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A South African Prison Is a School for Revolution

May 10, 1987|Steven Mufson | Steven Mufson is South Africa correspondent for Business Week

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Just six miles past the luxury beach-front homes of Cape Town's Clifton Beach lies a tiny outcrop of limestone--a bleak, wind-swept island caught in the icy Benguela Current that flows up from Antarctica. A Readers' Digest guide lists Robben Island as "noted for its arum lilies" and "superb" view.

But Robben Island is better known as home to more than 500 of South Africa's most important political prisoners, the rock where resistence lives and grows. It is a sort of graduate school for revolutionaries, as raw youths who have rallied school boycotts discuss technique with elderly founders of the armed struggle who first masterminded bombing and sabotage campaigns aimed at overthrowing the South African state.

A South African hotel mogul wants to buy the island and turn it into a gambling resort, but with dozens of additional people on trial for political crimes, the government is likely to preserve it as is. Like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, the island's distance from the mainland across frigid waters makes it virtually impossible to escape. Only one man has done it--Autshumayo, known in white history books as Harry the Beachcomber, who was sent there after the 1658 war between the Khoikhoi people and the Dutch, just six years after whites settled in what is now South Africa.

Many contemporary Robben Island prisoners return to the mainland simply by finishing their sentences. Every couple of weeks, an inmate earns what passes for freedom for blacks in South Africa.

Such released prisoners form a peculiar sort of alumni association, schooled in concrete cells and taught by a tenured faculty of lifetime maximum-security prisoners. The government had hoped that half a lifetime behind bars would dampen the revolutionary fervor of two generations of political prisoners, one sentenced after the government crushed the military wings of the African National Congress and Pan-African Congress in 1963, and the other imprisoned after the 1976 student uprising.

Just the reverse is true. Robben Island alumni form a network of activists who help nurture new resistance. One man who left prison after nearly two decades told me during his first week on the mainland that his plans were uncertain because, "It isn't up to me. It is up to the organization and my comrades."

Many former inmates take up positions of leadership in nonviolent organizations affiliated with the United Democratic Front anti-apartheid coalition. Half the executive committee members of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization are graduates of Robben Island. The patron and president of the UDF in Natal Province are both island alumni.

"There is no rehabilitation in prison. Even an ordinary criminal is a more hardened criminal when he comes out," said Steve Tshwete, 49, once of Robben Island and now a top ANC leader in exile. When they return, most prisoners share a rare political maturity and exert a mystique that commands authority among more hot-headed radicals. Robben Island veterans usually are good listeners, educated and patient, not easily discouraged.

Tshwete's struggle started three decades ago. In 1958, he was recruited into the ANC by his high school principal. After the ANC was outlawed in 1960, Tshwete joined the underground command structure of the ANC military wing in East London, between Durban and Port Elizabeth, carrying out acts of sabotage. An informer tipped off police. He was arrested and, in 1964, sentenced to 15 years on the island. When released, he was eager for political involvement: "They have imprisoned you for 15 years and you must inflict pain on them."

The government didn't make it easy, keeping close watch on Tshwete. Upon his release in 1979, Tshwete was banished to a small town in the black homeland of Ciskei. But he played a role in setting up the UDF and became its regional president. He planned boycotts and helped form black township street committees. Police often warned him that his activity would win him a trip back to the island. In late 1985 when police came to his house, Tshwete dashed out the back door and ran away. Disguised, he later sneaked through a heavy police cordon to address a political funeral before fleeing the country, then resurfacing at the headquarters of the outlawed ANC in Lusaka.

Tshwete sees his years on the island as central to his commitment: "I spent the ripe hour of my youth in prison with the ANC. I know no other life than the ANC." Robben Island prisoners have contact with the best and brightest South African activists--other inmates. "It is a disadvantage to be in prison, but you must turn it to your advantage," said Tshwete.

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