My years on Robben Island with Mbeki

Govan Mbeki always did his laundry on Monday – because that was the day films were screened in B-Section on Robben Island. He never went to film shows. Western-produced films were products of capitalism and therefore promoted the "economic exploitation of man by man". Even after the introduction of television on the Island last December, Mbeki would sit through the news readings but nothing else.

B-Section, which housed the Rivonia stalwarts, was forbidden to inmates in other parts of the prison. Those of us in A-Section had to be content with learn smuggled into our section. In the letters I received from Govan Mbeki he was interested in the way South Africa's economic cake was divided and asked about the press and any gains marks by the ANC military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, as well as what influence MK had on the masses. We were allowed to meet him officially when inmates of A-Section were permitted to mix with those of B-Section on a trial basis.

But long before, walking past B- Section, I often stood to peep through a small hole at Mbeki – known by his clan name of Zizi – and others strolling in the section's courtyard. Tall, slim and grey-haired, Zizi walked alone, and away from the others. I thought he was unique. And indeed he was. He was viewed as being on the more socialist wing of the ANC. He had been an activist since the age of 20, during the time the then National Party leader Hertzog was striving to remove the franchise from the Africans.

It was a time, he said, when his confidence in the church was undermined, because the church did nothing to intervene. After I was permanently transferred to B-Section in June 1982, I finally was able to learn more of this remarkable man. Like Mandela, Zizi was neat – so neat he kept carefully folded small pieces of toilet paper placed on his table to wipe off anything that resembled dirt on the table or his utensils.

The soft-spoken Zizi spoke very little and yet said so much. As a man holding a BA Honours degree in economics, he was interested mainly in that subject. Like Mandela, he was consulted for information required for the purpose of political education among inmates in the Freedom Charter camp. He respected young and old, and everyone was his equal when the South African struggle was debated.

From time to time inmates also had to contend with personal problems, and Zizi would be assigned by the B- Section committee, composed of fellow inmates, to help them. During meetings in which a problem with the authorities was being discussed, Zizi would say very little, but his views invariably carried weight. He was generous with more than advice.

At a time when I was ill and had been prescribed a special ulcer diet which was not being supplied, Mbeki sacrificed his own meal – he was on the identical diet – and gave it to me. He distanced himself from members of the Prisons Service and spoke only when it was necessary. He was notorious from the state's point of view for what they considered his uncompromising communist leanings.

Yet at weekends the 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".

Although inmates were allowed to buy and use irons for their laundry, Zizi never used an iron. To press his clothes he used the old "sleep-on" method of prisoners – he would place the clothes to be ironed under the mattress and sleep on them for the night. Like Mandela he did not completely escape the demands of old age.

He developed the strange habit of switching off the lights in the corridors and cells whenever he saw one burning. On cloudy days and when there was not enough sunlight coming into the cells and passages, he would walk past and switch off the lights. Immediately he would say "Sorry, comrade". Although most people attributed this habit to old age, we were told that in the early Sixties when he arrived, the authorities insisted all lights be turned off by a certain time during the night and never turned on during the day.

Since inmates refused to be ordered around, Mbeki was assigned the job by his colleagues of turning them off. Older inmates were exempted from the work spans assigned democratically by inmates. His daily task was to clean the cell windows opening onto the corridor – he used a cloth and water – and to polish door handles and light fittings in the corridor, taps in the bathroom section, any chrome and brass fittings in the dining hall.

He had trouble with his vision. Ten years ago the authorities began sending him to specialists in Cape Town, who prescribed eye drops. Later in the Eighties as his sight began to blur specialists diagnosed glaucoma, and in 1983 his eyes were operated on. Two years later, his left eye developed a cataract and an artificial lens was implanted.

At the time of my release in March, Mbeki was using eye drops again. He respected young and old and everyone was his equal whenever the South African struggle was debated. He was among the inmates who celebrated my farewell from prison with an elaborate (by prison standards) lunch, catered by my colleagues. It is a tradition when prisoners are released. I could not hold back my tears when we said goodbye at 4 am on the morning of my release. He reached his hand through the window of his locked cell and said "Hamba kakuhle, comrade." (Farewell, comrade.)

It was unbearable to leave him behind. He had been in jail more than three times as long as I had Mbeki avoided going to church, but one day he received a beautiful, expensive leather-bound Bible from a relative. It was placed on his table when he called me to his cell shortly before my release. I had thought we were going to analyse the phrase "Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Instead he wanted to know what to do with the Bible, which had been sent to him in good faith. This time, I was able to offer advice to the man who had advised so many of us. I advised him to keep it and give it to the Christians in prison.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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