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Life as a Political Prisoner

By Robert Vassen
We, that is the Rivonia group [Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Mlangeni, and Motsoaledi], arrived on Robben Island on the 13th of June 1964. It was a Saturday – cold, windy, raining. We cannot forget the first months at the quarry where we mined stone – we came back with blisters, bloody hands, and sore muscles. And we cannot forget the dozen years or more when we were forced to sleep on the cold cement floors with three blankets and a thin sisal mat. Also we cannot forget the cold showers for 13 or 14 year. There is so much more that one can recall, much more that we have found in ourselves to forgive, but these we will never forget.
Ahmed Kathrada on opening the “Esiqithini: The Robben Island Exhibition” 26 May 1993
The prison authorities had told these political prisoners sentenced to life in 1964 at the Rivonia Trial and other political prisoners that work in the quarry would be for a few months only. They would work there for 13 years. Another form of hard labor was breaking stone. In his Memoirs, Kathrada recounts how from 8:00am to 4:00pm daily they would sit on concrete blocks breaking stones into gravel, which was then used for construction. He wryly remarks that, “in effect, the prisoners built their own jail”. (Memoirs, (p. 205)

Those cold cement floors on which they slept measured about 6 by 8 feet; in one corner stood a bucket for ablutions, which had to be emptied and cleaned first thing every morning. The only other item in the cell was a basin of water for drinking, washing, and shaving. The water for showering was cold sea water of the Atlantic.

When they arrived on the island they were given prison garb, and even here, apartheid was in evidence: the non-Africans were given long trousers and socks, while the Africans were given short trousers and no socks. This was both calculated and sinister in intent. In the South Africa of the time, all Africans regardless of age were referred to, and often even called, “girls” or “boys.” The message was loud and clear: “Boys wear short trousers!” To complete this wardrobe, all prisoners were given a canvas jacket, a shirt, and a jersey (or sweater).

When political prisoners entered prison they were automatically placed in “D” category, while common-law prisoners, including murderers, bank robbers, and rapists, were placed in the higher “B” category. Every six months the political prisoners would appear before a prison board of senior police officials. The prisoners would be questioned, reports from their warders would be considered, and an assessment and decision would finally be made: they could be promoted to the next category or demoted, or remain the same. In a letter to a friend, Eddie Daniels, who served a 15-year sentence, wrote that it took him four years to be promoted from “D” to “C” and that, within months, he was demoted back to “D”. Those who got to “A” category, and who had the financial means, could buy additional foods such as cookies, candy, and beverages. They also could purchase tobacco and newspapers and magazines.

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