The essay was originally published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine
Nelson Mandela was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award by the government of India in 1980. The then ANC President Oliver Tambo accepted the award on behalf of Mandela, who was still a political prisoner on Robben Island in South Africa. Accepting the award, Tambo remarked, “The tragedy of Africa, in racial and political terms is concentrated in the southern tip of the continent — in South Africa, Namibia, and, in a special sense, Robben Island”. When Oliver Tambo accepted the award, South Africa was still an apartheid state and Robben Island was still home to many political prisoners, among them, Laloo Ghibe, Mac Maharaj, Ahmed Kathrada, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu.
Located 12 km from Cape Town, in Table Bay, Robben Island has — for over 400 years —served as a place of exile for political dissidents, quarantined space for lepers and the insane; and, from the 1960s to 1991, a prison used to house political prisoners and a metaphor for the inhumanity of the apartheid State. During apartheid, Robben Island was a place of dread and fear. Separated by water from the mainland, isolated and restricted to all but prison officials and the prisoners held there, Robben Island was known to South Africans only as a “place to which prisoners went and from which they seemed never to return”. It was the living, breathing monument of fear, helplessness and humiliation of life in an apartheid state.
The story of Robben Island that circulated during those years was, in part, a story of state power. It was the embodiment of suffering, violence, torture, oppression and everyday suffering inflicted by a white minority on a majority black population. The apartheid government’s use of the island as political prison, banishing those who dared to resist against this system communicated a commitment to preserving the authority of the apartheid State and to eliminating opposition to minority white rule in South Africa.
While the name of Robben Island came to represent the brutality of state power, it also became symbol of the people’s resistance to state-sanctioned violence. Hell-Hole: Reminiscences of a Political Prisoner, written by Moses Dlamini, tells the story of his three years on Robben Island narrated along side with the story of his youth in South Africa’s black township. Dlamini narrates a story of violence, racial segregation, and everyday humiliation that destroyed the will of black South Africans. The terrain he describes is an urban concentration camp with mapped-out systems of partition, poverty and police brutality. The accounts of life in the black townships of South Africa and his life in Robben Island are remarkably similar. Dlamini interspersed narrative reveals the tragedy of the untranslatable idiom — the society that most Black South African lived in was already a prison. Robben Island was simply a more brutal manifestation.
In the early days of his imprisonment, Dlamini writes, “I could imagine leaving prison like a vegetable, unable to speak coherently — stuttering or with a slur and fearing any White man I come across. And when someone tells of the struggle for freedom — looking at him in shock and just shaking my head”.
Fear, that Dlamini writes about — also found in other memoirs of political prisoners from Robben Island — is the fear of losing one’s humanity. Their incarceration was a struggle for dignity and survival. It was a continuation of the political struggle against apartheid, and a resistance against men who denied their humanity. The personal struggle for survival on Robben Island was also the political struggle for freedom from apartheid. The closing words of Mandela’s argument during his political trial echoes similar sentiments of what it meant to reject apartheid, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”
The physical space of Robben Island may no longer house political prisoners, but the Island still holds political meanings, symbols and memories that are relevant today, as a new generation of men and women take the streets in resistance against unjust governments and authoritarian regimes. While the apartheid state might have given way to a democratic South African state, the tools of the apartheid state — juridical racism and state racism are alive and thriving in many of part of the world. While we pay tribute to the memory of those who were political prisoner of the apartheid state we need to acknowledge the many men and women who are still imprisoned, detained, silenced and killed for their political views and activities today. Around the world, people continue to be deprived of democratic rights, liberties and social justice.
Egyptian activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, was shot and killed while marching to commemorate the hundreds of demonstrators killed during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, earlier this year. Chinese scholar and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo was charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” He was given an 11-year prison sentence on December 25, 2009, for co-authoring a proposal for political and legal reform in China.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s fearless coverage of the conflict in Chechnya earned her international recognition, but also brought harassment and intimidation from authorities. She was detained, threatened and, in October 2006, shot dead at her home in Moscow. Tural Abbasli is a blogger, journalist, and head of the youth wing of the Musavat Party, one of the two main opposition parties in Azerbaijan. He used Facebook to criticise the country’s government, and was involved in planning peaceful anti-government protests in March and April 2011. On April 2, 2011, Tural was arrested along with 13 other activists while taking part in an unauthorised protest against government corruption and abuses of human rights.
Martin Luther King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 after being imprisoned, in his letter’s most famous line he states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is imperative that we demand that these precious voices of protest survive. To honour the memory of Robben Island is to stand for the principles of freedom and justice. The past must always address the present and there are no easy walks to freedom.