Bantu Education



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Bantu Education


"In 1953 the government passed the Bantu Education Act, which the people didn't want. We didn't want this bad education for our children. This Bantu Education Act was to make sure that our children only learnt things that would make them good for what the government wanted: to work in the factories and so on; they must not learn properly at school like the white children. Our children were to go to school only three hours a day, two shifts of children every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that more children could get a little bit of learning without government having to spend more money. Hawu! It was a terrible thing that act."

Baard and Schreiner, My Spirit is Not Banned, Part 2

The 1953 Bantu Education Act was one of apartheid's most offensively racist laws. It brought African education under control of the government and extended apartheid to black schools. Previously, most African schools were run by missionaries with some state aid. Nelson Mandela and many other political activists had attended mission schools. But Bantu education ended the relative autonomy these schools had enjoyed up to that point. Instead, government funding of black schools became conditional on acceptance of a racially discriminatory curriculum administered by a new Department of Bantu Education. Most mission schools for Africans chose to close rather than promote apartheid in education.

Centralization of schools under a new government department was not in and of itself opposed by school administrators, parents, and students. What the African community vehemently opposed was the creation of a separate and unequal system of black education rather than a single public schooling system for all South Africans. The white government made it clear that Bantu education was designed to teach African learners to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" for a white-run economy and society, regardless of an individual's abilities and aspirations. In what are now infamous words, Minster of Native Affairs, Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd, explained the government's new education policy to the South African Parliament:

There is no space for him [the "Native"] in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze. (quoted in Kallaway, 92)
The ideological framework for Bantu education had its origins in a manifesto crafted in 1939 by Afrikaner nationalists. Based on the racist and paternalistic view that the education of blacks was a special responsibility of a superior white race, this document called for "Christian National Education" and advocated separate schools for each of South Africa's "population groups"-whites, Africans, Indians, and Coloureds. Segregated education disadvantaged all black groups, but was particularly devastating for Africans. In a pamphlet released in 1948, the organization asserted: "... the task of white South Africa with regard to the native is to Christianize him and help him culturally... [N]ative education and teaching must lead to the development of an independent and self-supporting and self-maintaining native community on a Christian National basis" (quoted in Hlatshwayo, 64).

Bantu education served the interests of white supremacy. It denied black people access to the same educational opportunities and resources enjoyed by white South Africans. Bantu education denigrated black people's history, culture, and identity. It promoted myths and racial stereotypes in its curricula and textbooks. Some of these ideas found expression in the notion of the existence of a separate "Bantu society" and "Bantu economy" which were taught to African students in government-run schools. This so-called "Bantu culture" was presented in crude and essentialized fashion. African people and communities were portrayed as traditional, rural, and unchanging. Bantu education treated blacks as perpetual children in need of parental supervision by whites, which greatly limited the student's vision of "her place" in the broader South African society (Hartshorne, 41).


Bantu education schools suffered terribly from government's neglect. Enormous disparities in funding between white and black schools and student-teacher ratios adversely affected the quality of education for black students. The Bantu Education Account of 1955 made matters worse by mandating that African education be funded by the general poll tax collected from Africans rather than from the General Revenue Account used to fund white education. Even after the separate account was abolished in 1972, education of African children still remained grossly under-resourced, receiving one-tenth of the money afforded to whites and struggling with 56:1 student-teacher ratios (Hartshorne, 41).

Dilapidated school buildings, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate instruction, poor teacher training, and a lack of textbooks plagued African education. Students struggled to learn under such conditions. As former teacher Eddie Daniels observed, even the sports fields at white schools were far superior to those at black schools: "the first thing that strikes me at both [white] schools was these huge stretches of green fields. Hell man! And in black schools you've got nothing, and I look at this it's just vast. You've got huge playing fields, tennis courts… It's painful, painful." Watch Daniels interview segment]

In an interview in 2006, Obed Bapela described his experience in overcrowded Bantu education schools in Alexandra township (in Johannesburg's northern suburbs):

… the school that I went to was an overcrowded school, there were quite many of them in Alexandra that were overcrowded, there were not enough schools to take care of all of us so we used to share classes. There would be a morning class that goes up to 11 o'clock and then we'll go home and then other kids of the same grade will come after 11 o'clock up to 2 o'clock and therefore the teachers will then run two sets of class … in some situations they will even use a tree in the schoolyard… We were around 70 to 80 [pupils in class] when I was in grade 1 and grade 2. [Watch Bapela interview segment]


A racist educational system perpetuated South Africa's social hierarchy in which skin color was very closely correlated to class. But Bantu education also brought a huge increase in the number of pupils attending primary (and later secondary) schools. Black students rose in protest in 1976 when the Department of Bantu Education mandated that higher primary and junior secondary students would have to learn some key subjects in Afrikaans – the language of the oppressor. This decision sparked a youth uprising in Soweto, which then spread nationwide and become a watershed event in the struggle against apartheid.

References

Baard, Frances, and Barbie Schreiner. My Spirit Is Not Banned. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1986. http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/library-resources/online%20books/baard/

Hartshorne, K. B. Crisis and Challenge : Black Education 1910-1990. Cape Town: New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hlatshwayo, Simphiwe A. Education and Independence : Education in South Africa, 1658-1988. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Hyslop, Jonathan. The Classroom Struggle: Policy and Resistance in South Africa, 1940-1990. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1999.

Kallaway, Peter. Apartheid and Education : The Education of Black South Africans. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1984.



Kallaway, Peter, ed. The History of Education under Apartheid, 1948-1994 : the Doors of Learning and Culture shall be Opened. New York: P. Lang, 2002.

Soweto Student Uprising


On the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of students from the African township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg, gathered at their schools to participate in a student-organized protest demonstration. Many of them carried signs that read, 'Down with Afrikaans' and 'Bantu Education – to Hell with it;' others sang freedom songs as the unarmed crowd of schoolchildren marched towards Orlando soccer stadium where a peaceful rally had been planned. The crowd swelled to more than 10,000 students. En route to the stadium, approximately fifty policemen stopped the students and tried to turn them back. At first, the security forces tried unsuccessfully to disperse the students with tear gas and warning shots. Then policemen fired directly into the crowd of demonstrators. Many students responded by running for shelter, while others retaliated by pelting the police with stones.



That day, two students, Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson, died from police gunfire; hundreds more sustained injuries during the subsequent chaos that engulfed Soweto. The shootings in Soweto sparked a massive uprising that soon spread to more than 100 urban and rural areas throughout South Africa.

The immediate cause for the June 16, 1976, march was student opposition to a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department that imposed Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in half the subjects in higher primary (middle school) and secondary school (high school). Since members of the ruling National Party spoke Afrikaans, black students viewed it as the "language of the oppressor." Moreover, lacking fluency in Afrikaans, African teachers and pupils experienced first-hand the negative impact of the new policy in the classroom.

The Soweto uprising came after a decade of relative calm in the resistance movement in the wake of massive government repression in the 1960s. Yet during this "silent decade,' a new sense of resistance had been brewing. In 1969, black students, led by Steve Biko (among others), formed the South African Student's Organization (SASO). Stressing black pride, self-reliance, and psychological liberation, the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s became an influential force in the townships, including Soweto. The political context of the 1976 uprisings must also take into account the effects of workers' strikes in Durban in 1973; the liberation of neighboring Angola and Mozambique in 1975; and increases in student enrollment in black schools, which led to the emergence of a new collective youth identity forged by common experiences and grievances (Bonner).

Though the schoolchildren may have been influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s, many former pupils from Soweto do not remember any involvement of outside organizations or liberation movements in their decision to protest the use of Afrikaans at their schools. In his memoir, Sifiso Ndlovu, a former student at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto, recalls how in January 1976 he and his classmates had looked forward to performing well in their studies but noted how the use of Afrikaans in the classroom significantly lowered their grades. (Hirson 175-77; Brooks and Brickhill 46) Echoing Ndlovu, current Member of Parliament Obed Baphela recalled: "It was quite difficult now to switch from English to Afrikaans at that particular point and time." [Watch Bapela video segment] The firing of teachers in Soweto who refused to implement the Afrikaans language policy exacerbated the frustration of middle school students, who then organized small demonstrations and class boycotts as early as March, April and May (Ndlovu).
As the mid-year exams approached, boycotts took place in many Soweto schools (Ndlovu). It was around that time that the older students of the South African Students Movement (SASM) decided to organize a mass protest in Soweto. In a 1977 interview, Tebello Motapanyane, then secretary general of SASM, provided an account of the action committee's decision to launch the protest:

We took a decision to inform the staff that we totally reject the half-yearly examinations and were not going to write the exams until our demands were met. The Naledi branch called a meeting under SASM on Sunday, June 13 where it was actually decided that there should be positive action from all the high schools and secondary schools in Soweto. We discussed Afrikaans and how to make the government aware that we opposed their decision. The delegates decided that there should be a mass demonstration from the Soweto students as a whole. [Read full interview.]

The brutal killing of the school children on June 16, 1976, shocked the international community. Newspapers across the world published Sam Nzima's photograph of a dying Hector Peterson on their front page. In the meantime, South African security forces, equipped with armored tanks and live ammunition, poured into Soweto. Their instructions were to shoot to kill, for the sake of "law and order." By nightfall another eleven more people had been shot dead (Bonner). Students in Soweto responded by pelting the police with stones and attacking what they regarded to be symbols of the apartheid government. Across much of Soweto government buildings and liquor stores were looted and burned.

On the second day of the uprising, the violence spread to African townships in the West Rand and Johannesburg. At the University of Witwatersrand, police broke up a group of 400 white students who had been marching to express their solidarity with the pupils of Soweto. On the third day, police began placing youth protestors in jail; students later testified to being tortured while imprisoned. What began as a local demonstration against the Afrikaans language decree quickly turned into a countrywide youth uprising against apartheid oppression. Kgati Sathekge, current Director for Communications and Marketing for the Ministry of Social Development, was one of thousands of students from Atterridgeville, an African township near Pretoria, who took part in the protests in that region. In his 2006 interview, he explained:

We could not accept that type of behavior . . . personally it was a great shock. We started organizing protests . . . On June 21 when students came to school we mobilized them and said we're not going to go to school that day, we'll engage in protest marches throughout the township . . . Different government offices were targeted and burned down including . . .buildings seen as symbols of oppression [such as] government stores, bottle (alcohol) stores, beer halls. [Watch Sathekge interview segment.] [Watch second interview segment with Sathekge
The police shootings and the defiant response of African students in Soweto emboldened youth throughout the country to wage protests. Students in Port Elizabeth mobilized in their schools, leading to a conflict between the police and a crowd of 4,000 high school students and township residents en route to the local soccer stadium that left eight residents dead. Shepi Mati, who arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of 1976 to attend high school, recalls the violence and tension of that time:

On any given day, you would just hear this sound – it was a very ominous sound – you could feel it in the air. And suddenly there would be a Caspir that comes past, a police armored car – woosh – throwing tear gas or shooting as it goes past. This was really my welcome to Port Elizabeth. [View Mati interview segment.

Protest was not limited to African students, as Yusuf Omar describes from his perspective in an Indian township of Johannesburg: "It's a virtual world when it comes to emotion … We weren't seeing the truth, but we got it from comrades… In our own schools, we did what we could." [Watch Omar video segment]

In the Cape, Coloured and African high school students expressed solidarity with students in Soweto, while black students at the University of the Western Cape boycotted their classes for a week and clashed with police and university authorities. Demonstrations also took place in rural boarding schools and black University campuses all over the country (Brooks and Brickhill; Karis and Carter 172-73).

To sustain resistance, leaders of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC, founded in August 1976) decided to involve adults in the protests in order to build inter-generational unity and to strike an economic blow against apartheid. From August through December 1976, SSRC leaders organized a number of campaigns, including stay-at-homes (short strikes) for adult workers, marches to Johannesburg, anti-drinking campaigns, mass funerals (which became politically charged and often turned into protest rallies), and a Christmas consumer boycott. In preparation for the stay-at-homes, the SSRC printed flyers urging adults to participate. One read, "...the scrapping of BANTU EDUCATION, the RELEASE of Prisoners detained during the demos [demonstrations], and the overthrowal of oppression, we the students call on our parents to stay at home and not go to work from Monday" (Karis and Carter 591; Hirson 248-61). Sporadic clashes between students and police continued into 1977; by the end of the year, the government acknowledged that nearly 600 people had been killed, although recent research showed that at least 3,000 people died. Thousands more were imprisoned and many black South Africans fled into exile or joined the armed struggle.

The student uprising marked a decisive turning point in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Roseberry Sonto, an activist in Cape Town at the time, regarded the student uprising as a "gift" that reinvigorated organizing efforts: "That was after which we started lots of things like bus boycotts, rent boycotts, meat boycotts - all kinds of boycotts just tp drive the point home." [Watch Sonto video segment]

The student uprising of 1976 was recognized as a watershed by the previous generation of activists. Ahmed Kathrada, convicted in the Rivonia Trial and imprisoned on Robben Island since 1964, learned of the student activism only in August when student leaders began to be sent to the Island. Then he and other prisoners understood its significance:

Especially after our sentence in 1964, the rest of the ‘60s was fear among the people… End of ’69, the Black Consciousness movement came in, and the beginning of the ‘70s there was a revival of the trade union movement, so that gave us hope that things are changing. But come ’76, when the students of Soweto came into the streets unarmed and they were killed in the hundreds – nobody knows how many of them were killed – that changed history. Fear was now driven out. [Watch Kathrada video segment]

The politicization and activism of young South Africans in Soweto and beyond galvanized the liberation movements and set in motion a series of transformations that ultimately led to the demise of apartheid (Karis and Carter 180-84).
References

Bonner, P. L. "The Soweto Uprising of June 1976: A Turning Points Event." Turning Points in History: People Places and Apartheid. http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/governence-projects/june16/extract-soweto-uprising.html

Brooks, Alan, and Jeremy Brickhill. Whirlwind before the Storm: The Origins and Development of the Uprising in Soweto and the Rest of South Africa from June to December 1976. London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1980.

Hirson, Baruch. Year of Fire, Year of Ash : The Soweto Revolt, Roots of a Revolution? London: Zed Press, 1979.

Hlongwane, Khangela Ali, Sifiso Ndlovu and Mothobi Mutloatse. Soweto '76: Reflections on the Liberation Struggles. Houghton [South Africa]: Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust, 2006.

Karis, Thomas, and Gwendolen Margaret Carter. From Protest to Challenge; A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1972.

Ndlovu, Sifiso Mxolisi. "The Soweto Uprisings: Counter-Memories of June 1976." Ravan Local History Series. Ed. Monica Seeber and Luli Callinicos. Randberg: Ravan Press, 1998.

Detentions without Trial during the Apartheid Era By Robert Vassen



Throughout most of the English-speaking world, the writ of habeas corpus was adopted, respected and practiced. Habeas corpus is a Latin term translates as “let us have the body” and was issued to any detaining authority to produce the detained person in court and show just cause for holding this person in detention. If the authority believed it had just cause, a formal charge had to be laid and evidence brought to court to prove the case. If the authority could not justify the detention, the person had to be set free.

In South Africa, this writ was practiced without exception until the end of the 1950s. In fact, the only meaning given to, or associated with, ‘detention’ related to school children in primary or high schools who were held back after regular school hours as punishment or in some cases as a ‘last chance’ to complete unfinished homework assignments.

In 1963, the then Minister of Justice, B.J.Vorster, gave new meaning to ‘detention.’
On the 10th July, 1963, the most senior members of the African National Congress, The High Command, most of whom had been living “underground,” were caught at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. To accommodate the capture of these senior ANC members, the General Laws Amendment Act, Number 37 of 1963 was rushed through Parliament and applied retroactively to June 27th 1962, mainly but not exclusively so that the people arrested at Rivonia could be detained and held in solitary confinement. On the 6th October, 1963, these Rivonia Trialists were formally fingerprinted and charged. Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a five-year sentence on Robben Island, was brought back to join these senior members and all were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment and flown to Robben Island on the 13th June, 1964 to serve their sentences. It should be remembered that as political prisoners, a life sentence meant life, with no chance of parole.

Under this General Law Amendment Act, the security police, also known as the Special Branch, were given the authority to arrest anyone they suspected of being engaged or involved in any act against the State and to hold them incommunicado for 90 days at a time. The once highly respected and almost sacred habeas corpus fell away. This act, usually referred to as the 90-Day Act, was passed to give the Special Branch the authority to interrogate and to extract information, and the public was not entitled to any information including even the identity or whereabouts of people being detained. Detainees could literally and effectively “disappear.” If no charges were to be laid, the Special Branch had to release the individual or individuals after 90 days. At the time, Vorster boasted that this was repeatable “until this side of eternity.”

In her book, 117 Days, Ruth First gave a vivid account of this repeatable process: of how she had been handed her clothing and possessions and told she was free only to be re-arrested as she exited the police station where she was being held. When this process of being released and then re-arrested proved to be too cumbersome, the government introduced and passed the 180-Day Detention Act (the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act, Number 96 of 1965). Eventually, this 180-day law would be replaced yet again by the Terrorism Act, Number 83 of 1967, which allowed the government to detain individuals indefinitely until all questions had been answered satisfactorily or no further purpose could be achieved by holding the detainees.

The primary aim of the government was to extract as much information from detainees as possible, and the Special Branch resorted to all means possible to get this information. Endless hours of interrogation, where detainees were deprived of sleep, was commonplace. Leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to disorient detainees was another form of coercion. Forcing detainees to stand on their toes with protruding nails on a wooden strip placed under the heels was another form of torture. Where these methods did not work, physical assaults were common. The Special Branch often worked in twos: the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ taking turns to inflict both physical and mental torture.

The aim of the detainee was to resist at all costs. This was the most difficult part of detention. Alone and subjected to all sorts of humiliation and physical and mental torture, it was difficult to remain steadfast. Always uppermost in the mind of the detainee was: “Will they break me? Will I cave in and give them what they want to know?” Some did not succumb, while others did. Two who did not ‘break’ were Mac Maharaj and Laloo Chiba, cadres in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, who served their sentences on Robben Island. Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned with them on Robben Island, wrote:

Both had been severely tortured with electric shocks and beatings, made to stand on the same spot for days on end and verbally abused. It disturbed us greatly to hear how Mac, desperate not to break under this onslaught ‘of the most sadistic and obscene nature’ had tried to slit his wrists with shards of broken eggshell. It was not until Laloo testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I realized how much he had suffered, but neither man betrayed their comrades. (Ahmed Kathrada, Memoirs, pp. 208-209; 155)

It remains a great moral dilemma how the ones who broke and gave information should be regarded. History will have to deal with that.

The other important factor in detention for the detainees was how to hold on to one’s sanity. These people were in solitary confinement and held under the worst of conditions with only a copy of the Bible. In such circumstances, how does a person retain their sanity and try to remain rational? Stories abound of individuals reciting all the poems they had ever learned in school; others made chess boards with whatever was at their disposal and spent hours playing. Yet others, who could find nothing to make marks with, played mental chess. Stories are told of detainees singing all the songs they heard or remembered. Whatever came to mind they would utilize just to keep a firm grip of reality and the world outside.

Tragically, a great many detainees would be killed in detention while under intense interrogation and torture. It was not uncommon for the authorities to inform the press that so-and-so had slipped on a bar of soap, suffered concussion and died, while others had purportedly committed suicide. Hundreds came to such tragic ends; Kathrada wrote about one of them, Suliman ‘Babla’ Saloojee, who was his close friend:

Suliman Saloojee, my dearest friend Babla, was dead, killed by the police. This most gentle of men, this inveterate prankster, my comrade and source of strength, had been picked up under the ninety-day detention law, brutally interrogated and tortured to death - by the sadistic Rooi Rus Swanepoel - then flung from a window on the seventh floor of Gray’s Building, Johannesburg headquarters of the security police, on Wednesday 9 September 1964…

Not surprisingly, the so-called inquest accepted the police version that Babla had committed suicide by jumping to his death. I have never doubted, however, that he died under interrogation, and that his body was then thrown out of the window… The magistrate found that ‘nothing in the evidence suggested that Saloojee had been assaulted or that methods of interrogating him were in any way irregular. He found that no one was to blame for his death.

Ahmed Kathrada, Memoirs (p. 207)


In his notes in Memoirs, Ahmed Kathrada notes: “In later years, inquest after inquest - in the cases of Imam Haron, Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett, to name but a few - returned verdicts of suicide. I cannot recall a single case among the scores of deaths under 90-day detention in which an inquest magistrate held the security police responsible” (page 384).

There were others who were more fortunate and were eventually released. Many threw themselves back into the struggle while others went into exile, either on orders or self-imposed. In exile, the vast majority continued to be active in working for the struggle.

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.


Just as with discrimination in clothing, there was also discrimination in the food prisoners were given depending on their “racial classification”: the non-Africans received a teaspoon of sugar with their morning “pap” (finely ground corn) while the Africans got only a half teaspoonful. Coffee or tea was given twice a day to non-Africans, while Africans got only one cup a day. For lunch, non-Africans were given mealie rice (grits) while Africans got boiled corn. For supper, non-Africans received bread and Africans got none. Non-Africans and Africans were given meat or fish four times a week, but while non-Africans were given 110 grams, Africans got only 60. The one ‘deprivation’ the Africans felt more than any of the others was not being allowed to have bread. In the B-section of the prison, which held more than 30 political prisoners, including the Rivonia group, the non-Africans were able to share their bread with their fellow African comrades. In later years the African political prisoners were allowed one slice of bread a week, and this improved later to three slices a week: one on Wednesdays, one on Saturdays, and one on Sundays. Eventually the political prisoners won the day when everyone was made equal for all of them irrespective of “racial classification”!

One of the boasts of the apartheid government after the Rivonia Trial was that they would see to it that, in a short period of time, South Africa and the world would have forgotten about the Mandelas, the Mbekis, the Sisulus and others. To realize this boast, contact with the outside world was virtually non-existent, while laws in South Africa forbade any information or images from appearing in the media. For the political prisoners this meant no newspapers, no radios, no watches, no television, no books and only a very limited number of no-contact visits by blood relatives only. One 30-minute visit was allowed every six months; only family matters could be discussed and this was closely monitored. Furthermore, no children under 16 were allowed. Of all the privations the people suffered, none was worse than the total absence of children in their confined, male, adult, gray, world. Often permits to visit were ‘mislaid’ by the authorities and the prisoners were powerless to do anything but to accept this with dignity, painful as it was.

When it came to letters, the prison authorities were even more blatant. All letters, incoming and outgoing were heavily censored and in some cases not given to the prisoner or sent on to its destination. Ahmed Kathrada, one of the Rivonia group often quotes the letter sent by his brother in 1964. Kathrada only received it in 1982. The reason it has been withheld for 18 years was because of its political content: the offending sentence in the letter was that there had been a change of government in Britain and Harold Wilson of the Labor Party had come into power.
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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