Nelson Mandela and his fellow ex-prisoners recall their incarceration on Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz. (1994)
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A DOG BARKS
This is Robben Island. This one is a blue hell.
Prisoners are not allowed to sing. Prisoners are not allowed to whistle.
Prisoners are not allowed to treat warders with disrespect.
It was assault. It was insult. It was hounds set at you.
With all those Afrikaaner, the warders, shouting,
"You shall never get that freedom."
They raided our cells at night.
They stood me, told me to hold the wall.
That was one incident,
but personally I felt very bitter - angry.
The spirit of solidarity with our cause
was visible and we could cut it with a knife.
This is what gave us the hope that one day we would return.
The accused are Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela,
Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu,
Dennis Theodore Goldberg,
Govan Archibald Mbeki,
Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada,
Lionel Gabriel Bernstein,
Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.
They are charged on two counts of sabotage -
one of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act
and one of contravening the General Law Amendment Act.
The verdict will be...
accused number one is found guilty on all four counts,
accused number two is found guilty on all four counts,
accused number three is found guilty on all four counts...
In June 1964, the main defendants in the Rivonia treason trial
were flown to the new maximum security prison on Robben Island
to serve life sentences alongside other South African political prisoners.
Only intense international pressure had saved them from the death penalty.
I felt relaxed when I got down in the plane
in Robben Island.
The atmosphere was quite different and I knew I had come to stay,
I'm not passing, and therefore I was completely relaxed.
The struggle for physical survival was not the issue.
You had to struggle at all levels.
It was a struggle for dignity even more than survival.
Robben Island was not a death camp or a concentration camp of any kind.
That was what made a lot of people survive whole.
If we'd had to continue to struggle at that level, I don't think many people would've come out whole.
What was important was the fact that the ideas for which we were sent to Robben Island would never die.
And we were therefore able to go through
some of the harshest experiences
which a human being can have behind bars,
especially a South African prison
where the warders were drawn from a community
which has always treated the blacks like pieces of rags.
You are locked up in the cell.
A single cell.
You are allowed exercise - half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon.
In the early years of our arrival,
you had no bed - you were using a coir mat.
You fold your blankets, you would sit on that,
and yet there would come another warder
who'd say, "You take those blankets out into the passage,"
so that you'd be left sitting on...
that coir mat.
And if we recall...
..that Robben Island
is in the Atlantic Ocean -
And the winters can be terribly cold.
Robben Island lies just 7km from the mainland at the southernmost tip of Africa
in the bay which is dominated by modern-day Cape Town.
Its recorded history dates back to the 15th century
when it was visited by sailors passing the Cape of Good Hope
on their way to and from India and the East.
"In this bay, there is a small island
"not inhabited, nor any good thing groweth.
"In this island, there is an abundance of seals and penguins
"in such number as is almost incredible.
"The penguin is a strange creature.
"Being a bird which has a strange and proud kind of going, thereof the bigness of a duck.
"They have finny wings with which they swim a great pace, but cannot fly.
"The eggs of these penguins was there in such abundance
"so that we laden our boat with seals, penguins and eggs in two hours."
Few visitors stayed long on the island as there was no fresh water
and the rocky shoreline made landing extremely difficult.
Surrounded by near freezing waters and treacherous currents, the island is a natural fortress.
Like its US counterpart, Alcatraz, an ideal place of banishment
for enemies of the state and other offenders.
They wanted to deep freeze us
so that we were forgotten by our people
and the flame of liberation is obliterated.
The fact that, for instance, we were in a complete state of siege
to drive in the point you are not entitled to be in contact
with the civilised world and that you were there to die.
I remember one guy....er...er...
who would...who would make the point expressly
that you must pay the price.
Prison is a place in which you must suffer.
If we were to convert this place into a five-star hotel,
then you'd be coming in here, you know,
in your thousands.
The first thing we had to do was get into Robben Island clothing.
I was given long pants, jersey, shirt, jacket, shoes, socks.
They were given the same clothing,
except they were given short pants to wear right through the winter.
and they were given no socks. As a special concession, they were given shoes
because African prisoners, according to regulations, were only allowed sandals.
The African prisoners were
put on the F diet scale.
And for us, there was no bread.
We longed for bread.
We longed for bread.
..what struck us, what was strange to us...
..was that the people who were denying us bread...
..were very keen to tell us -
they were religious...
..and that they were Christians.
And they prayed every day, probably twice daily...
..and did that with their families too and their children,
"Give us this day, our daily bread."
And yet, to them...
..we were not part of the "us"
that should be given daily bread.
"Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord
"and in the power of his might.
"Put on the whole armour of God
"that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood
"but against principalities, against powers,
"against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
I actually lost hope at one time,
hope of ever coming out alive in Robben Island.
There was no reading material that was allowed for us to read
except the Bible.
And we were also not allowed to have contact with the other people.
I was in isolation all this time.
And I was not allowed to have discussions with any of my fellow prisoners
outside P section where we were kept.
A few days after our arrival, we were taken out for the first time,
out of our cells to wait in the yard, the courtyard.
Little knowing people from Britain would be arriving from London.
I think they were representing the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper.
When they got there, they found us...
knitting jerseys, all jerseys,
mending them, so to speak.
And prison authorities said, "Well, this is the type of work we are giving them."
which did not need, you know, hard labour or something.
They inspected the prison
and took photos.
That is how that picture was taken. It was taken whilst I was talking to Nelson.
We were aware
that they were allowed because they were right-wing
and that it was going to be propaganda.
The moment they left...
..everything was taken away from us,
and stones, big rocks were brought
into our yard
And the instructions were,
"You break this into small stones."
That was the type of work we did at the beginning.
We were then taken out to go and work in the land quarry.
Political prisoners who had been lawyers, teachers or journalists in civilian life
were made to dig lime in all weathers.
They were punished if they complained of the cold in winter
or the glare from the lime in summer which ruined many of their eyes.
Some, like Sisulu and Mbeki, were already in their 50s
and as they worked, they sang to keep up their morale.
We would be wielding the pick up and up to music
and down and down all in harmony.
it reserved our energy.
you found that there were workers who were working fast.
As you walked past...
..an expression like this would go.
And you are not even stopping to address the workers.
You say this is now in Kosa.
HE SPEAKS IN KOSA
"The white man's work never gets finished, comrades. On your knees."
That's the expression.
The labour of Africans and slaves had been used to construct white South Africa
since its earliest days as a settlement of the Dutch East India Company,
which used it to provision its fleets.
In the 1650s, the first Dutch governor, Jan van Riebeek,
fattened sheep on Robben Island and shipped lime and stone from it to the mainland
to build houses and fortifications.
Van Riebeek's fort became the centre of the Cape's first settlement
and his men set about acquiring sheep and cattle
by means of barter with the Hottentots,
whose goodwill and quaint manners
were at this time a source of pleasure to the new colonists.
One version of the country's early history
is provided by this propaganda film made before World War II,
during which many Afrikaners were detained for their active support of Nazi Germany.
These simple people would become his children.
Under thoughtful guidance, they would develop into useful members of a new community.
And the flag of his beloved Netherlands would be the guarantee of their protection.
In the absence of a jail on the mainland,
the Dutch also used Robben Island to house convicts and recalcitrant natives,
whose names are recorded in the criminal records of the time.
Throughout sentences of up to 40 years, they were forced to wear chains and leg irons
and were often further punished with various forms of mutilation.
Extreme cases were executed by being thrown into the ice-cold channel
between the island and the mainland with rocks tied to their bodies.
A significant number of these early prisoners were held for political offences.
They had been shipped to the island from colonies in the East by their Calvinist masters
for expounding the rival faith of Islam, which was prohibited by the Dutch.
One of the most anxious concerns of many of us
was whether our children would understand properly
why we had chosen the path we had taken...or not.
We knew what was being taught in the Bantu Education Schools
..suffocate any interpretation of our history
which would enhance this understanding.
And the beginnings of the exercise to smuggle letters out to my daughter
were inspired by some of these circumstances.
"Dear child, the story of my arrest goes back to 1450.
"That is a long time ago, not so?
"In that year, our African forbears were the inhabitants of this country.
"They owned all the land and went up and down without laws to restrict them.
"They hunted wild game, ploughed and planted wherever they choose.
"Among them were great hunters, chiefs and medicine men.
"As in the other parts of the world,
"these tribes went to war with each other too.
"But certainly no-one tried to hold another in slavery or bondage of any kind.
"They had their problems too, of course,
"for they did not have the knowledge we have today.
"People could not write, as I am able to write to you now."
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, South Africa became a colony of the British,
who embarked on a series of campaigns against the neighbouring Kosa tribes.
When the Kosa were defeated, the British shipped their greatest chiefs in chains to Robben Island,
where, in 1868, they were visited in exile by the German traveller Gustav Fritsch.
The chiefs lived in huts, built all in the same style,
as they dwelt in in their homeland.
These were like beehives, furnished over with reed grass.
Of these men, four were convicts on the island.
One, Siolo, was simply a prisoner,
having given himself over in the British war.
Mokwoma was the most infamous,
as much known for his cunning as for his cruelty. That he must have been,
having buried a prisoner in an ant heap, who thus ended his life suffering very much.
For a little tobacco and one shilling per head,
they were willing to give me their presence for some time to take their portraits.
Not without some difficulty, as sitting still throughout seemed a problem.
Many of the pictures left much to be desired,
but at least they showed the features well enough for scientific use.
One of the chiefs asked that I must please plead for his release.
He wouldn't become healthy unless he was in the air of his fatherland.
And with that, the tears rolled down his cheeks.
Me, Makoma, wishes very much
that government would sent his son and his child over to me on the island.
His name is Matolo. When he left me he was a small boy, so I like to see him now.
Makoma, Kaffir Chief.
Me, Delima, I'm very sorry that government send me back to Robben Island.
So government must please take me away from here.
I'm not intend to fight any more, so I hope government will pity me.
Delima, Kaffir Chief.
We were quite conscious that our presence on Robben Island
was actually traversing the steps which much senior fighters
had already traversed. The best minds from amongst our people were chiefs,
and very noble characters who would not bend
and give away the dignity and the freedom of their people.
And that inspired a lot of us.
The great Kosa general, Makoma, died in poverty on the island
and his story was forgotten for 100 years.
But in 1978, he became the focus of a bizarre propaganda exercise
when South Africa allowed the Siskei government to send a blind albino soothsayer to the island
to identify and dig up his remains.
The bones she found may not have been Makoma's,
but the event was intended to shore up the legitimacy of this newly created puppet state.
'On Saturday August the 6th 1978, a large crowd of mourners braved the Cape weather
'to watch the first stage of Makoma's journey back to his homeland.
'After the discovery of his ancestor's remains,
'Chief Makoma asked the British government to arrange a state funeral.
'After all, it was the British who arrested him in 1857
'by whose hand he died.
'The request for a battleship and a state funeral was turned down.
'It was South Africa's Minister of Defence, Mr PW Botha, who made available a frigate,
'men of the South African fleet, an element of the army to the Siskeians
'thus underlining once more the understanding and goodwill existing
'between the government and the leaders of the black states.'
From the outset, prisoners on the island were isolated from the rest of society.
Their only contact was with their families, most of whom lived hundreds of miles away.
They had to apply for official permission to go to the island
and were allowed only one visit every six months,
which was restricted to just 30 minutes.
The train took two nights and a third day.
It arrived at Cape Town at seven.
At half past 11, I started to walk,
asking people the way to the harbour
because I did not even know where the harbour is. I got my boat.
I was escorted to where Andrew was waiting.
It was a long passage
with just the top. On the sides, there was nothing.
And there was a fence and a passage and a fence.
He was standing there. Outside I was standing. We were shouting
at one another and there were other people, other prisoners and their family. It was such a lot of noise.
In our discussions... Some discussions - I couldn't even hear what he says.
I had been discussing some of these issues with my wife
before we were arrested.
But, my dear, we have got to prepare ourselves.
One day, as people engaged in a struggle...
..we know from the history of the other struggles that when people go to prison, they go for a long time.
We have got to prepare ourselves for this.
I didn't want to show him how much I was hurt.
I wanted him to feel that I'm not so worried, although, really,
I was very much hurt to see him, the way he was dressed and in that weather.
-How was he dressed?
-With short trousers.
It's not a khaki. I don't know. It looked like a canvas trouser.
A jacket and sandals without socks. And it was cold.
I was very much hurt to see him standing there.
We were still very hurt and fed up about what happened to our husband.
We went... The government separated a home, separate the two parents.
People who love one another.
Because we were still young
when Andrew was arrested,
I was still looking forward to the future with him.
But it was torn apart by the government taking him to prison.
PLAINTIVE GUITAR MUSIC
I wrote this song on a plate, my own song.
All other songs couldn't express how I felt at the time.
You know, sometimes you get feelings, which...
you can't write down, you can't express. And that's how I came to play that song.
I don't know how people know what it's like for people to be in love
and to be in a prison.
You know, it's such a contradiction.
I think it was more or less an expression of that contradiction of those feelings.
But some of the music was lively. But one can say that some of them were quite sad.
I was Head of the Censor Department.
That was sort of the lifeline of a prisoner, put it that way.
Everything goes through that office.
Can you explain what the Censor's Office did?
Er...well the Censor Office duty was to read each and every letter
and...according to rules and regulations
to take out or censor letters, you know.
Things that were then not supposed to come to their attention
and also vice versa.
That was really what it was all about.
What sort of things?
Well, as I say I can't go into it right now,
but there are rules and regulations that stipulated
political things, things like that.
That first sieving of letters
was one letter in six months.
And even that letter,
it would pain you to look at the way it is stretched.
And finally, left with a few, few lines.
Only to say the children are well and all that.
You look forwards for the weekend to get a letter,
and then you get a letter of that type - very painful.
I was very, very much attached to my sister
and I was expecting a letter from her.
I was called into the office, then when I came in
the warden said, "Are you Kwedie Mkalipi?"
I said, "Yes".
He said, "Do you know Dowis Mkalipi?"
I said, "Yes, that's my sister."
He said, "Your sister?" I said, "Yes".
"She's dead. Go."
No... There was just something that day.
Made it impossible for me to believe
or even to think that I believe what I'm hearing.
So I then went on, I said, "Look, what do you mean?"
He said, "I've told you she's dead and what do you want from me then?
"You're wasting my time."
I said, "No, but how did she die?" He said, "Look, I'm not staying there,
"among the Kaffirs in Transkei.
"I'm telling you that these are the people that have been knowing about
"how your sister died. Get out of my office!"
And that type of insensitivity, it was one of the things that er...
for the first time, when I came into my cell,
I cried for the first time ever since I've been in prison.
the prices that came to bear
were not prices that could have been anticipated really.
You found people who came on Robben Island, for instance,
maybe sentenced to incredibly long sentences.
I recall er...one er...
one of our people who came to Robben Island was sentenced to 20 years.
He was illiterate.
He came from the countryside of the Transkei.
And because of his illiteracy,
he did not understand what... He could not conceptualise 20 years.
And it took time.
When he began to learn, to read and write,
he calculated what a year means and so on.
And for the first time,
he realised just how long he had been sentenced to.
I know one who got 40 years.
He too, took some years
before he became alive to the reality of what he had to deal with
and he lost his mind.
The prison was one in a line of institutions
which had been set up on the island.
In the 1860s, it was used to house mental patients from the mainland
and the so called "chronic sick".
As in other Victorian asylums, conditions were harsh
and the inmates were expected to comply
with a suitably draconian regime.
Instead of being treated as sick,
they were regarded as outcasts who were a danger to the society.
They were soon joined by another group whose existence was thought offensive and even threatening.
When leprosy was discovered to be contagious,
those suffering from it were forced into quarantine on the island.
Even though their condition was rarely infectious
and many had been quite adequately cared for by their families in the past.
Despite their tragic deformities,
the lepers were perfectly normal.
They formed bands, organised picnics and kept animals on the island.
Nevertheless, they were treated as freaks whose very presence was a social embarrassment.
As victims of an incurable disease,
theirs was a life sentence.
They had to stay on the island till they died,
and despite protests from their families,
they were also buried there.
Robben Island in one sense has been the dustbin of South African history.
All the unwanted things and people have been dumped on Robben Island,
whether they were rebels against whatever system,
lepers, insane so-called, insane people, they were all dumped in this dirtbin, so to speak.
But it is a very peculiar dirtbin,
because in reality what happened there was that all this offal,
all this...these people, unwanted people,
in very many ways became symbols, became in that sense,
very undermining symbols for the system.
And we were very aware as prisoners on Robben Island,
we were very aware of the history.
By the 1890s, the number of lepers on the island had swelled to more than 400,
roughly the same number as would one day fill the maximum security prison.
At various times they rose up against their conditions
by taking over the wards and threatening the medical staff.
The leader of one such rebellion was a semi-educated man named Franz Jacobs.
Faced with the authorities' indifference to their plight,
he wrote a petition to Queen Victoria to plead on the lepers' behalf.
"Robben Island, 10th August, 1892.
"Our request and entreaty to the Queen of this Empire
"is let us poor sick ones have our freedom.
"We are imprisoned and shut up on Robben Island
"for it is prohibited to go away.
"We live as if we were dead. It is so dark here.
"We are taken from our homes,
"that is worse than slaves.
"There should be a time for coming out,
"but we might stay here for ever.
"What she does for the slaves, will our Queen do for us
"and free us from slavery?
"I know a man who died of a broken heart.
"He asked the doctor to let him go to see his people.
"The doctor would not let him go
"and it afflicted him that he died.
"It is hard to be here away from wife and children.
"For God says, what He has joined together should no man put asunder.
"Dear Reverend Queen, consider not this letter,
"my father and brother were too poor to have me properly taught,
"but what I write to our Reverend Queen is true."
"My address is FJA Jacobs,
Number Two Hospital, Robben Island."
There is no recorded response to Franz Jacobs' petition
and Robben Island remained a leper colony until 1930.
One did get off the island to go to see specialists in Cape Town.
And...this was one of the most humiliating experiences in jail.
You had leg irons strapped onto your legs.
And they...clamped on you handcuffs.
So you have both handcuffs and leg irons.
With handcuffs, handcuffed hands,
you had to hold up the leg irons.
And you get a sound from the chains like this - walla-lass, walla-lass.
And you can't walk normally if you have got leg irons on.
You walk, as it were, like the movements of a he-baboon.
Walking forward and the people all turn their eyes to you.
And when you go to a hospital like this,
then there would be thousands of people...
..in the outpatient department.
There would be a general buzz, like one experiences a beehive.
But the moment a prisoner appeared
all of a sudden people kept quiet and looked up.
And all those eyes...
thousands of them,
would be looking up at that one individual in leg irons.
And you'd feel, as it were, feel their eyes
as if they were penetrating through your whole being.
It was an experience.
An experience one doesn't like to recall.
But when it happened, it hurt, it hurt.
A Kaffir is a dog.
And you are a prisoner and you are a dog and Mandela is a dog himself
because he's a prisoner. You can be educated, you can have 101 doctorates, but you're a Kaffir
and that means nothing to me and your number nothing.
HE SHOUTS ORDERS IN AFRIKAANS
I don't know if it would be correct to say they regarded us as animals.
Because they care a lot for animals.
See the way they care for their cats,
the way they care for their dogs.
Now, they wouldn't extend the same treatment to us.
In other words,
I'd rather say they regarded us as a deadly enemy,
their deadly enemy who had to be destroyed.
Human beings are human beings.
There are rises and ebbs of morale
and especially against the statements which were made
that a sentence of life means life
and that those people would die in prison.
And although always in high morale,
nevertheless there were moments of doubt.
Whether the expectations that we had that one day we'd return
would be fulfilled.
It's natural that there should have been such moments.
I can utter now that you ask me say, on this particular day
this was my mood.
But there were moments when one doubted whether that day would come.
RECORDING: The accused have told me and their counsellor told me
that the accused who all recognised leaders
of a non-European part of the population
have been motivated entirely by a desire to ameliorate these grievances.
I am by no means convinced of the motive of the accused
whether it is as altruistic as they wish the court to believe.
People who organise the devolution
usually plan to take over the government
and personal ambition cannot be excluded as a motive.
The function of this court, as is the function of the court in any country,
is to enforce law and order and to enforce the laws of the state.
The crime of which the accused have been convicted,
a crime of conspiracy, is in essence modified treason.
The state has decided not to charge the crime in this form.
Bearing this in mind and giving the matter very serious consideration,
I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty,
which in a case like this would usually be the proper penalty.
As consistent with my duty,
that is the only leniency which I can show.
The sentence in the case of all the accused
will be one of life imprisonment.
Many prisoners did not look at escape as a feasible project.
A mass escape from Robben Island getting to the mainland
necessarily meant immense loss of life, if not a complete destruction of the project.
But there were others, including myself,
who from the day of my arrest never gave up the idea of physically escaping from prison.
Escaping prison meant working at that project
with a great determination and steadfastness.
It was a question of accumulating the tools
and...instruments that you would need,
in little bits and pieces that would not necessarily connect and be useful as an end product.
You saw a piece of wire at work.
It has no meaning from the point of view of escape,
but to take a better example, you came across a piece of flat steel,
iron, wrought iron.
At that stage it makes no sense,
but provided you stored it, as it happened in my case,
years later it became the basis to make the master key to Robben Island.
Because without that steel, we couldn't have made it.
And it was only if your mind was occupied with the problem
that you could see and say to yourself,
"Let me pick up this blade and hide it away. It may be necessary."
We did it by simply taking... collecting some lard
and filing down that piece of iron
and inserting it into the keyhole and looking for each point at which it was meeting resistance.
And then filing through the resistance points,
we then had to ensure that it served as a master key.
It turned out that that master key could be used for all cells in our section
and we were then left with the question of the access gates.
Again, what we found was that our master key needed very slight adaptation
to serve the purpose of the external entrances to the prison.
It wasn't really for the purpose of escaping,
you see we were living in this section where there were 80 cells
of which we only occupied the one wing of about 30 cells.
So around the corner from us and in the other wing all the cells were open.
So we'd open one of those cells with our key and keep contraband.
That's what we used the key for.
I'd been used to working with criminal prisoners for a long time
and this was a total change about.
Criminal prisoners, you couldn't leave, for instance,
some money lying around or even a pen for that matter or a lighter
in your office, it would be gone.
Quicker than what you could look for it, it would be gone,
but not the story or the case with the political prisoners.
They'd probably bring it to you and give it back to you.
We never had in all the time there
one case where a member complained about anything being lifted from his office or whatever.
Not even a newspaper?
No, newspapers weren't allowed in a section, the prisoners won't allowed to use them.
If we were discovered with newspapers, the penalties were harsh.
You would, um... be sentenced to spare diet,
which means that every day you'll get mainly rice and water.
I've seen people come out of an 18-day spare diet
with the skin on their faces so taut,
you could actually see the shape of the skull
and it was very, very, very frightening.
On June the 16th 1976,
the first major revolt erupted in the townships after 15 people,
many of them schoolchildren, were shot dead in Soweto.
The result was a full-scale uprising.
Whenever there were big events outside,
they used to react.
And we immediately guessed that something was happening outside
which would be favourable to us.
There was one particular period when they acted quite normally,
as if nothing had happened, and that was the Soweto Uprising.
Um...we heard some snippets of garbled information
which was grossly exaggerated and distorted.
They were so successful in keeping the news away from us that time...
..that there was literally a news drought...
..and we first came to hear of the Soweto Uprising in August of 1976,
which was two months after it had happened.
The Soweto Uprising set off a new wave of resistance,
both inside and outside South Africa.
Military and civilian installations were sabotaged,
international trade sanctions were imposed
and unrest in the townships reached almost revolutionary proportions.
In an effort to smother this growing opposition,
arrests were stepped up
and a new generation of prisoners arrived at the maximum security prison on the island.
I knew a lot about Robben Island before I went there
because that's where we knew that our heroes were kept.
We knew that Comrade Mandela was there, Comrade Sisulu, so...
we really equated Robben Island with freedom.
If you ask me about dialectical materialism,
ask me what did I read about that.
If you ask me about Karl Marx,
I didn't learn that in a college or somewhere.
If you ask me about the actual development of society,
and all those things, about Hegel and all that,
I'm telling you it was on the island.
By taking all of us onto the island and putting us together,
they brought together potential politicians,
from all parts of the country.
People who otherwise would not have had an opportunity
to sit and exchange views,
and therefore develop a...you know, a single, national perspective.
One of the things that we discovered there,
and which enriched our own lives,
was the calibre of the men who were on the island.
It was fantastic.
Um...men with whom you could sit down
and at the end of the conversation, you feel that you've been enriched.
Your horizons have been widened
and your roots in your own country have been deepened.
The new prisoners were housed in general cells,
separated from the isolation section in which their leaders were kept.
There was strict security against communication between the sections.
And one of the first things we set out to break was this.
It took us time to do that.
But when we made the breakthrough...
it was joy!
It was joy because we could now get across the walls...
..and communicate with our comrades...
..in manners and in ways
which were not visible to the authorities.
But those things happened right under their noses.
And, of course, we felt happy.
We were succeeding...
..while they were there.
There's nothing like success. It makes one feel so nice.
There were various methods we used to communicate.
One method was...
..we used the kitchen...
and the kitchen was a nerve centre -
one of those few nerve centres in jail.
The prisoners who worked in the kitchen operated a clandestine postal service
Messages from one section to another were wrapped in plastic
and hidden inside pots in which food was distributed to the prison.
I worked in the kitchen and I was a cook
and, um...at that point in time,
Mandela's section - B Section - was effectively the leader's section.
Now, from the kitchen,
the guys take food,
you know, in big pots, into this section.
So I was, um...
put into this pot. You can imagine - I'm this small!
So I was put in this one big pot
and, after that, carried...
into, you know, there are trolleys,
very big trolleys from the kitchen into there - that section.
I think it was all plain.
Because, when I was there,
I heard this voice, "Now I'm ready."
Then I was to come out.
And, coming out of the pot, I was in Mandela's room.
I had to sit down with our now President Nelson Mandela and brief him about what was happening.
But I must mention this. What came out clearly to me,
is that the people there had, um...
a different idea of what was happening outside.
To them, at that time,
they were saying, "The point has come where we'll be freed."
You know, and they were thinking of it as early as tomorrow,
you know, next month, next week, next year.
They just heard that there was a revolution outside
and some of them had high expectations that now, oh, Lord,
this revolution is about to release us out of this prison.
Mandela himself spent a further 14 years in prison.
A political prisoner, before he goes to jail,
he says to himself,
"I am not going to allow myself to go under."
There were those who came to jail illiterate
and we taught them at the quarry, at the places of work to read and write.
Firstly, there were no papers.
And we used the site.
The quarry where we worked, for instance,
in our section, was a lime quarry.
And there you just levelled the lime and wrote there...
..until those students were able to read and write from that.
BIRDS CALL OVERHEAD
When I went to prison,
I hadn't studied for 22-23 years.
And I am greatly indebted to my fellow prisoners
who assisted me so unselfishly.
They enabled me to get two degrees -
a BA and a BCOM.
The prison authorities always liked people to believe
that they encouraged prisoners to study.
But my experience with them
was that they didn't like to see us progressing academically.
Even if you had finished your work,
you were not allowed to study during the day.
Should they find you studying during the day,
your privileges would be withdrawn.
We used to study during the day but to do so, we'd have to hide.
For instance, I remember myself and my study partners used to study in the toilet during the day
and other comrades would be watching for us.
If the warder came, they would tip us that he was coming
and then we'd fold our books.
There was a raging debate right from the beginning.
Some said, "Let's treat these people as human beings.
"It has happened on odd occasions
"that people who've been prisoners are released
"and they've become heads of governments.
"And they're very important people.
"Let us prepare for that day.
"And, um...let us give them newspapers,
"let us allow them radios."
But there were others who said, "Look, we must not take that risk.
"What we must do is to get these people to understand
"that opposing white supremacy... is a disaster for them."
Our treatment was intended to make them never again to resist the white supremacy.
CHILDREN SING IN AFRIKAANS
The white warders and their families formed a close-knit Afrikaner community on the island,
many of whom had lived there for more than a generation.
If you hear the name ANC or PAC or Umkhonto We Sizwe
you know that it's a communist, um...
and that's your enemy. That's how you've grown up.
Anything, even Nelson Mandela,
if you hear that name you...
your hair is risen,
if that is the correct word. That is the enemy.
That is a communist.
That is the people trying to take over our country.
It was a cultural shock for them
to enter Robben Island and find a Catholic saying,
"I want to see my priest."
It was a shock to find us speaking Afrikaans because they thought we only spoke Russian or Cuban.
It was a shock for them to find that they're dealing with highly educated and highly intellectual people.
Eventually, those stereotypes fell.
We broke walls between ourselves and them
and were able...
to find common ground and, of course, friendships were built.
There is a built-in limit to which I would say Afrikaners would generally always go.
And that is their own sufferings,
their own struggles against British Imperialism, did play a role.
I mean, the fact that some of their libratory heroes -
General De Wet, many of them, Boers and so on -
that these people suffered in jail, if not as long as we did,
nonetheless for a cause.
I think that those things made them realise there is a definite limit.
I don't think some evil genius in Pretoria thought it out, so to speak.
It was a systemically determined relationship,
um...that was something that was cruel not just to us,
but particularly to the warders
because what it meant was that their innermost, um...
the innermost components of their own identity
were being challenged in day-to-day practice.
They saw, daily, that we were scholars,
that we were organised people, we were disciplined people,
we were articulate people and so on. They saw that daily.
And, no matter what they may have thought or said initially,
those things obviously undermined
and eroded eventually all the images they had in their heads about us and made them vulnerable.
Of course, when I went, um...to Robben Island...
..in those days, you know, you were told these people are terrorists.
You know, it was... fed to you every day in the media,
the radio, whatever, you know?
And that is what you thought, that you'd find a lot of monsters there.
And, when I got there, you know, I sort of kept my distance...
in the beginning.
An ordinary warder can be more important
than the Commissioner Of Prisons and even the Minister Of Justice
because if you went to the Commissioner Of Prisons,
or the Minister, and you said,
"Sir, it's very cold. I want four blankets."
He is going to look at the regulations and say,
"No, the regulations say you can have only three blankets.
"Four blankets! I can't. It's a violation of the regulations.
"And if I give you four blankets, I'll have to give others four."
But if you go to your warder in your section,
and you say, "Look, I want an extra blanket."
If you treat him with respect...
..he'll just go to the, um...store room
give you an extra blanket and that's the end of it.
You know, since he's been out, he's phoned me on a few occasions
and, um...he calls me James and I call him Mr Mandela.
-Doesn't it feel weird you were the warder and he the prisoner?
Not really. I think we understood each other too well, so...
it wasn't weird, you know.
He had no animosity towards me and I had none towards him.
The relationship was very, very good.
I would... We would sit and talk for hours.
He never tried to convert me to his politics
but, you know, about general things. News, you know, what's happening.
So there was a very good relationship between the two of us.
There still is today.
-How would you describe him as a person?
Since I've met him...
he was a perfect gentleman.
That's all I can say about him.
He was one of the most refined, um...warders.
Well informed and, um...courteous with everybody...
very good observations.
I developed a lot of respect for him.
The leadership, they were in a certain section on the island.
And I used to go there.
If I had trouble with one of the group where he was,
you know, any kind of trouble,
I would actually go to him and tell him, "Look, this has happened."
Then he would talk to this person.
In the early 1980s the prisoners,
aware of growing international pressure on the authorities,
fought to improve conditions inside the prison.
They did so at considerable personal risk.
In 1981, we mounted a hunger strike.
It was not long after the Irish hunger strikes
in which Bobby Sands and others died.
Of course, the hunger strike is a two-edged sword.
You come out of it and many people have got ulcers.
Once you have a case of ulcers, you have ulcers forever.
You don't heal those sores.
We had, over the years, complained about and demanded the right of access to our children.
The prison authority's argument was that we were prisoners,
we were terrorists
and that the fact of our children seeing us
would impact very badly on their minds.
Our constant argument...
was that, um...
whilst it is true that white society saw us as terrorists,
within our communities...
we were...we were heroes.
People suffered. There's no doubt about that.
Probably, for all of us,
the greatest deprivation was not the sexual one -
the separation from women for example -
not that so much but the separation from children.
The fact that I never saw a child for ten years,
was something which even now boggles my mind.
CHILDREN SHOUT AND PLAY
One day we were working in the quarry.
While we were digging, we heard a few noises of some children,
just on the other side of the bush.
It was spontaneous for us. We all turned as if automatons
and looked in the direction where the noise came from
because we were deprived so much of even the voice of a child,
never mind seeing a child.
So we had to look into that
but then the warders saw that we were looking in that direction,
so they ran, of course, naturally, to chase these children away,
so that we should not see them, we should not talk to them.
The 1981 hunger strikes succeeded in changing prison regulations
about access to their children
and gradually, through a combination of their own and external efforts,
further privileges were won
which allowed prisoners to lead a more human existence.
Robben Island is a small place.
The prison on Robben Island is also a small building.
To survive, the mind must have time and must read,
must do all sorts of things,
and of course must keep physically fit also.
Because if you are sitting in one place - my cell was 2m x 2m -
to be stuck there for 13 years is a long time,
so you need to go out and play sports.
We would do anything to play all types of sports on Robben Island -
we even tried golf.
They refused because the balls would fall into the ocean
and if they did and you are asked to go there you may not come back.
MEN YELL, WHISTLE BLOWS
My nickname "Terror" comes from being a striker.
So one on the things I took to jail with me was my footballing skills.
Many people tend to think that I am called Terror because I was a terrorist.
But, no, I was a terror, I think, more for the goalkeepers of the opposition,
and that's really where the nickname comes from.
BALL BEING HIT BY A RACQUET
What was your sport on the island?
I played tennis... and I played volleyball.
I probably played other games...
-What is this game where you throw a ring?
-No, I don't know that.
Um, there is a ring, a rubber ring which you throw over the net...
What do you call it? Ladies, you should know.
Um, I'll remember the name, now,
and of course we had indoor games as well,
chess, drafts, dominoes, you know,
and one of the other games where you had some rich...?
Scrabble was played.
But there's another game which is also very popular...
-Monopoly, yes. Mm.
Kind of quoits, the other, what do you call...kind of quoits, yes.
I played those. Mm.
It's a funny idea, a lot of left-wing politicians playing Monopoly...
-on Robben Island.
-Yes, quite, yes! Yes, that's true.
< Understanding capitalism! HE LAUGHS
Right through the period of Christmas,
the competition of singing.
We were placed in our particular group,
in a position whereby windows could be used, you can open windows,
it was not a typical prison.
We were able to sing and make competition.
We would stand at these windows, Raymond and I,
or someone, reciting a poem...
..and amazingly the acoustics there were so good
that the voice travelled right down the passage.
What did you do?
Well, I used to sing, as well as others used to sing...
..a variety of songs.
There used to be some who'd sing Blue River,
and others who'd sing Be Mine,
and so on and so on.
There was such a good range of music that came through those rooms.
# Under the starlit skies
# Be mine
# When the night falls into a lullaby
# My arms will embrace you
# With love divine
# And now
# Is the time to whisper that you'll be mine
# Come into my heart
# And stay for ever
# Tell me, tell me that you'll be mine... #
There were guys who went to ballroom dancing before they came to prison,
so they taught some of us who have never been introduced to the art.
So we would do these things in the cells.
Competitions for an outstanding pair.
A club would attract the attention of the warders,
that an entertainment is going on in the cell,
which was supposed not to be the case,
because the cell was supposed to be a place of gloom, of brooding and anxiety and all that kind of thing.
But we brightened up the cell, you know, and engaged in this kind of activity,
so for an outstanding performance,
the chap would say, "Give them a brush."
A brush would be like this,
not a clap, like this, because a clap would attract their attention,
so a brush, "Give them a brush."
We started then also to stage some plays.
There is a book called Waiting For Godot.
That book was written by Samuel Beckett.
And it was a book that, after reading it,
then, a group of us then began then to stage a play on it.
And after that there was a discussion about it -
is this real?
What did the tramp stand for?
What was the message of the author?
Some people said that, you know,
the tramp tried to show us that we can go on hoping against hope.
Others said then that, no, that is discouraging,
because it is something then that is just like Christianity,
that is keeping you down and saying, you get heaven above if you sacrifice everything down here on Earth.
We knew no tyrant is there for all time,
and that in the long run,
however well-armed the tyrant was,
the will of the people would overcome the tyrant's forces,
that we knew.
And the people...
..the people that struggle for freedom...
..the people that struggle for liberation from oppression,
and worse oppression that is accompanied by racism, as in the case of South Africa.
An organisation that leads such people...
..the nationalists didn't learn this lesson.
Probably they haven't learned it even today
that such an organisation can't be destroyed.
Faced with the prospect of economic collapse,
the South African Government decided in the late-1980s
to prepare for a negotiated transition to majority rule.
As part of this opening-up process,
several of the original Rivonia group were released from their life sentences,
in October 1989.
The very first day I did not believe whether it's Andrew.
I was not sure whether to touch Andrew, or whether to do what.
But anyway, when days went on,
I did not even wish to leave him alone for a few minutes.
I wanted to be with him... every five minutes.
Even when he had to come to the office,
that thing came back to say, "Oh, I'm alone again"!
Every now and then I come across something that is new to me.
Um, the first thing I came across when I came out was this, um...cordless telephone,
at my house,
and I'd never heard of or seen one before.
But the most simple thing was the Gillette razor.
I was used to those blades of the old type and I'd never seen this,
and I just couldn't insert a Gillette into...a blade into a razor.
But there were so many little things that were new to me.
The only thing which is still a problem between my wife and I is lights.
I think I got used to lights and I like light anyway,
I don't like darkness.
So my wife takes the opposite view.
She switches off the light, I switch on,
and that is like the prison and the warder.
In prison, I'm not sure whether it was there... In some cases, they put on the light.
You switch off.
Nelson Mandela chose to remain in prison,
until the government conceded to the terms on which negotiations would be conducted.
As the most famous political prisoner in the world,
he became the focus of intense journalistic and political interest.
More and more people wanted to come and see him.
Some of them have curiosity,
many of them tried to climb on the bandwagon, I don't know,
it was so bad that I actually went to him.
The people I knew, you know, that were really visitors,
I issued permits for.
But the people I did not know who they were,
I went to him.
"This person has applied to see you. Do you want to see them, yes or no?"
And he would tell me yes or no, and that is the answer I would give.
So I was very much a buffer between the outside world and him,
and between him and the outside world.
From prison Mandela wielded more authority than his fellow politicians who were free.
Despite repeated offers of deals from the government,
he refused to agree to his release until he felt his demands had been met.
When you first met him did you think he would play such a leading role one day?
To tell you the truth, I had no idea. No idea.
It was only later, I would say from 1985, 1986, I started realising...
..what is happening because I was also, you know...
..interested in both sides, let me put it that way.
I think he started realising, you know, that this is going somewhere,
really going somewhere.
I mean, you know, maybe being the future President,
I mean, not only through my work...
..but, um, you know, I'm an avid reader,
and two and two, you can put two and two together,
and so on, that they had to... Change had to come,
you know, to majority rule.
And it is, I mean, there.
Mr Nelson Mandela,
a free man, taking his first steps into a new South Africa.
Mandela's release after 27 years opened the way for negotiations with the government,
and the release of all remaining political prisoners.
TRANSLATION OF VOICES SINGING:
Robben Island still functions as a prison for common-law criminals.
Many of the present warders worked on the island when the political prisoners were held there.
When I came to the island, people told me, this is like a BIG island,
with very very vicious guys - you can't even speak with them,
and when you got here, a few months past,
I saw, this is people as well.
OK, the crimes might be different, but still they're people.
Did you think then that they were going to be very important politicians
when they left the island?
Oh yes. I mean, the type of high- profile prisoner that they were,
it was obvious often that they would be in a position in a political party,
that they would have some say, even at that stage.
What do you think about that?
Well, we have to accept, I mean, the country has to change.
What do you think about the days you spent with them?
I try to recall their names.
And still, when I seem them,
that's his name, he was in that section.
Walter Sisulu and Andrew Mlangeni were both kept in the prison's isolation section.
On this return visit to show the island to their wives,
the only rules they must follow are those which apply to ordinary tourists.
But the prison itself is still out of bounds.
"The following rules are applicable to all visitors to Robben Island."
"Conversations with prisoners will not be allowed.
"No parcels or articles of any kind are to be handed to
"or received from prisoners.
"Your visit will be on your own risk,
"the management of Robben Island do not accept any responsibility
"for damage incurred or injuries sustained.
"Flora and flora and marine life may not be disturbed in any way."
Ooh, Lord, they are spoiling this quarry now.
They are proud to destroy the history of this place here.
-Where we are standing, people like Mhlaba used to work here.
This is history, why are they making a dumping place?
-They did everything here...
-..Politics, everything here.
Academic studies, everything here.
-Singing was not allowed in the first place.
All prisoners, it's a tradition they sing,
-in order to get, you know, energy.
-Mmm...of the people.
But, with us, no singing.
Although Walter can't sing he loves listening to other people sing.
-Oh, he is a good singer, you don't know him...
-He used to sing.
He is, he still is.
-How about the warders?
-Where were they deployed?
There, along those lines...there.
'We bore no ill will, no bitterness to those people who were so cruel to us.
'We felt possibly we could, even in a small way, rehabilitate them.'
When I was released from prison, I was subjected to banning orders.
And when I went to court after transgressing my banning orders,
one of the security policemen who had tortured me in detention,
offered me his hand, and I took his hand and I said hello.
I've seen a lot of the prisoners that I met on the island,
and realising they might possibly will be the leaders of the next government,
um...it's a funny feeling,
because one didn't really think of that when you worked on the island,
although you knew it was a possibility.
One never ever thought of them eventually being your boss.
One is grateful,
um, although it was a tragedy that you had the opportunity to lead another life,
and to be able to stand back from you and your work and to look at it from a distance,
and to be able to evaluate your work and the mistakes that you made.
It offered us that opportunity.
And do you think that's benefited you?
Oh, naturally. It benefited not only me, but others as well.
I'm supposed to be a very angry man,
and, um...but I think, as a Christian,
I understand and...I hope they will realise what they've done to me.
I was not an isolated case, but I still needed to be a young person,
still needed to be a boyfriend to a girlfriend,
still needed to...play around.
So I'll say prison really took all they days of my youth.
Subtitles by BBC Broadcast 2005
E-mail us at [email protected]
Nelson Mandela and his fellow ex-prisoners recall their incarceration on South Africa's Robben Island. For three decades, the island housed not only political prisoners but convicts, lepers and the mentally ill. Yet amidst the hopelessness, Nelson Mandela and his comrades devised strategies and subterfuges with which they transformed life on the island, while the vision of a new South Africa began to take shape. (1994)