By: Stephanie Ebbs
“Robben Island was a prison for political dissidents. It was not on any maps of Cape Town, despite being visible from high altitudes in the area. It was a place you were sent to disappear.”
Political prisoners were resilient despite mistreatment under apartheid
In the limestone quarry on Robben Island there is a pile of stones. The stones were placed a memorial placed by former prisoners during a reunion in 1995. The quarry is overgrown now, seen mostly by tourists on a bus tour of the island. Past the pile of stones there is a dark cave, where prisoners spent their lunch hour as a respite from the blistering sun reflecting off the limestone. Above it all, a now-rusted guard tower looms as a symbol of the oppression that brought people to this place.
Robben Island was a prison for political dissidents. It was not on any maps of Cape Town, despite being visible from high altitudes in the area. It was a place you were sent to disappear.
Apartheid was a period of intense racial segregation in South Africa. Several laws during that time were used as justification for arresting freedom fighters, such as banning political organizations like the African National Congress or implementing pass laws, which restricted where people could be based on their race.
Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison at Robben Island, describing it as “the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system” in his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom.
Some of his health problems like sensitivity to light have been associated with his treatment there, like spending all day breaking stones in the hot sun.
While Mandela is the most famous prisoner he is far from the only one. Thousands of men, women and students were arrested by the government under restrictive apartheid policies, like banning political organizations like the African National Congress or implementing laws restricting where people could be based on their race.
“At different times many of our comrades were detained, not charged with any offense, but detained under the dreaded security laws of that period for the purpose of interrogation and torture,” said Russel Christopher, a former member of the underground military wing of the ANC.
But the police state didn’t dampen the fight.
“We regarded the struggle in prison as a microchosm of the struggle as a whole. We would fight inside as we fought outside,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, adding that the racism and repression of white warders against black prisoners were the same as harassment outside the prison walls.
Renfrew Christie is the epitome of the perseverance exhibited by so many imprisoned activists. Christie was a scientist but his used his expertise and education to hunt the nuclear weapons the Nationalist government was developing.
After his arrest in 1979 Christie was tortured be being forced to stand for a night and a half, only allowed to sit if it was to confess to being a spy.
“That night was pure, total fear,” he said. “There were two very large policeman with dinner-plate hands in the room and they made it very clear that they would beat the hell out of me if I stopped standing.”
Christie managed to turn the confession around to actually help the ANC. He described his findings in detail including instructions on where to place a bomb in the facility used to enrich Uranium. Two ANC activists bombed the facility months after his confession was read aloud at trial.
Fear was used against the prisoners in other ways as well. Christie spent two and a half years on death row in John Vorster Prison in Pretoria.
“They were not going to hang me but they just wanted us to listen to the hangings,” he said.
The sounds of those hangings and the days before are vivid when he describes them. The prisoners would sing for days before each execution, solemn, serious music meant to sooth the men who were being hanged.
At five or six in the morning the day of the hanging, a “clack” of the trap door meant it was over.
About half an hour later, you started to hear the nails being hammered into the coffins.
“That was not fun,” Christie said.
Despite the dismal conditions and isolation from the outside world, prisoners often found ways to bring attention to their treatment in detention.
One of Llewellyn Macmaster’s most precious things is a letter written to his brother on a long piece of toilet paper, smuggled out to dental faculty at the hospital by a comrade seeking medical attention.
Russell Christopher’s mentor Yunis Shake, who is now a judge, was arrested for the purpose of interrogation. He also slipped a note to someone at the hospital describing the torture he was subjected to, which brought press attention to the treatment of the prisoners.
Public attention was one way the prisoners continued to pressure their jailers but there were also efforts of rebellion within the prisons.
Mandela is often credited with gaining prisoners’ rights on Robben Island. These fights took the form of symbolic victories, like getting trousers instead of shorts for all African prisoners, to gaining permission to start a soccer club and maintain a sense of normalcy inside the prison.
When Dullah Omar, the lawyer who represented many activists including Mandela, was at Victor Verster prison in 1985 he was kept in solitary confinement, not allowed to receive visitors or have access to medication for his heart condition, his sister Rahmat Omar said.
He was well known in the justice system, she said, and the inspector of prisons came to visit him amid a campaign for his release. On the day of the inspector’s visit, the prison authorities arranged a bed and access to his medication, she said.
“They tried to arrange the visit so it would not be possible for the inspector to speak to Dullah, to have any conversation,” she said. “Dullah refused to see him unless he could have a conversation with him, and so when he did come they had a conversation and Dullah told him what the conditions were in the prison for all the prisoners.”
After that meeting, the prisoners were moved from Pullsmore to Victor Verster prison, where they were given beds, allowed visits and given access to textbooks to take university courses.
Cecyl Esau, another former Robben Island prisoner, wrote about pressuring the prison administration against injustices in an article for Kronos magazine.
When Esau was first brought to Robben Island in 1987 he was kept in the Observation section for two months, despite other prisoners being transferred and moved after only a few weeks.
The warden would not respond to Esau’s initial complaint so the prisoners swept the dirt from their cells into the hallway and let it accumulate for several days. They threatened to cause more trouble for the warden and were transferred the following week, according to the article.
The small acts of resistance and solidarity kept prisoners going. At Victor Verster and on Robben Island, where prisoners were allowed to interact during the day, they held informal political and interfaith discussions, in addition to taking courses from the University of South Africa.
“One of the ironies or the paradoxes of apartheid is that Robben Island brought together many people who resisted and fought against the apartheid government, and were arrested and convicted,” Esau said.
These individuals were from different political groups within the liberation movement, which he said allowed him to engage in unhindered understanding of different ideologies and approaches to struggle.
Llewellyn MacMaster, who studied theology and is now a a pastor in Stellenbosch, said the interaction was good preparation in critical thinking and understanding people from different spheres of life.
“It was a school for me, the detentions, it made me strong and gave me time to think about why I’m in this and also from my faith perspective,” Macmaster said.
In one example, he described how the prisoners created “radio Victor Verster” to get through the long evenings locked in their cells. Prisoners would stand in their cell to sing songs or recite poetry into the open for everyone to hear.
“Christmas Eve 1985 was so special because when it was 12 o’clock that night, you know Christmas was here, comrade Wilf Rose, who has since passed on, he had a beautiful voice and he was singing the song “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” but he changed the words to “South Africa, South Africa,” and was at that moment singing this particular song,” Macmaster said. “It was so moving.”
That solidarity continued after many political prisoners were released in 1994 and through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to account for crimes committed by the government.
At one point during his work as an MK officer, Christopher was arrested and beaten.
“I had lots of cuts and bruises because nails, the industrial staples that were sticking out, made holes in my head and my forehead and I was bleeding. And he kept hitting me with it,” he said.
The officer that beat Christopher later apologized to him, so Christopher decided not to report him to the TRC. He said people working with the ANC would have had lots of stories to tell but they saw themselves as part of the struggle so it was more important to allow ordinary citizens “that had to bear the brunt of the apartheid forces’ wrath and violence” to be heard.
The ability of the ANC to forgive instead of turn to anger and violence against its former oppressors is largely attributed to Mandela’s example.
“Who are we to not forgive when a person who spent his whole life incarcerated by their system, had his family tormented and brutalized, as well, could forgive,” Christopher said. “So who are we to not? And that’s the lead that we took, which led us to where we are today. For me to even be here alive and sitting here talking to you about anything to do with the struggle is a miracle in itself.”