Anti-apartheid Struggle activist Sunny Singh points to an image of Robben Island where he was imprisoned for 10 years. Picture: Supplied
The "blackout" days of being a political prisoner are recalled by Sunny Singh.

As we celebrated World Press Freedom Day last week, I was reminded of the many years on Robben Island, where there was a total news blackout.

It was the 1960s, and the prison authorities in what was arguably one of the worst penal colonies in the world deliberately suppressed any news getting to us as political prisoners.

The leadership of the ANC appointed the late George Naicker and myself to find ways of smuggling newspapers into the prison cells, and later a radio. This was a Herculean task.

We had to devise means to win the confidence of the common prisoners on the Island, who came from townships like Alexandra, Sophiatown, Soweto and Langa. Many of them or their parents were active in the Struggle.

We formulated a plan, and through Peter Makano, who was a senior member of the ANC, we managed to “recruit” some of them. No political prisoners were allowed to work in or near the warders' homes. Only ordinary prisoners could, and that was our first option in terms of trying to access newspapers.

News began to flow in. Initially, we managed to get Afrikaans newspapers like Die Burger, and fortunately we had some among us who were literate in Afrikaans, especially from Cape Town.

In 1965, just a year after we arrived on Robben Island, news came in of Ian Smith, the then Rhodesian rebel premier, declaring the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. This was with the consent of the vast majority of the white population. The opposition to white rule led to a long, protracted guerrilla war, which the people ultimately won.

Then came the shocking news that towards the end of 1965, one of our proud and heroic leaders, Bram Fischer, had been captured and sentenced to life in prison. This was a big set back, and morale sagged.

Then came another body blow, with the killing of one of Africa’s great revolutionaries Amilcar Cabral.

In 1968, I had to go to Cape Town for a medical appointment, and to my surprise, while handcuffed to the warder, the television news was continuously beaming the news of Vietnam. The National Liberation Front Fighters (the Americans described them as Viet Cong) had attacked 100 towns, and the US Embassy came under siege.

This news sent shock waves through Robben Island. This was because our Struggle was not only against the dark forces of apartheid, but also against imperialism. This victory inspired us all.

One day we achieved a communication coup. For the first time, our sources managed to smuggle in a small radio. The problem was we couldn’t leave the radio in a cell. So I had to take it to our workplace in the quarry.

We never gave up as there was always a way out, and I eventually thought of the dining table in the warders' mess. We had our handyman Kisten Moonsamy build a small wooden box that was underneath the table. What a creative thought, when you work together. This was a very important victory.

The prison, like any of the other racist structures, had their agents and spies all over, and somehow they suspected that we had a radio smuggled in.

A prison emergency was declared. All studies, sports, letters and visits were stopped. We were suddenly asked to gather at the quarry and walk back to prison. George Naicker was called, and the authorities put him into a straitjacket. The jacket was laced, and you couldn't turn your body – and there was no time limit. It was a vicious method of torture. George was very disciplined and he didn’t speak.

The next day, when we went to work, we saw everything was topsy turvy, even the dining table was overturned. The mystery was who had spoken, as only three of us knew about it. So the radio was just a short-lived coup.

Communication with the isolation cells where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were detained was difficult. Some of us worked in the kitchen and two of them – Zakhele Mdlalose and Jeremiah Francis – were shoe repairers. We managed to get them to put the plastic packet containing the news in the boiling porridge. When it reached the isolation section, whoever was responsible for dishing out the porridge under the careful eye of the warder discreetly picked up the plastic bag.

When shoes were sent for repairs, the repairer knew how to conceal the news. This system worked very effectively.

As for getting the newspapers to the 16 cells, I had to get the comrades lying in a particular way so as not to attract the attention of the warders.

The news used to be relayed to the other political prisoners at lunchtime in the quarry in groups of 15.

Here is a speculator one. In the isolation cells I just couldn’t imagine how the comrades survived and devised methods to get news. One day a warder approached Comrade Kathy for help to work out a puzzle in Afrikaans, so Kathy sent him to Comrade Mac Maharaj.

Typical of Mac, he asked the warder, “What will you give me?”

If he won the puzzle, the warder promised him a packet of cigarettes. As it turned out the warder won, and brought the cigarettes as promised.

Then Mac said to the warder, “I am going to report you to the commander.”

The warder panicked, and Mac told him to get newspapers. What a victory.

This story tells you that a political prisoner cannot survive without news, even if it meant we had to go on hunger strike for a week or two.

I spoke to Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, who spent 15 years on Robben Island with me. He was kidnapped from Swaziland in 1986, and sentenced to another 20 years on Robben Island. I asked him about how he managed to get news during his second sentence.

He said that when he was sent back to the island in 1989, prisoners were allowed to buy newspapers, but the authorities still vindictively censored the news. The struggle for news continued right up until the end.

We must never take our hard-won freedoms for granted.

*Sunny Singh was one of the accused in the “Little Rivonia Trial”. He served his sentence on Robben Island from 1964 to 1974.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star