In a barren lime quarry on an island about 12 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, a group of political prisoners built a university in the 1960s – not of bricks and mortar, but of intellectual debate carried out despite the attentions of the warders keeping the men imprisoned.
Spearheaded by Nelson Mandela, the institution became known as the “Robben Island University” and allowed prisoners to lecture on their respective areas of expertise and debate wide-ranging topics including homosexuality and Marxism, author Anthony Sampson wrote in Mandela: The Authorised Biography.
Mandela was sent to Robben Island after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government at the Rivonia Trial on 12 June 1964. He spent the next 18 years of his 27-year incarceration there.
He was placed in a 2.4-by-2.1-metre cell with nothing but a straw mat to sleep on and the gruelling job of breaking rocks into gravel, until he was reassigned to the island’s lime quarry in January 1965.
Although the prison’s commanding officer, Colonel Wessels, informed the political prisoners they would only work on the quarry for six months, the term extended to 13 years.
“The authorities never explained why we had been taken from the courtyard to the quarry,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “It was an attempt to crush our spirits.
‘Spirit of a university’
“But those first few weeks at the quarry had the opposite effect on us,” he wrote. “Despite blistered and bleeding hands, we were invigorated.”
The prisoners had to work outdoors in the isolated lime quarry where, when left to themselves, they discussed their different views and taught each other what they knew, year after year, according to the Nobel Prize website www.nobelprize.org.
“Mandela wanted the spirit of a university to reign, and regular lectures were arranged in secrecy.”
In his Memoirs, Ahmed Kathrada wrote: “The single advantage of being sent to Robben Island was the education it offered to many of the early inmates in particular.”
Students of the “university” included prominent political prisoners of the time, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Harry Gwala, as well as the Communist Party’s Mac Maharaj, Umkhonto weSizwe high command member Laloo Chiba, Treason Trialist Wilton Mkwayi and the Liberal Party’s Eddie Daniels.
“At the quarry we were better placed,” Maharaj said in a 2002 interview with author Padraig O’Malley, who wrote Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa.
“We could talk in little clusters as we were working, and at lunch time when we dispersed to sit in the shed and get our food, we were able to talk in a larger body,” Maharaj recalled.
“We reached a point where we were just not working at all, we would just go there and go stick our spade into the ground and use that as almost a seat to lean on, like a golfer’s seat, and we would re-form, stand around and start having classes, be it history, be it Xhosa, be it English, and the warders would come and try and urge us, push us to work, and we would turn and just take the pick and dig two or three blows and stand.”
‘Making use of well-disposed warders’
Initially categorised as a Class D prisoner, the lowest class, Mandela was only allowed a visit and letter every six months; communication was difficult in these circumstances, and Mandela quickly realised that fair-minded, even sympathetic, warders were a useful weapon.
“The most important person in any prisoner’s life is not the minister of justice, not the commissioner of prisons, not even the head of prison, but the warder in one’s section,” he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom.
“Because it was useful to have warders who were well-disposed towards us, I often asked certain men to make overtures to selected warders.”
One warder in particular presented a challenge, as he supervised the quarry where the prisoners held their lectures and “seemed particularly hostile” towards the men. “This was troublesome, for at the quarry we would hold discussions among ourselves, and a warder who did not permit us to talk was a great hindrance.”
One of Mandela’s fellow prisoners was tasked with befriending the warder so that he would not interrupt the talks at the quarry.
“The strategy worked, for this warder became less wary around us. He even began to ask questions about the ANC [African National Congress],” Mandela wrote.
“By definition, if a man worked for the prison service he was probably brainwashed by the government’s propaganda. He would have believed that we were terrorists and communists who wanted to drive the white man into the sea.
“But as we quietly explained to him our non-racialism, our desire for equal rights and our plans for the redistribution of wealth, he scratched his head and said, ‘It makes more bloody sense than the Nats [the then ruling Nationalist Party]’.”
Mandela also studied Afrikaans as a way of building mutual respect with the warders.
Conditions on Robben Island began to improve marginally from 1967, with black inmates allowed to wear trousers rather than shorts, games such as draughts and chess being permitted, and the quality of food improving.
By 1975, Mandela had been promoted to a Class A prisoner, which allowed him more visits and letters; it was also during this year that he began his autobiography, which was later smuggled to London but remained unpublished.
When several pages were discovered by prison warders, his study privileges were revoked for four years, and he could only resume his LLB studies in 1980.
He was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in April 1982.