South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Life as a Political Prisoner

Quotas and restrictions clogged the lives of all the political prisoners, and letters were not an exception. A prisoner could write one 500-word letter every six months and receive one 500-word letter in the same time period. It was not unusual for wardens to count off what they considered 500-words in an incoming letter and snip off the rest. But soon the wardens tired of this counting and changed and the regulation which allowed for 1 ½ sides. Prisoners soon learned to write in small print. As censorship was so stringent, prisoners soon found ways round this problem: write in code. This was by and large successful and, in this way, the prisoners were able to keep in touch from time to time with what was happening in the outside world and know what SAMAD’S attitude was to AMRIT, or to decode: What America (=Samad=Sam=Uncle Sam) felt about the African National Congress.

Letters from Robben Island [MSU Press 1999], a selection of letters written by Ahmed Kathrada to family and friends, provides the interested readers with a range of areas of interest from education to religion to language to youth, including coded messages and covers the period of his incarceration from 1964-1989.

While authorities and the government were bent on breaking the spirits of the prisoners, the prisoners viewed their incarceration as a continuation of their struggle against apartheid on a different terrain.

By the 1980s, the political prisoners had a library; many had studied for and were successful in earning degrees; they had television, magazines, and could order full-length movies. They even put on their own Christmas shows and concerts and were able to cultivate vegetable gardens.

After 20 years, Kathrada was allowed to hold a child in his arms!

In May 1991, the last political prisoners were removed from the island.

While quarry work was exclusive to Robben Island, conditions generally were similar in the prisons that held white political prisoners – men and women. The association of “white” with “privilege” was unquestionable, that is, until it came to white political prisoners. Just the opposite was true: the white political prisoners were given the most menial, humiliating, and degrading tasks that could be found. They were seen by the white warders and wardresses as traitors to their own people, as people who had thrown in their lot with the swart gevaar (black danger) and the godless communists. Punishment for them was swift, and no allowances were made. Bram Fischer, who was dying of cancer, was not spared from his duties. On the eve of his death, he was allowed to be placed in his brother’s care. And after his funeral, the Security Police stipulated that his ashes had to be returned to the Department of Prisons – his remains were their “property.”

Robert Vassen wrote this essay specifically for South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy. Vassen is editor of Letters from Robben Island: A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence, 1964-1989.
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