Johannesburg – January 16, marked 28 years to the day since former freedom fighter, and the President's Parliamentary Counsellor, Ebrahim Ebrahim was found guilty of treason and sentenced to his second term of imprisonment on Robben Island.
On the island he shared a cell with President Jacob Zuma. He was also one of the confidants in Nelson Mandela’s inner circle where political developments and the eventual negotiations with the former apartheid government were discussed, subsequently leading to Mandela’s historic release.
Over the New Year Ebrahim made the journey back to his cell on Robben Island and shared his memories with the African News Agency in an exclusive interview.
Ebrahim joined Unkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1960. He was arrested in 1963 along with eighteen others, and as accused #1 was charged with sabotage and sentenced to 15-years on Robben Island.
He was released in 1979, was banned and restricted to his home town of Durban. In 1980, he went into exile in Swaziland and headed the ANC's political-military committee which gave leadership to the underground ANC cells in South Africa.
Six years later he was kidnapped by South African intelligence officials who illegally smuggled him across the border back into South Africa.
He was subsequently sentenced to a further 20 years in prison for high treason, but in 1991 the Appeal Court ruled that his kidnapping from a foreign country was illegal and that the South African court had no jurisdiction to try him. He was subsequently released from prison in early 1991.
“This was not the first time I returned to the Island after my release but every time I return I recollect what is was like when I was first incarcerated,” Ebrahim told ANA.
As the veteran freedom fighter approached Robben Island, he was filled with mixed emotions.
There was sadness for the years lost in the desolation of the island where prisoners were forced to chip stones by day, and were starved over the weekend if they failed to meet their quota.
But there was also the joy at being a free man, and the sense of victory that the ANC and anti-apartheid movement was ultimately triumphant.
“Our victory meant that the time we spent on the island was not in vain. The ANC had achieved its goals despite the hardship and deprivations we underwent during the struggle,” Ebrahim said.
In the early days the conditions on the island were very bad. These included hostility between the ANC and the Pan African Congress (PAC), and the harsh conditions of working early morning shifts breaking stones in the stone quarry in freezing conditions, where the prisoners were regularly assaulted by the prison guards.
“We had insufficient clothing and bedding, and yet somehow we were able to survive those days despite the attempts by the warders to break our spirits,” Ebrahim told ANA.
“Many of us fell ill due to the harsh conditions, but no medical treatment was provided. Our food was insufficient too, and if the warders didn’t like you they withheld food as a form of punishment.”
But contrary to breaking the spirit of the cadres, they decided to fight back by complaining to higher authorities and visitors, as well as resorting to hunger strikes.
The Soweto Uprising of June 1976 saw the ANC political prisoners on the island joined by younger political prisoners who had started off as stone-throwers, but soon became politicised by the veterans following extensive political education, eventually leaving as seasoned politicians.
Ebrahim’s more positive memories of his incarceration segued with conditions improving on the island.
“We were eventually allowed to play sport and immediately formed teams.”
“There was also the feeling of comeraderie even when there had been political antagonism between the older generation of prisoners and the younger ones, as well as between the ANC and the PAC. But these were resolved through political discussions,” Ebrahim recalled.
When Ebrahim was first released in 1979 he cried, and swore never to return. But that was not to be, and after the treason conviction, exactly 10 years later, he began his second period of imprisonment.
“The conditions had improved dramatically by then, after international exposure and condemnation. Prisoners were no longer being sent to the stone quarry to break rocks, and the food had improved. We were also allowed TVs and newspapers – a first,” he said.
Despite being sentenced to 20 years imprisonment the second time around, Ebrahim was freed after two years following the decision of the Appeal Court that ruled his conviction invalid.
“I was suddenly informed by the prison authorities that I had an hour to pack my bags as I was being transferred to the mainland. However, ironically I didn’t want to leave immediately. I wanted a chance to say goodbye to my comrades, but that was refused,” Ebrahim explained.
Afraid of arriving alone with no money and no place to stay, Ebrahim’s fears were allayed as the authorities had already informed his family that he was being released.
“A huge crowd of well-wishers and supporters had gathered at the dock to welcome me home. While I was overwhelmed at the support and happy to be free, a twinge of sadness marred my joy when I thought of all the comrades still imprisoned on the island.