A cadre of struggle comrades braved a cold Johannesburg on Tuesday to celebrate the launch of Michael Dingake’s latest book, One Man’s Journey from Robben Island to Freedom: Better to Die on One’s Feet at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
In his welcome address, Nelson Mandela Foundation Chief Executive Sello Hatang said, “We are celebrating a legacy that reminds us of the mantra that our common human struggles defy our birthplaces and boundaries of birth, because as long as there are people who are suffering, you can never claim that you are free yourself.
“Although born in Botswana, Dingake identified with the struggle of the people of South Africa, whether they be black or white, whether they were born in Botswana or not, is a lesson that we can continue to learn from.”
Raymond Suttner, publisher, scholar, political analyst and a man actively involved in the liberation struggle, was also instrumental in the publication of Better to Die on One’s Feet and gave an overview of the work and its importance.
“Memories of individuals come alive in Mike’s work; his second autobiography. It’s a story of suffering and sacrifice written in a self-deprecating manner.
“It’s a major contribution to the history of South Africa and contains material that has not appeared before,” said Suttner.
The launch then moved into an informal dialogue between the author and struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, during which they shared memories of their years interned as political prisoners on Robben Island.
Describing the many challenges of getting the underground movement going in the wake of the banning of the ANC, Kathrada recalled Wilton Mkwayi’s partner Irene’s firm belief that he was a “tsotsi”.
“And he was okay with that, in fact he rather liked it,” said Kathrada. “She only became aware that he was a political activist when he was imprisoned after the second treason trial.”
Since most prisoners were kept in single cells, isolated from one another, from South Africa and from the world, the importance of communication became paramount.
“There were hundreds of colleagues in communal cells, so we resorted to smuggling and blackmail to get access to the news. For 16 years we had no newspapers, so we bribed a warder to smuggle us copies of the Rand Daily Mail. Our currency was big packs of cigarettes,” said Kathrada.
“At some point we managed to get our hands on a radio, which became a lifeline – until the batteries ran out. We eventually buried it in a hole in the quarry.”
Dingake recalled some of the hardships of prison.
“Africans had to wear shorts for the first three years, while Indians and coloureds wore long pants. They also received a quarter of a loaf of bread daily, while Africans had no bread for the first ten 10 years.
“However, there were 25 of us in our section, half of whom were Indian and coloured. We chose to share our food.
“We also had no beds. For the first 15 years we slept on two sisal mats – the beds only came in 1979,” said Dingake.
Building on the comradeship and spirit of sharing that prevailed among the prisoners, Kathrada described how their end-of-year Christmas party was celebrated by converting a loaf of bread into a Christmas cake, a feat that was re-enacted as recently as a year ago.
Time in prison was spent studying, praying and playing games.
“We also had time to enjoy a cup of tea. On many occasions Walter Sisulu joined us as an uninvited guest,” said Kathrada. “He was very generous in giving stuff away, his own stuff and others’ stuff too.
“Thursday was washing day and our clothes were usually dry by afternoon, but this was never soon enough for Walter. He would pick up the first dry jacket he could find and put it on.”
There was such a mutual fondness for Sisulu that one prisoner, only remembered as “Frank” was crying unconsolably on the day of his release. Asked why he was so unhappy when he was about to taste freedom, Frank replied: “I’m going to miss Walter.”
Following their reminiscence and repartee, Kathrada and Dingake responded to questions from the floor.
When you went to Robben Island after sentencing, how long was it before conditions started improving?
AK: “There was a lot of emphasis on study, but to register with a university you had to have money provided by your immediate family – a deliberate move to prevent prisoners from studying.
“The vast majority could not register for study, but they received an informal education from other prisoners. Although many prisoners arrived completely illiterate, no prisoner left Robben Island illiterate.”
Capitalising on the opportunity to study, Dingake completed three degrees while imprisoned. He started with a BA, majoring in Economics and Politics, followed by a BAdmin and finally, a BComm. At the time post-graduate studies were not permitted.
He paid tribute to those who were less fortunate, mentioning one comrade who had no contact, no family visits, no studies and no money for 20 years. “Yet he was as solid as ever until the last – and there were many prisoners like him,” said Dingake.
“We had one prisoner from the Transkei who wanted to start ‘at the top’ by studying for a BA degree. He also believed that wearing spectacles automatically made one a student. Madiba managed to organise a pair of glasses for him, with plain glass, of course,” Dingake said.
With the xenophobia, racial tension and conciliation, South Africa is still wounded. What are your thoughts?
MD: Reconciliation will be painfully slow. Racial discrimination still exists in the USA 200 years after slavery was done away with. You never give up – keep on fighting for forgiveness.
Were the sacrifices you made worth it?
AK: “I have not a bit of doubt that the ANC is still on course. Individuals come and go, so don’t focus on individuals. When there are changes to policy then I’d be worried. After 21 years our policy is as a solid as ever. I think we can all be proud and happy that that is the position.”
In the wake of the question-and-answer session, Omar Badsha, the CEO of South African History Online (SAHO), which published Dingake’s book, said there was an imperative to capture South African history.
“We have produced 15 books and have two more in the pipeline. SAHO, which was formed 16 years ago, has created a platform for people to tell their stories.”
His sentiments were echoed by Hatang: “We share a burden of common humanity and we need to create space in which we can all live equally.”
The book launch was jointly hosted by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, South African History Online and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which is committed to preserving the history of the struggle against apartheid.