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Book Extract: Beyond Fear - Reflections of a Freedom Fighter

Ebrahim Ebrahim arriving at the Cape Town docks after being released from Robben Island on February 26, 1991. Picture: Supplied

Ebrahim Ebrahim arriving at the Cape Town docks after being released from Robben Island on February 26, 1991. Picture: Supplied

Published May 4, 2022


In this excerpt from Beyond Fear, Ebrahim Ebrahim’s long-awaited autobiography, he recounts the day of his sentencing in his much-publicised treason trial in 1989 at the Palace of Justice, which made world headlines. The apartheid judge sentenced him to a further 20 years on Robben Island, saying his first 15 years had done him no good. In this famous legal case, studied around the world, his advocate argued that the state had no jurisdiction to try him as he had been abducted from a foreign country.


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Everyone’s day of sentencing is uniquely intense. In our case, we didn’t know if the judge would send us to the gallows or a long prison term. But I wasn’t afraid of his verdict: I was a freedom fighter, and I was ready to pay a price. We anyway didn’t expect any leniency from a judge who had been installed by the apartheid regime. His duty was to punish severely anyone who threatened the system. My anxiety was more for the people who loved me. How would my mother react? Her health was failing, but she would insist on coming to court. All the family would be affected.

When I entered the courtroom, I was encouraged to see not only members of my family but many supporters. Our defence team were standing strong. Our advocate, Kessie Naidu, argued that any sentence passed should reflect an understanding of the “tragedy that is South Africa”.

He said the crime of treason should be viewed against the background that we, the accused, “had no say about their own future in the country to which they owed allegiance”.

The Johannesburg sociologist Mark Orkin of the Community Agency for Social Enquiry had conducted an analysis, which we submitted to the court record, that showed “a steady growth in black support for the ANC during recent years, to the point where it now dwarfs that enjoyed by any other political organisation in the country”.

I remembered something my interrogator Nicolas Deetlefs had said to me in John Vorster Square when he bragged that the ANC and MK were being destroyed. “We will get you one by one,” he hissed. “We will rule this country for another two hundred years.” Yet on the day of our sentencing, our people were openly showing the victory salute and singing in defiance of the apartheid state in court.

Deetlefs wasn’t blind: he could see the end. He wasn’t deaf: he could hear the triumph in their voices.

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I wrote a 17-page statement which I used to address the court from the dock. As I started speaking, I realised I couldn’t have cared less about Deetlefs.

We are certain that this court will decide to impose on us various sentences. Though we shall condemn it as a perpetuation of the system of injustice to which millions of our people are subject, we do not fear such an outcome.

To fear it would mean that when we joined the struggle for the emancipation of our people, we did not understand the nature of the enemy we had to confront. But we know who it is that we and the rest of the freedom-loving people of our country have to fight to turn into reality the dream of a South Africa that shall belong to all the people, both black and white.

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We have brushed shoulders with the angels of death who guard the king and princes that occupy the apartheid throne. In their hands they carry the gun, the hangman’s noose and vile instruments of torture. We know that the throne they defend can only stand if it is surrounded by a moat of human suffering.

As we leave this building to go wherever the court decides, we wish to say to our people, we tried to carry out your behests.

We did our best to live up to what you expected of us as members of the African National Congress.

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There are countless others like us who are prepared to sacrifice their very lives to achieve the noble goal of the emancipation of our country. We shall achieve victory soon!

When I was detained both in 1963 and 1986, I refused to answer questions during interrogation. To me this was a matter of deeply held principles.

During this detention, I told the police that I would rather die in detention than betray the trust of a single person or organisation.

When I acknowledged that certain items were removed from my house, it was to establish the fact that I was indeed abducted by the South African security forces.

The factor that led me not to testify in this trial is that I would refuse to answer questions which would give information to the state security police. This in turn would prejudice my evidence before the court.

The judge found me guilty and sentenced me to 20 years, saying he wanted to give me a lengthy jail term so that when I left prison again, I would be an old man, because my previous 15 years inside had clearly not done me any good. After all, on my release, I had “gone straight back to the ANC”. Mandla was sentenced to an even longer term, of 23 years, while Simon got 12.

The judge’s words had barely left his mouth when the people in court spontaneously stood up and shouted, “Viva, ANC! Viva!” and “Amandla!” and began to sing the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Court officials tried to stop them, but they carried on – louder and louder – drowning out the protests.

When the singing eventually subsided, a State prosecutor, Louise van der Walt, did something unexpected. She burst out with the words “Long live the AWB!” The AWB was a white-supremacist, neo-Nazi paramilitary group which was dedicated to creating an independent Boer republic since its founding in 1973. Her colleagues had to quieten her down, but she was heard shouting back at them, “Why do you have to shut me up when others are allowed to sing?” Van der Walt was one of the regime’s prosecutors who had questioned my comrades in London. She attended those hearing with Deetlefs.

As I went back to my isolation cell that night, I thought of what it would be like going back to the Island once again. But I also thought about how foolish the judge was to even imagine that prison walls would deter people from struggling for freedom and fighting against oppression. We were incapable of being stopped. (1085)

Book cover of Ebrahim Ebrahim’s book “Beyond Fear: Reflections of a Freedom Fighter”

*** Join Shannon Ebrahim, partner of the late Ebrahim Ebrahim, and other panellists at any of the launches below. There'll be one close to you!


* AB Moosa, CEO of Avalon Group, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim, Ronnie Kasrils, former minister of Intelligence Services of South Africa and MK veteran, and Yunis Shaik, former trade unionist, member of uMkhonto weSizwe, lawyer and currently CEO of eTV Holdings

Date: Thursday, 5 May

Time: 18:30

Venue: Cine Centre Killarney, Killarney Mall, Johannesburg

* Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim, Minister for International Relations and Co-operation Dr Naledi Pandor, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria and Dr Sithembile Mbete, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences and director of programmes at Futurelect

Date: Monday, 16 May

Time: 16:30

Venue: Future Africa Space, University of Pretoria, Pretoria

* Siphamandla Zondi, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim and Yasmin Sooka, human rights lawyer and former executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa

Date: Monday, 30 May

Time: 15:00

Venue: Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg

* Joanne Joseph, broadcaster and award-winning author, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs of South Africa

Date: Thursday, 9 June

Time: 18:00

Venue: Exclusive Books Hyde Park, Johannesburg


Gcina Mhlophe, activist, actor, storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim and Sunny Singh, treasurer of the Military Committee in Maputo, Robben Island prisoner, member of uMkhonto weSizwe and ANC representative in Holland

Date: Saturday, 14 May

Time: 14:00

Venue: South Africa in the Making, Shop 7, Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban


Siraj Desai, human rights lawyer and retired Western Cape High Court Judge, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim, Albie Sachs, acclaimed author and former justice of the first Constitutional Court of South Africa, and Yunis Shaik, former trade unionist, member of uMkhonto weSizwe, lawyer and currently CEO of eTV Holdings

Date: Saturday, 4 June

Time: 18:00

Venue: District Six Museum Homecoming Centre, Cape Town

To RSVP for one of the launches above, please contact [email protected] Please indicate the launch you are RSVPing for by including the venue in the subject line.

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