The Long Hard Fight For News on Robben Island
As we celebrate media freedom this year, I am reminded of the many years we spent on Robben Island where there was a total news blackout. It was the 1960s, and the prison authorities in what was arguably one of the worst penal colonies in the world, very deliberately suppressed any news getting to us as political prisoners. Sunny Singh, Robben Island Prisoner No. 67/6 recalls his time as a political prisoner.
The leadership of the ANC appointed the late George Naicker and myself to find ways of smuggling newspapers into the prison cells, and later a transitory radio. This was a Herculean task.
We had to devise means of how to win the confidence of the common law prisoners incarcerated on the Island who came from townships like Alexandria, Sophiatown, Soweto, and Langa. Many of them or their parents were active in the struggle.
We formulated a plan, and through Peter Makano, who was a senior member of the ANC, we managed to “recruit” some of them. No political prisoners were allowed to work in or near the warders’ homes. Only common law prisoners were allowed to work there, and that was our first option in terms of trying to access newspapers.
News began to flow in. Initially we managed to get Afrikaans newspapers like Die Burger, and fortunately we had some amongst us who were literate in Afrikaans, especially from Cape Town.
In 1965, just a year after we arrived on Robben Island, news came in of Ian Smith, the then Rhodesian rebel Premier, declaring the Unilateral Declaration of Indepedence. This was with the consent of the vast majority of the white population. The opposition to white rule led to a long protracted guerrila war, which the people ultimately won.
Then came the shocking news that towards the end of 1965, one of our proud and heroic leaders Bram Fischer got captured and sentenced to life. This news was a big set back, and morale sagged amongst us.
Then came another body blow, with the killing of one of Africa’s great revolutionaries Amilcar Cabral.
In 1968, I had to go to Cape Town for a medical appointment, and to my surprise, while hadcuffed to the warder the television news was continuously beaming the news of Vietnam. The National Liberation Front Fighters (the Americans described them as Vietcong) attacked 100 towns and the US Embassy came under siege. This news sent shock waves through Robben Island. This was because our struggle was not only against the dark forces of apartheid, it was also against anti-imperialism. This victory inspired us all.
One day we achieved a communication coup. For the first time our sources managed to smuggle in a small radio. The problem was we couldn’t leave the radio in a cell. So I had to take it to our work place in the quarry.
We never gave up as there was always a way out, and I eventually thought of the dining table in the warders’ mess. We had our handy man Kisten Moonsamy build a small wooden box that was knocked under the table. What a creative thought, when you work together. This was a very important victory.
The prison, like any of the other racist structures, had their agents and spies all over, and somehow they suspected that we had a radio smuggled in.
A prison emergency was declared. All studies, sports, letters and visits were stopped. We were suddenly asked to gather at the quarry and walk back to prison. George Naicker was called, and the authorities put him into a straight jacket. The jacket was laced, and one could not turn your body, and there was no time limit. It was a vicious method of torture. George was very disciplined and he didn’t speak.
The next day, when we went to work, we saw everything topsy turvy, even the dining table was over turned.The mystery was who spoke as only three of us knew about it. So the radio was also a short lived coup.
Communication with the isolation cells where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were detained was difficult. Some of us worked in the kitchen and two of them were shoe repairers – Zakhile Ndalose and Jeremiah Francis. We managed to get them to put the plastic packet containing the news in the boiling porridge. When it reached the isolation section, whoever was responsible for dishing out the porridge under the careful eye of the warder discreetly picked up the plastic bag.
When shoes were sent for repairs, the shoe repairer knew how to conceal the news. This system worked very effectively.
As for getting the newspapers to the sixteen cells, I had to get the comrades lying in a particular way, so as not to attract the attention of the warders. The news used to be relayed to the other political prisoners at lunch time in the quarry in groups of 15.
Here is a speculator one. In the isolation cells I just couldn’t imagine how the comrades survived and devised methods to get news. One day a warder approached Comrade Kathy for help to work out a puzzle in Afrikaans, so Kathy sent him to Comrade Mac Maharaj. Typical of Mac, he asked the warder, “what will you give me?” If he won the puzzle, the warder promised him a packet of cigarettes. As it turned out the warder won, and brought the cigarettes as promised. Then Mac said to the warder, “I am going to report you to the commander.” The warder panicked, and Mac told him to get newspapers. What a victory.
This story tells one that a political prisoner cannot survive without news, even if it meant we had to go on hunger strike for a week or two.
I spoke to Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim who spent 15 years on Robben Island with me. He was also kidnapped from Swazilaznd in 1986, and sentenced to another 20 years on Robben Island. I asked him about how he managed to get news during his second sentence. He said that when he was sent back to the Island in 1989, prisoners were allowed to buy newspapers, but the authorities still vindictively censored the news. The struggle for news continued right up until the end.
We must never take our hard won freedoms for granted.