiba’s smuggled letters longer than necessary. Like many in South Africa, l idolised the man and destroying anything he wrote was the last thing I could do. His letters were relies I thought I would smuggle out of prison upon my release. Honesty was also demanded by the code of conduct. I voluntarily confessed to my colleagues that the letters had been taken during the search. My confession and the fact that I was a victim of Mandela’s magic got me off the hook in my camp’s disciplinary hearing. My correspondence with Mandela comprised issues on journalism, family life, machinations of prison authorities and politics.
I had first heard the Island described as the University of Revolutionary Politics by a security policeman during my interrogation. He said I had been caught because I was an amateur - and soon I would be sent to “the university”. Both in the A and the B sections, political debate was the order of the day. Political classes were conducted with the knowledge of members of the Prisons Service, who tamed a blind eye. Since formal education was often discontinued at the whim of a prison officer, informal political education was considered not just a pastime but an obligation. Political discussion entailed anything from analyses of current local events to news of international developments.
On the occasion of the discussion, the chosen inmate would introduce the subject matter and lead extensive discussion until the matter had been exhausted. At the end of each discussion, the next topic would be announced and the person who was to lead discussion would be chosen. In the Charter camp, every member of the camp would be accorded the opportunity, on an informal basis, to lead discussion of a particular subject, irrespective of standard of education. It was amazing how the least-educated former guerrillas excelled in these discussions. These discussions were most enriching - as much as any discussion by intelligent, men and women outside prison, except that on Robben Island it was done intensively by committed political leaders.
I was awed by the manner in which revolutionaries from the ANC camp could analyse the political situation in and outside the Republic even before they had access to newspapers. Volumes of thought-provoking essays written by these men confirmed this impression. Research for the discussions would entail consultation with fellow inmates and use of the prison library. Over all the years, the library in B-Section had been maintained by Ahmed Kathrada, one of the Rivonia trial lifers. He had built up the library over the more than 20 years he had been on the Island. Should a particular book or periodical not be available in the library in one’s section, it would be loaned from libraries in other sections. The selection of books supplied by the provincial library was big but not very good.
Kathrada was an honours history student at the time and he could feel what books people wanted ordered. There were books on history, economics and other educational subjects as well as fiction, but there were no books on the development of society as perceived by people like Marx, which is a basic requirement for one’s political education. However now and then we could glean a small reflection of this subject from other books. And there was a set of encyclopaedias donated by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Now and then we would read about books, books that were reviewed in the newspapers, for example, and we would ask him to order them. Most of the books people wanted were stories of other people’s struggles and revolutions or about Marxism-Leninism. People in Robben Island knew of some Western writers who did not distort Marxism and Leninism and would order those books. Sometimes we were loaned books from the provincial library or the university and we knew once we returned it we would never have access to it again, so a team of prisoners would transcribe it. They would spend days and nights hand-writing a copy of the book.
Should information not be available in print walking libraries such as Mandela and other political heavyweights would be consulted. These people were indisputably well-informed. When the discussions were due to take place, a group of inmates would be selected to attend a class at a particular venue where a particular topic would be discussed. For instance newly arrived inmates with no political experience would attend classes separate from those attended by more experienced men, so that their political education would start from scratch. For the sake of the authorities, classes were made to appear as ordinary interaction between inmates. This could be done anywhere: outside in the sun or in a cell-always in the presence of members of the Prisons Service. Although warders were entrusted the task of preventing any political activity, at the same time many of them thought this petty. Besides, they strove to maintain good relations with the inmates whom they regarded with awe. And, in any case, it would always be difficult for them to establish whether a conversation between a group of us was political, since we would simply change the subject when they came close by. Other jailers saw how futile their task was and acknowledged that inmates would never abandon politics. There were some artists in prison.
In my section, there was Tokyo Sexwale, who painted watercolours which some of us would hang in our cells. Other inmates played musical instruments, such as guitars and saxophones; one could hear them strumming or blowing away during the day. Govan Mbeki, a Rivonia trial lifer, was one such guitarist. At Christmas every year, we would get together and put on a show for each other in the section. The prisoners, usually the youngsters and very seldom the leadership, would sing or play an instrument at the concert. Some of the prisoners, were Marxists and didn’t take Christmas seriously; but you would be surprised at everyone saying “Merry Christmas, comrade” and taking part in the party and concert.
Harry Gwala, for example, was a committed Marxist, but he would go to church services. The Catholic priest, Father Long, was a philosopher, and Gwala used to enjoy hearing him philosophise in his sermons. The church services were held on Sundays in the dining hall and all sorts of people attended them - sometimes just to keep contact with people from outside the prison. Different ministers from different denominations would come each week. There were also Moslems on the Island and even one black Jew. I was told by people in the main section that he had converted a lot of people in the prison and his synagogue, based in Soweto, was growing. The introduction of newspapers and, later, TV, made prison life a good deal more tolerable and greatly improved the inmates’ access to information. Certain cells which were not occupied were used as reading rooms. In fact, they called it a newsroom, although I kept telling them that was the wrong word. In the newsroom, they would lay the newspapers out on the shelves and on the bed. People would stroll in and read them, some taking notes. The place would be congested during the day—even by those who did not have a newspaper reading “licence”.
Naledi Tshiki, another ANC guerrilla who was sentenced to 14 years in 1978, was in charge of the newspapers. His task was to keep a register of the newspapers and the names of the prisoners who were receiving them. If a newspaper did not arrive, he would query it with the authorities or send a letter to the publishers. During the day, we would also take some of the newspapers into the courtyard and assemble there. Somebody would read the paper out to the crowd and we would discuss it. Prisoners have to qualify for newspapers and people like myself, who had been giving the prison authorities a tough time, were refused such privileges. So we would stand around in the courtyard and pretend we were enjoying the sun, and the warders could never see whether or not we were discussing what was in the paper. The authorities would turn a blind eye, because they thought prisoners who weren’t allowed to read would be troublesome. B-section cells were demarcated into swaps for the purpose of sharing newspapers after lock-up time. Those who were allowed to would take the newspapers into their cells and read them. When they were finished, they would tie a string around the paper, put their hands out of the cell window on to the corridor and throw it to the person in the cell opposite, who would catch it through his window. When he finished he would tie the paper up again and throw it back across the corridor to the next cell.
The hardest moment of my years inside was when the Commissioner of Prisons turned down my application to marry my fiancée. Marriage was a passport for a visit; I believed I would not see Amanda until my release. Inmates were allowed visits only from first- degree relatives. But in my case, Harding made an exception and set a precedent. After Amanda was allowed to visit me, other prisoners started campaigning for visits from people who were not members of their immediate family and now such visits are permitted. It is unlikely that inmates would survive the many years in prison without the moral support of their loved ones. It is from these grass widows who stood at the window with a lighted candle for their menfolk for as long as they were in prison, even for life, that we drew the courage we needed in jail. The other source of courage was the “lifers” who I had the opportunity of getting to know well: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Wilton Mkwayi and others.
Next week: A rare personal look at the jailed leaders of the ANC.
This article originally appreared in the Weekly Mail