Today we were taken to “The University,” as Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners called Robben Island, the prison where they were kept during the apartheid rule. This is where the head leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were sent after the Liliesleaf raid, and was home to any political activists who were found to be in opposition to the governments views and practices of separation. Political prisoners were often isolated and kept from reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and, in many cases, from talking to other inmates. These political activists needed to be kept off the streets, separate, and silenced as they were a threat to apartheid regime’s political agenda and way of life. Robben Island tells a story about human rights, perseverance, resilience of the human spirit, and doing what is right even when it is not easy.
We took a ferry to the island and then a brief bus trip to the beginning of the tour where we met our guide, Sipho Msomi. Msomi was a political prisoner back in 1984 and was kept for 5 years on counts of being a member of the African National Congress (ANC), organizing and campaigning for the ANC, and for recruiting for military members of the ANC.
One of the aspects of studying history is that the people who experienced the event or era are often not around to interact with anymore. I’m so terribly sad that all the greats who fought in WWII are dying off…the last Titanic survivor died in 2009. These are only 2 examples that I have personally studied, but you get the idea. Once these people are gone, there is no way to interact and learn directly from history, and we must then rely on only the reports and evidence left behind.
Fortunately for us, former political prisoners of Robben Island from the apartheid era are still alive. Even more fortunate, many of these former prisoners have (albeit sometimes reluctantly at first) have agreed to become involved in the Robben Island Museum and even give tours of the prison, like Msomi. Msomi was arrested in 1984 and was kept in solitary confinement for his first 5 months. He was disoriented and unaware of what day or month it was, typical symptoms of solitary confinement. (Below, Robben Island prison with Table Mountain in the background.)
Msomi began by discussing some of the conditions of the prison and the methods of torture, such as beatings, electrical shock, waterboarding, chemical acid dripped on the tops of their heads, and humiliation practices (to name a few). Msomi said, “The word ‘loneliness’ does not begin to capture the reality of what we experienced. It actually minimizes the reality of the experience.” The prisoners were only allowed 2 visits per year and 2 letters per year. The letters could only be 120 words and were screened. The guards would count the words and make anything they did not want the prisoner to see and anything over 120 words illegible. Prisoners who died were often buried in secret under the prison and families were not notified. Food was provided based on race. The prisoners would use hunger strikes to try to improve prison conditions.
Another means of repressing the exposure the political prisoners had to the outside world was by banning newspapers. Despite this, the prisoners often found means of confiscating newspapers, whether by stealing, sneaking, or from sympathizing guards. From the newspapers the prisoners would hold discussions and “classes” about the information they learned. Despite their varying political ideologies, cultures, and races, they knew they had to work together to survive. A common purpose has a tendency to keep people together for the greater good. Msomi said that, despite their horrific circumstances, they kept their sense of humanity and sanity by learning from each other, entertaining each other, and through laughter. Msomi referred to the bathroom as their “only free space.” This struck me for some reason. No matter how imprisoned a person can be physically, there is no way to imprison one’s mind if their spirit isn’t broken. (The graffiti below from Joburg, before it was covered up, said “I can still think.” Love this.)
They had to keep their spirits up for the greater good. They used their “free space” to have political classes, practice political poetry and stage plays, and to practice stand-up comedy.
After hearing Msomi describe some of the conditions of the prison and methods of torture used to punish and get people to talk, it made me wonder how many people were broken during the process. It’s hard to know what one would actually do in that situation, but easy to speculate. I don’t think I could take it. Most of the prisoners kept true to their cause. Msomi mentioned how the prison officials would attempt to turn the political prisoners into spies. Curious, I asked Msomi how many people gave in and became spies. He referenced a broadcast in which the President said he would release political prisoners on the condition that they must denounce support and oppose the ANC. In that example, Msomi said that out of 800 prisoners, only 4 took the deal. Only 4 out of 800. I probably would have made 5…the admiration I have for those men is infinite. At every stop they sacrificed their own comfort and “freedom” for the greater good. They knew they had to stick together or perish separately. I thought the tour of Robben Island would be heavy and sad. Yes, of course, it was sad. But more than any other emotion, I felt inspired and in awe. It was an example of the resilience of the human of the human spirit when working towards a greater good, despite the personal consequence or cost. I can only hope to be even a quarter of what those humans were, and a quarter is probably a stretch. The experience made me want to be a better person.
The very nature of oppression and resistance often leads to contradiction of the oppressor. For example, the KKK supported and encouraged prohibition. In so doing, speakeasies were developed which became cultural and racial mixing grounds—the very thing the KKK was/is against. A similar thing happened on Robben Island with the prison practices and their motivations in how they housed the prisoners. They intentionally kept the political prisoners mixed in with the hardened criminals in an attempt to break their spirits; what ended up happening was contradictory to what the prison intended. Most of the political prisoners were educated and ended up reforming and educating the hardened prisoners. But it didn’t stop there. Many of the prison guards were also uneducated and were asking the political prisoners to teach them, as well. Wardens then began being rotated frequently to prevent them from becoming sympathizers.
Below is a picture of the cell for prisoner #466, Nelson Mandela.
Mandela and the other prisoners were often punished with manual labor. Much of their time was spent at a lime quarry (work which set them up for health issues with their lungs, eyes, among other things). When Mandela and other fellow former prisoners went to visit Robben Island, Mandela grabbed a rock and placed it next to the lime quarry. The others followed suit and placed their rocks in the pile. This became a symbol of remembrance.
Side note: A church on Robben Island performs marriages every February 14, for anyone who may be interested!
As if Robben Island wasn’t enough awesomeness for one day, the evening consisted of a former political prisoner coming to our team house (on the beach) to have dinner and give us a talk about his experience. After dinner we all congregated in the common area (during the sunset) to soak in last rays of the day and the information Lionel Davis came to share with us.
Lionel was born in District 6 in Cape Town which was a racial mixing bowl at the time. Sixty-five thousand residents were force removed from District 6 during apartheid. He recalled how he first came to think politically based on an event that happened when he was 13-years-old. Lionel explained how he went to the store to buy eggs and milk, but the store owner thought he was there to steal. The store owner demanded to see inside Lionel’s bag, but Lionel refused. He knew he wasn’t stealing and felt offended that the store owner would make that accusation. Instead of letting the store owner check his bag, he threw an egg at the owner’s head and ran. It was then that he became acutely aware of the racial injustices and decided to fight back against the oppressing powers. He reflected how whites saw themselves as better than anyone else.
Lionel was a part of the National Liberation Front who wanted to take arms against the apartheid government. He was arrested in 1964 for conspiring against the government. He spent 7 years in jail and 5 years on house arrest. On Robben Island, Lionel was classified as “coloured.” While still treated poorly, the coloureds thought they were better than blacks as all of the discriminatory practices were targeted specifically at blacks. Blacks were not given night clothes and often slept in the sweaty clothes that they had worked in all day, day after day. The prison was new during that time and still had wet concrete. The conditions, as mentioned by Msomi, led to eventual health issues such as arthritis and emphysema, among others.
Lionel emphasized the differences among the prisoners and that they were not just one homogeneous group that naturally got along. They were people who normally would not mix. They came from different cultures, races, religions, and varying political ideologies; some were Pan African Congress (Lionel) while others were from the ANC, to name a couple. (Whites were not kept on Robben Island.) Despite these differences, they all learned how to live together and had an unwavering passion to learn. Lionel had gotten in trouble and was sent to the B block where Mandela and other political prisoners were kept in individual cells. He reflected how after returning to their cells, there would be absolute silence—everyone was focused on reading and learning. Many prisoners left with degrees from South African University and went on to become lawyers, judges, and doctors after their release.
Lionel noted how Mandela went to jail as a military idealist, but came out as someone transformed, likely as a result of their experience on Robben Island. He learned that we have to break down the barriers and accept each other to work toward a common good—like they did on Robben Island.
History, in my mind, should always be examined from both sides. Lionel mentioned a prison guard who was very touched by Mandela, and they became friends. He wrote a book called Nelson Mandela My Prisoner My Friend . I haven’t read it yet, but just ordered it on Amazon.
If you like hearing stories from both sides, and want something from the German perspective during WWII, a former Hitler Youth, Traugott Vogel, wrote Under the SS Shadow , which was a good read.