Letters from Robben Island: Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence, 1964-1989by Robert D. Vassen (Editor)
Late one night in July, 1963, a South African police unit surrounded the African National Congress headquarters in Rivonia and arrested a group of Movement leaders gathered inside. Eventually eight of them, including Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a sentence, Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoledi, Andrew Mangeni, and
Late one night in July, 1963, a South African police unit surrounded the African National Congress headquarters in Rivonia and arrested a group of Movement leaders gathered inside. Eventually eight of them, including Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a sentence, Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoledi, Andrew Mangeni, and Ahmed Kathrada, were convicted of sabotage and, on June 12, 1964, sentenced to life in prison. Soon, these men became widely known as the "Rivonia Trialists." Despite their imprisonment, the Trialists played active roles in the struggle against South Africa's racist regime. Instead of being forgotten, as apartheid officials had hoped, they became enduring symbols in a struggle against injustice and racism.
Kathrada and his colleagues were classified as high security prisoners, segregated from others and closely watched. Every activity was regulated and monitored. Among the many indignities visited upon them, the prisoners were prohibited from keeping copies of incoming and outgoing correspondence. Kathrada, or "Kathy" as he is known, successfully hid both.
Letters From Robben Island contains a selection of 86 of the more than 900 pieces of correspondence Ahmed Kathrada wrote during his 26 years on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor Prison. Some were smuggled out by friends; others were written in code to hide meaning and content from prison censors. These are among his most poignant, touching, and eloquent communications. They are testimonies to Kathrada, his colleagues, and to their commitment to obtaining human dignity and freedom for all South Africans.
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Letters From Robben Island
A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence, 1964â"1989
By Robert D. Vassen
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 1999 Michigan State University Press
All rights reserved.
Sylvia Neame—February or March 1964
On the night of 10 July 1963, Ahmed Kathrada, age 34, disguised as "Pedro Pereira," a Portugese national, left his "safe house" in Mountain View to attend a meeting in Rivonia. The following day, he and several African National Congress leaders were arrested by South African police. Initially he and the others were detained under the so-called "90-Day Detention Act" and held in solitary confinement in Pretoria Prison. In October, their trial, the famous Rivonia Trial, began. It was during the latter stages of this proceeding that Kathrada wrote to his girlfriend, Sylvia Neame. Like Kathrada and the others, she was a committed South African political activist. As these letters were smuggled out of prison by Kathrada's lawyer, the advocate Bram Fischer, he did not have to worry about censorship. Nevertheless, he took every precaution to protect people mentioned, referring to them by code names or using initials. The first part of this letter is about overcoming racial barriers. Kathrada is a South African of Indian origin; Sylvia Neame is a South African of white origin. Their relationship, illegal according to South African law, would have raised a few eyebrows considering the exaggerated prominence given to color and race in South Africa at that time. We learn in this letter of mean-spirited government authorities who, after Kathrada's brother and sister had traveled 250 miles, would not allow them to see him. Kathrada writes about the trial, its outcome, and his confidence about the inevitability of change, about the innocence of a young prison guard (warder) who could not understand why Kathrada became "involved" in politics. How, Kathrada asks, can one explain to this type of person that "a life of humiliation and without dignity is not worth living?" Kathrada knows he will be sentenced and he is prepared for it.
* * *
I do hope by now the little storm in your mind about the discovery by my folks has completely blown away and will not recur. Your view that the exaggerated report could be due to some sort of jealousy on the part of old man's wife has got some merit. I agree it is very sweet of her to take such a kind interest. Of course it will be good for you to remember that the origin of this business must have been as a result of small-town gossip or even mischief on the part of some ill-disposed person. But whatever it was, it certainly wasn't serious and deserved to be ignored. If ever there is a similar business in the future, please just don't allow yourself to be disturbed by it. And in the unlikely event of it being raised with you by anybody from home, the same applies. I can well understand how this must have shaken you. It's a great pity that I never related to you some of the things that were said about me over the years to the family. By now both they and I are immune to its effects. As for the old lady, well you know how old people are. As I said, I'm sure she must have made some adverse comment in passing and forgotten about it again. I hope old man's wife is not unduly disturbed by the allegation that she was responsible for our affair. Please apologise to her for me. Incidentally, since your message, I saw two lots of people from home and they did not mention a word. If there was anything in it at all, my sister-in-law (the one you know) would have raised it with me. She brought messages from my mother but nothing about this. I did not raise it with her but did tell her to get my sister to collect the photo from old man's wife. I hope this was done. I would suggest that you leave one there if you haven't done so yet. I wish they had allowed my sister to see me last Thursday. The poor folks came all the way, 250 miles, to see me and the authorities only allowed 2 of them in. So, because my sister and brother had seen me previously, my brother-in-law and a sister-in-law saw me. The others just waited outside and went all the way back. My sister must have felt terrible—I too was quite upset by the meanness of the authorities. Anyway, I hope to see her one of these days. Now that the case is drawing to a close, the folks from home will come more often—as you know, there are so many of them and they all want to come up. I can confidently assure you that you need have no fear of this "backing" falling away. If anything, I have the feeling it will come closer and stronger. Would you mind if I told my folks a bit more about your attitude, viz. that you have adjusted yourself to waiting, etc. Please give some thought to it and let me know. It will be a great help if they are told this is not merely a casual affair—then, in spite of difficulties and all that, you will be regarded as a member of the family. This being a serious proposition, I don't expect you to rush into it. Please think about it very carefully from all angles and only when you are absolutely convinced of the wisdom, you can let me know.
Before leaving the question of the photo, I wish you'd give a good one of yours to uncle. The one they had the last time was simply horrible. The one who is making a weekly contribution, is he the uncle or grandpa? How much does he know about us, and, if so, what is the attitude like? I am very glad that you are on good terms with uncle and his family. As long as they don't have an adverse influence on your outlook and our relationship.
By now your arrangements to go away on the 21st must be well advanced. I hope everything goes smoothly and they don't mess you around unnecessarily. I'm sure a break will do you the world of good. You will of course let me know as soon as things are finalised. I take it, after visiting your brother's place, you will be going on to Camilla's mother's. I like the company you will be travelling with. Will they be with you throughout? You will of course be going by car? I wish you have a most wonderful trip. Please look after yourself very carefully. You will make some arrangements to keep in touch with me. This is most important.
From my point of view, this is not the best time for you to be away. But I fully realise that from other and perhaps equally important points of view it cannot be otherwise. I therefore want you to go ahead with arrangements with my fullest approval. You see the position is we just don't know how long the defence case will last, and I certainly want you to be around when it reaches its very final stages. Fortunately, you must have heard we will only be starting on the 20th now. So I think if you are away for 3 weeks (the most), the case will most probably be still on when you return. You will almost certainly be far away when I give evidence, but that doesn't really matter. I will let you have a copy of my statement afterwards. Otherwise I can't think of anything that will necessitate your sticking around.
This brings me again to a suggestion I made last time about keeping in touch with me through the personal column and which you, for some reason, failed to comment on. It is efficient, easy and cheap, and now, especially while you will be away, you could and should use it effectively and frequently. All you have to do is to keep in touch with your local best friend and ask her to have a few words inserted once or twice a week. Signing yourself Y ... n. You must let me know what you think. Of course, in addition to this, it will be good to have one or two longer messages of the usual type if this can be arranged. There might be a possibility of using this other method in the future too but will let you know about it later.
I have only recently discovered how my messages reach you and must say I am filled with deep gratitude. I wish I could do something to express it. If you have some time in the coming few days, I will be very grateful if you would get a nice gift for the young gentleman from both of us. I know it is not fair to throw all these assignments onto your shoulders, but I'm afraid this is one necessary burden you'll have to bear. Once again I must insist that you use my money. Otherwise don't go ahead with the suggestion. By the way, how are you off with cash to finance your trip? Please let me, even at the cost of being a terrible bore, suggest once again that you collect my money if you need it. Same applies, I think I've already told you, to gifts for Savi's baby and other presents you make every now and then on our behalf. Oh yes, I believe our friend Charles's brother will soon have to be given something. I don't have to tell you how terribly decent he has been to both of us. Perhaps a good book or something will be nice. Or you could bring back something from home. Nothing elaborate.
I should have said at the outset that your last message was most encouraging and boosted up my morale a great deal. It is always so nice to receive such a message, especially when it's so frank and uninhibited. I thought at first it might have been immediately after a discussion with Mr. Lucas and hence the extra warmth and affection, but then found it was in a similar strain throughout. I am sorry that you find it difficult about m? or rather lack of it but am so happy and relieved that you have oriented yourself to it remaining this way. I shall always hope that there will be no distractions or deviations along this long and difficult path. Do you at all times feel as strong on the question as you mention?
A great change must have come over you if you have lost your shyness with kids, and I see the enthusiasm with which you seem to be pursuing this new-found hobby. Tell me more about the 2 kids staying with you. Re the advice of your friends, in this regard I will certainly have no objection–you know very well my feelings about it. When the occasion arises, you can depend on me for my most enthusiastic co-operation. Your assurances about A. are most welcome. But I remember of course on the last occasion, Dec. 1962, Sakina was unwilling but the task was nevertheless completed. Oh yes, I always meant to ask—you remember the occasion when Sakina visited my place with a friend late one night; it was only a few days after I met you. Do you think she will tell you whether there wasn't really a bit more in that affair than we know. I don't know why this keeps gnawing at my brain, but for some reason it does. I just hope Sakina does not mind my curiosity. I don't want to annoy or embarrass her in any way.
I am very happy that you generally feel relaxed and in good health. By what I gather from your message, you must have really been in a bad way after I went away, what with your being in a state of shock for 5 or 6 months. Yes, everything did happen rather suddenly and with all the mental preparation, the shock of our arrest must have been enough to upset it. You are very brave when you say you have adjusted yourself to waiting for me. If you continue with your present plans, of course, this wait might be easier. I am sure you must have arrived at this decision after careful thought and consideration. As I have pointed out already, to me this remains a source of great encouragement and inspiration. It is difficult to state how long this wait will be, but I feel confident as ever that things won't remain this way for long in this country. A change is inevitable and I feel it is almost imminent. Of course I'm by no means a dreamer who believes that freedom is around the corner, but I say a change is imminent. We won't have the Nats [Nationalist Party] for much longer. International pressure cannot be ignored by them. I think one of the most heartening things is the significant changes in United States policy, even more so than Britain. Then internally too they are not going to remain so homogenous as they appear. Of course there is no doubt that they have the emotional backing of the majority of whites. But this is not something they can bank on for all time. There are bound to be cracks in the granite.
I don't know what the outcome of our case is going to be eventually. I am prepared mentally for a heavy sentence. As long as they don't hang us, we are confident we won't have to remain in jail for a very long time. It is almost a year since I broke my house arrest. Strange what laws I actually and wittingly broke and what I get charged with. The fact remains that I expected to be arrested sooner or later, so what difference does it really make if I am serving under the Suppression of Communism Act, the Group Areas Act or the Sabotage Act. In the end we will be saboteurs or communists or both, and in the South African context it is nothing to be ashamed of. There are lots of things concerning the period of my underground days which I am tempted to write about but which it is inadvisable to broach at this stage. They are things best left for history. That is one of the reasons why I ask you again to give serious thought to the diary, collection of material, etc. The problem about keeping them safely can be overcome by sending everything out to England to be kept there. I am getting more and more keen that one day these must be written up and feel that, with my assistance, you will be the best person to write it. The great advantage is that we already see eye to eye on a number of important questions, and it will be from this point of view that I want to see something tackled. (I don't know if you will still remember one night in the car when you observed that you had never seen me so unhappy. I didn't attempt to answer you save for some flippant remark which only made you angry. I wish I knew what went on in your mind at the time, whether you had an inkling of why I was in that state.) My one big regret is that having held certain attitudes in the past, I did not do enough to make them felt. This must all sound Greek to you. I best discontinue. In the years to come there will be different versions of the history of the past 20 to 30 years—and I just must see at least one version influenced by the way I have lived through these years and the way I look at them. My underground days confirmed and considerably solidified my attitudes. On reflection, I am glad that I resisted suggestions to go overseas when political work became so difficult.
Excerpted from Letters From Robben Island by Robert D. Vassen. Copyright © 1999 Michigan State University Press. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Meet the Author
Robert Vassen was born in South Africa. He is Associate Director of the English Language Center at Michigan State University. Prior to coming to MSU in 1990, he lived in London, England, where he was an active member of the African National Congress.
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