Ebrahim marks 28 years since he was jailed

Pres­i­den­tial coun­sel­lor shared cells with Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma and other po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers on Robben Is­land

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY

MON­DAY, Jan­uary 16, marked 28 years 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.

There, he shared a cell with Ja­cob Zuma who would one day be­come the pres­i­dent of the coun­try. 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 (ANA) in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view.

Ebrahim joined Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, in 1960. He was ar­rested in 1963, and along with 18 oth­ers was charged with sab­o­tage and sen­tenced to 15 years on Robben Is­land.

He was re­leased in 1979, and 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 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 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 it was like when I was first in­car­cer­ated,” Ebrahim told ANA.

As he 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.

How­ever, 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 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 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 said.

“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.”

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.

Con­di­tions in the pris­ons later im­proved.

“We were even­tu­ally al­lowed to play sport and im­me­di­ately formed teams.

“There was also the feel­ing of ca­ma­raderie 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.”

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.

“The beauty of Cape Town was over­whelm­ing and it was amaz­ing to walk around breath­ing the air as a free man and wit­ness all the changes that had taken place over the years,” he said.

We were later al­lowed to play sport and we formed teams

FOR­MER IN­MATE: Ebrahim Ebrahim spent many years on Robben Is­land as a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner.

HIS­TORIC: A tourist on Robben Is­land looks at photos of ANC lead­ers Nel­son Man­dela and Wal­ter Sisulu, left, and of pris­on­ers in the ex­er­cise yard.

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