About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Where Thought Remained Unprisoned

These essays were written clandestinely in Robben Island prison in 1976, save one that was written and smuggled out of prison in 19781. All the contributors were serving long prison sentences four were serving terms of life imprisonment. Each was aware that the writing of these essays, smuggling them out of prison and publishing them were forbidden by the laws of the time.

The apartheid regime had unleashed a reign of terror against the anti-apartheid struggle in 1960. It had silenced almost all opposition voices by 1965. Detention without trial, torture, deaths in detention, imprisonment, including a number of political executions, banishment to remote areas, bannings and house arrest had seen to that. Fear stalked the land.

The apartheid State, through it security police known as the Special Branch (SB), appeared omnipotent and omnipresent. It was the time of the informer and the secret agent. They were there to give evidence in court in awesome anonymity the mysterious Mr. Xs and Ys, the Q 17s and 18s of the court records. The turncoat, the informer and the secret agent strutted the stage. They were feted, hailed as saviours, interviewed by the media and were busy publishing books about their exploits.

Privacy had been raped. Apartheid's grand design of thought-control was rampant. The liberation organisations had been declared illegal and driven into the underground. Thought itself had been driven into the catacombs.

Insecurity and fear permeated the air. It was almost as if one could not trust one's own shadow. It was the same all over: in exile, in prison, within the country - maybe a little better in exile or in prison; worst of all within the country for those who survived.

In exile, Oliver Tambo, Moses Kotane, J B Marks, Yusuf Dadoo and Joe Slovo - scattered across Africa and Europe strove to regroup. Their biggest nightmare: what if the centre cannot hold? But then, where was the centre? And the painful realisation: they were the centre, divorced from their base! Even in exile, the movement had to withdraw into a tight veil of secrecy imposed by the fact that the struggle has been declared illegal by the apartheid regime.

A World Apart

The threat of the informer and the spy was present in prison too. The prison authorities worked hand in glove with the SB. They tried to bend political prisoners. They selected hardened criminals who were serving time murderers, rapists and fraudsters and put them together with political prisoners. They tasked them to serve as provocateurs, informants and to abuse and intimidate us. They poured over our incoming and outgoing letters, recorded our visits and planted listening devices in our cells.

Some of their efforts were pathetic. Sunday morning, 3 January 1965, Laloo Chiba and I are herded into a small compartment of a closed prison truck at Leeuwkop Prison. We are barefoot, dressed in khaki prison shorts and short-sleeved shirts. A third prisoner, Raymond Nyanda, joins us. He is a wearing a prison jersey, a white canvass bunny jacket, prison socks and shoes. Soft spoken, shining skin and none of that harassed, unkempt look of the usual prisoner. Three other prisoners join us. We are put into leg irons and handcuffed in pairs. My ankle is locked to the ankle brace of the right leg of my partner; handcuffs attach my left wrist to his right wrist.

The compartment, separated from the driver's cab and the back of the truck, has seating space for four. It is intended for warders when they ride shotgun, accompanying prisoners packed into the back of the truck. The six of us have standing room only and take turns to rest on the seats. The contortions we have to get through to effect this shuffling around must have been the inspiration for the Rubik's cube. Our truck is escorted by a van containing warders. Also escorting us is a sedan car in which Brigadier Aucamp, the head of prison security, his wife and daughter are travelling, presumably a family holiday reimbursed as escort duty allowance.

Our attempts to protest against our conditions are stifled. Each prisoner is locked in thought. Something doesn't fit. How is that Raymond Nyanda has clean clothes, shoes, socks, jersey and a canvass jacket? He breaks the silence, introduces himself: claims he is a political prisoner who was a reporter in Durban for the Sunday Times. His brother-in-law, he tells us, is Leslie Messina. Leslie, we know, is living in exile in Swaziland. He was the general secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Already in my mind there lurks the idea that from prison we may be able to communicate with Leslie through Raymond. Some of the others begin to question him. It is becoming an interrogation of Raymond. Suspicion churns through my mind. I must ward off an interrogation. We must not arouse Raymond's suspicions. We need to find ways of establishing whether he is a plant and what his mission is. The trip becomes nerve-wracking. We are unable to talk freely, share experiences and bond as freedom fighters.

We reach Robben Island on 5 January. Laloo, Raymond, Andrew Masondo and I are taken to the 'segregation' section of the prison2. This is where our leaders are being kept in single cells after the Rivonia Trial. We are about 40 prisoners in this section. Smoking is a punishable offence in prison but we begin to notice that Raymond, though he does not smoke, has access to tobacco. He courts the friendship of one of the prisoners. He gives him a Parker ballpoint pen as a present. Our leadership is convinced that Raymond has been put among us to spy. We talk to him but treat him with reserve.

What tempts a man a black man in apartheid South Africa to sell his soul? We conclude that he is in prison for fraud and has probably been promised a shortened sentence and an easy life in prison. His prison card states that he is serving a six-year sentence for a political offence. A few months later we are working at the lime quarry with picks and shovels. The prison commander drives over and loudly calls for Raymond. Within earshot he says, 'Raymond, you have won your appeal and your sentence has been shortened. Come along, you are being released'. Exit Raymond Nyanda. Mission accomplished or mission failed? Months later we get hold of a smuggled copy of the Financial Mail. We find a snippet of news in it: Raymond Nyanda, financial adviser to a Soweto tycoon, committed suicide.

We begin to organise ourselves in prison. We demand the right to study. We are granted the privilege to study by correspondence provided we can pay for the course. We have not a single shelf, desk or chair in our cells. After a year we are granted a single bookshelf and counter without a chair or bench. Later we get benches.

Conditions in prison are harsh and the rules are stringent. Any abuse of our study privilege could lead to its withdrawal. Contraventions of prison regulations are punished harshly and summarily. The punishments: denial of meals, spare diet for up to 42 days, lashes and even additional prison sentences.

We organise ourselves by fair means or foul. We are denied all news of the outside world. We smuggle newspapers, journals and books. At one stage we get hold of a pocket radio. We are not allowed to smoke. We smuggle tobacco. We are not allowed to talk among ourselves. We defy the rules until the authorities are unable to enforce this rule. We are kept separate from the bulk of the political prisoners. We set up a clandestine committee charged with devising ways to communicate with them. Our cells are raided. We find ways to conceal our communications, our smuggled books. We make a false compartment in a bench. We turn a piece of rusted metal into a set of keys to open the prison locks, including the master lock.

Much of this is done in strict secrecy not even our fellow prisoners are in the know. Everything clandestine that we do is carried out under the strictest discipline and on the basis of the need to know.

Our lifeline is news of the world outside prison: the welfare of our loved ones and friends, the struggle within the country, the activities of the movement in exile and the solidarity action of the world at large. We monitor minutely every snippet of information we can get hold of, mull over its significance. We make the world our own. We follow the developments and progress of humankind's struggle in every corner of the world.

Each of us buries his pain in the pain of our loved ones. We fume and fret about them, and we subsume their travails in the struggle to overthrow apartheid. We grit our teeth, steel ourselves and arm ourselves in every possible way to continue the struggle until freedom reigns. Surrender is unthinkable. Death or victory became our watchwords.

The Story behind Mandela's Autobiography

My release date is creeping up on me. Towards the end of 1975 'Kathy' Kathrada broaches the idea that Mandela should write his autobiography. Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada and I discuss the proposal. My release due at the end of 1976 would give us an opportunity to smuggle the manuscript out of prison. It is an enormous challenge. Can we pull it off? Firstly, there is the writing. Mandela will have to write purely from memory. Then there is the secrecy. He cannot indulge in the luxury of keeping his notes in his cell. Whatever he writes each night must be out of his hands the next morning. He has no access to reference works. And conditions require that when he sits to write at night he will not have access to what he has already written. How shall we get the manuscript out safely?

We maintain the utmost secrecy in writing the autobiography because the authorities are likely to impose summary and collective punishment on the entire body of prisoners. We fear divisions among ourselves should this happen, both between the different political organisations, and possibly even among our own organisation's members, especially if the authorities were to withdraw our study privileges. We are mindful of the critical role of the privilege to study in enabling most of us maintain our sanity in this harsh and brutal environment.

We plan to execute the project in a concentrated burst. We have to plan for the fact that, even though I shall only be due for release on 17 December 1976, the authorities might descend on me at any time, months before my release date, and whisk me away from Robben Island.

We would have to transcribe the manuscript from Mandela's handwriting into a fine tiny handwriting on a daily basis. Mandela's original version would end up with Kathrada who would be responsible for concealing it in prison3. The transcribed version written in a form suitable for concealment and smuggling out of prison became my responsibility. We drew Laloo into the team.

Mandela started writing in January 1976. He wrote an average of 10 to 15 pages a night. Within three months he had completed the task4. We had worked faster than we had planned. It was better to be early than to be caught by my premature removal from Robben Island.

We convinced ourselves that we had devised means of concealment that would escape detection. It was the first time we would be smuggling out such a large quantity of written material.

How reflections came to be written

I was restless. We had worked at such a pace that I could not see myself settling back to normal prison routine, simply waiting for my release. So I proposed another project involving the essays which belong to this collection. I approached my colleagues on a one-to-one basis.

I proposed a broad theme 'Problems of the National Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa', which I would edit once outside prison, and left it to each contributor to select a specific topic. We chose the theme 'Southern Africa' to enable Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, the general secretary and founder member of the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), to participate. We made sure that the contributors were not drawn exclusively from the ANC camp. All the contributors I approached readily agreed to participate.

We gave ourselves three months, from April to June, to complete the task. I kept a tight rein on the completion date, urging and cajoling each contributor until all had finished writing.

Within South Africa, apartheid appeared secure. Our rulers kept ratcheting up the reign of terror. Those who dared to stand up, ended up in prison. The Sabotage Act of 1962 had been replaced by the Terrorism Act. The power to detain with out trial now allowed for indefinite detention. Torture in detention had become routine. Official inquests explained away deaths in detention as suicide. The SB continually harassed the families of exiles and prisoners.

But one could read other signs in these events. Yes, terror reigned supreme, but the flame of resistance had not been extinguished.

The struggles in Namibia and Rhodesia were hotting up. Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands were prised out of colonial rule in 1975. In South Africa, there were the 1973 strikes in Natal. The independence of Mozambique and Angola had inspired our youth and students.

But no one detected the rebellion simmering beneath the relative calm. The Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976 rent the surface calm and sounded the death knell of apartheid.

This collection of essays was written on the very eve of the uprising. There is no hint in them of the uprising, which exploded even as were writing the last pages. This very fact, in my view, enhances rather than minimises their significance. Optimism after the event is easy to latch on to. Optimism before the uprising had to find justification in a fundamental analysis of the southern African reality and it would be scrutinised more intensely before acceptance. As it turned out the road from the Soweto Uprising to freedom was still going to be a long one.

Here then, we have a freeze snapshot of the thinking at the time of each contributor. All the contributors save one, John Pokela who went into exile after his release, and became the President of the Pan Africanist Congress, are still in our midst and active in the affairs of South Africa and Namibia. The essays give us an opportunity to look into the mindset of each and see the distance each has traveled to the present.

It is for this reason that, when I retrieved the essays from safekeeping, I contacted the contributors and suggested publication even though almost 25 years have elapsed. At the same time I urged that in editing them I would also retain the language and formulations they used. I wanted no hindsight to creep in. Each essay should stand as a marker in the evolution of each one's thinking and approach.

The evolution of thought and ideas in individuals and society fascinates me. It is only the sycophant and hagiographer who believes that anyone walks the political stage with ideas and outlook fully formed, developed.

In this context, the transition of South Africa from apartheid autocracy to democracy holds the world in thrall. Just as we, in prison, made the struggle in every part of the world part of us, so too the world sees in South Africa's transition part of itself and its hopes.

As we settle down in a democratic order to reconstruct our society and build our nation, it is necessary that we rewrite our history. Inevitably there will be those who, in this exercise, add their own gloss. There will also be some that will falsify that history. And there will events in that past that will need interpretation and re-interpretation. It is therefore imperative that those who lived part of that history should, in telling their stories, never falsify the facts. Without that authencity, interpretations would be fatally flawed.

This collection is offered as one small contribution to that storehouse.

For my part, retrieving and ensuring the publication of these essays discharges a special obligation to the writers. It was an enterprise I had foisted on them. They did their part. The unfinished business lay on my side.

When I look back on my life I see those prison years as a special privilege of spending twelve, still formative, years in the closest and intimate contact with some very special individuals who have uniquely shaped the South Africa of today and tomorrow. The contributors are also my colleagues and comrades-in-arms, with whom I have spent a lifetime in the struggle to liberate South Africa and Namibia. I spent my entire thirties in prison. Their companionship had an enormous impact on my subsequent life.

The essays did not see the light of day when they should have. There are good explanations for this. Most of the contributors had insisted that I should only publish if their respective organisations leaders authorised publication. As it happened, the leader of one of the organisations did not come forward with the necessary permission. In one case the hesitancy was not fickle. He was concerned about the implications of such a publication for his organisation at that particular and sensitive juncture, and I understood. And so it came to pass that the essays gathered dust for 25 years.

Mac Maharaj
Johannesburg
July 2000

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.