"ZITHULELE," the Quiet One, was what we called the tolerant, soft-spoken warder in charge of us at the quarry. He routinely stood a great distance from us while we worked and did not appear to care what we did as long as we were orderly. He never berated us when he found us leaning on our spades and talking.
We responded in kind. One day, in 1966, he came to us and said, "Gentlemen, the rains have washed away the lines on the roads, we need twenty kilos of lime today. Can you help?" Although we were working very little at the time, he had approached us as human beings, and we agreed to assist him.
That spring, we had felt a certain thawing on the part of the authorities, a relaxation of the iron-fisted discipline that had prevailed on the island. The tension between prisoners and warders had lessened somewhat.
But this lull proved to be short-lived and came to an abrupt end one morning in September. We had just put down our picks and shovels on the quarry face and were walking to the shed for lunch. As one of the general prisoners wheeled a drum of food toward us, he whispered, "Verwoerd is dead." That was all. The news quickly passed among us. We looked at each other in disbelief and glanced over at the warders, who seemed unaware that anything momentous had occurred.
We did not know how the prime minister had died. Later, we heard about the obscure white parliamentary messenger who stabbed Verwoerd to death, and we wondered at his motives. Although Verwoerd thought Africans were beneath animals, his death did not yield us any pleasure. Political assassination is not something I or the ANC has ever supported. It is a primitive way of contending with an opponent.
Verwoerd had proved to be both the chief theorist and master builder of grand apartheid. He had championed the creation of the bantustans and Bantu Education. Shortly before his death he had led the Nationalists in the general election of 1966, in which the party of apartheid had increased its majority, winning 126 seats to the 39 achieved by the United Party, and the single seat won by the Progressive Party.
As often happened on the island, we had learned significant political news before our own guards. But by the following day, it was obvious the warders knew, for they took out their anger on us. The tension that had taken months to abate was suddenly at full force. The authorities began a crackdown against political prisoners as though we had held the knife that stabbed Verwoerd.
The authorities always imagined that we were secretly linked with all kinds of powerful forces on the outside. The spate of successful guerrilla attacks against the South African police forces in Namibia by the South-West African People's Organization (SWAPO) -- an ally of the ANC-- had also unnerved them. I suppose we should have been flattered that the government thought our nascent military ability was sophisticated enough to successfully eliminate their head of state. But their suspicions merely reflected the insecurities of narrow, shortsighted men who blamed their problems not on their own misguided policies but on a shadowy opponent by the name of the ANC.
The punishment against us was never enunciated as an official policy, but it was a renewal of the harsh atmosphere that prevailed upon our arrival on the island. The Quiet One was replaced with a man who was a vicious martinet. His name was Van Rensburg and he had been flown to the island on twenty-four hours' notice after the assassination. His reputation preceded him, for his name was a byword among prisoners for brutality.
Van Rensburg was a big, clumsy, brutish fellow who did not speak but shouted. During his first day on the job we noticed he had a small swastika tattooed on his wrist. But he did not need this offensive symbol to prove his cruelty. His job was to make our lives as wretched as possible, and he pursued that goal with great enthusiasm.
Each day over the next few months, Van Rensburg would charge one of us for insubordination or malingering. Each morning, he and the other warders would discuss who would be charged that afternoon. It was a policy of selective intimidation, and the decision on who would be charged was taken regardless of how hard that prisoner had worked that day. When we were trudging back to our cells, Van Rensburg would read from a list, "Mandela [or Sisulu or Kathrada], I want to see you immediately in front of the head of prison."
The island's administrative court began working overtime. In response, we formed our own legal committee made up of myself, Fikile Bam, and Mac Maharaj. Mac had studied law and was adept at putting the authorities on the defensive. Fiks, who was working toward a law degree, was a bright, resourceful fellow who had become the head of the prisoners' committee in our section. The job of our legal committee was to advise our comrades on how to conduct themselves in the island's administrative court.
Van Rensburg was not a clever fellow, and while he would lord it over us at the quarry, we could outwit him in court. Our strategy was not to argue with him in the field, but to contest the charges in court where we would have a chance to make our case before slightly more enlightened officers. In administrative court, the charge would be read by the presiding magistrate. "Malingering at the quarry," he might say, at which Van Rensburg would look smug. After the charge had been read in full, I always advised my colleagues to do one thing and one thing only: ask the court for "further particulars." This was one's right as a defendant, and though the request became a regular occurrence, Van Rensburg would almost always be stumped. Court would then have to be adjourned while Van Rensburg went out to gather "further particulars."
Van Rensburg was vindictive in large ways and small. When our lunch arrived at the quarry and we would sit down to eat we now had a simple wooden table Van Rensburg would inevitably choose that moment to urinate next to our food. I suppose we should have been grateful that he did not urinate directly on our food, but we lodged a protest against the practice anyway.
One of the few ways prisoners can take revenge on warders is through humor, and Van Rensburg became the butt of many of our jokes. Among ourselves we called him "Suitcase." Warders' lunch boxes were known as "suitcases" and normally a warder would designate a prisoner, usually his favorite, to carry his "suitcase," and then reward him with half a sandwich. But we always refused to carry Van Rensburg's "suitcase," hence, the nickname. It was humiliating for a warder to carry his own lunch pail.
One day, Wilton Mkwayi inadvertently referred to "Suitcase" within Van Rensburg's hearing. "Who is Suitcase?" Van Rensburg bellowed. Wilton paused for a moment and then blurted out, "It's you!"
"Why do you call me Suitcase?" Van Rensburg asked. Wilton paused. "Come, man," Van Rensburg said. "Because you carry your own 'suitcase,"' Wilton replied tentatively. "The general prisoners carry the 'suitcases' of their warders, but we won't carry yours so we call you Suitcase."
Van Rensburg considered this for a moment, and instead of getting angry, announced, "My name is not Suitcase, it's Dik Nek." There was silence for a moment, and then all of us burst into laughter. In Afrikaans, Dik Nek literally means "Thick Neck"; it suggests someone who is stubborn and unyielding. Suitcase, I suspect, was too thick to know that he had been insulted.
One day at the quarry, we resumed our discussion of whether or not the tiger was native to Africa. We were not able to talk as freely during Van Rensburg's tenure as we had been before, but we were able to talk nonetheless while we worked.
The principle advocate of those who argued that the tiger was not native to Africa was Andrew Masondo, an ANC leader from the Cape who had also been a lecturer at Fort Hare. Masondo could be a volatile fellow, and he was vehement in his assertions that no tigers had ever been found in Africa. The argument was going back and forth and the men had put down their picks and shovels in the heat of the argument. This attracted the attention of the warders, and they shouted at us to get back to work. But we were so absorbed in the argument that we ignored the warders. A few of the lower-ranking warders ordered us to go back to work, but we paid them no attention. Finally, Suitcase marched over and bellowed at us in English, a language in which he was not expert: "You talk too much, but you work too few!"
The men now did not pick up their tools because they were bent over in laughter. Suitcase's grammatical mistake struck everyone as extremely comical. But Suitcase was not at all amused. He immediately sent for Major Kellerman, the commanding officer.
Kellerman arrived on the scene a few minutes later to find us in much the same state as we had been before. Kellerman was relatively new to the island, and was determined to set the right tone. One of the warders then reported to Kellerman that Andrew Masondo and I had not been working, and we were to be charged with malingering and insubordination. Under Kellerman's authority, we were then handcuffed and taken to isolation.
From that point on, Suitcase seemed to hold a special grudge against me. One day, while he was supervising us at the quarry, I was working next to Fikile Bam. We were off by ourselves, on the far side of the quarry. We worked diligently, but since we were both studying law at the time, we were discussing what we had read the night before. At the end of the day, Van Rensburg stood in front of us and said, "Fikile Bam and Nelson Mandela, I want to see you in front of the head of prison."
We were brought before the lieutenant, who was the head of pris- on, and Van Rensburg announced, "These men did not work the whole day. I'm charging them for defying orders." The lieutenant asked if we had anything to say. "Lieutenant," I responded, "we dispute the charge. We have been working and, in fact, we have evidence that we have been working, and it is essential to our defense." The lieutenant scoffed at this. "All you men work in the same area," he said. "How is it possible to have evidence?" I explained that Fiks and I had been working apart from the others and that we could show exactly how much work we had done. Suitcase naively confirmed that we had been off by ourselves, and the lieutenant agreed to have a look. We drove back to the quarry.
Once there, Fiks and I walked to the area where we had been working. I pointed to the considerable pile of rocks and lime that we had built up and said, "There, that is what we have done today." Suitcase had never even bothered to examine our work and was rattled by the quantity of it. "No," he said to the lieutenant, "that is the result of a week's work." The lieutenant was skeptical. "All right, then," he said to Suitcase, "show me the small pile that Mandela and Bam put together today." Suitcase had no reply, and the lieutenant did something I have rarely seen a superior officer do: he chastised his subordinate in the presence of prisoners. "You are telling lies," he said, and dismissed the charges on the spot.
One morning in early 1967, during Suitcase's tenure, we were preparing to walk to the quarry when Suitcase informed us that an order had come down from Major Kellerman forbidding us to talk. Not only was conversation banned on our walks; henceforth, there would be no conversation permitted at the quarry. "From now on, silence!" he yelled.
This command was greeted by profound dismay and outrage. Talking and discussing issues were the only things that made the work at the quarry tolerable. Of course, we could not discuss it on the way to the quarry because we were ordered not to talk, but during our lunch break the ANC leadership and the heads of the other political groups managed secretly to hash out a plan.
While we were surreptitiously hatching our plan, Major Kellerman himself appeared and walked into our lunch shed. This was highly unusual; we had never had such a high-ranking visitor in our lowly shed. With a cough of embarrassment, he announced that his order had been a mistake and that we could resume talking at the quarry, just as long as we did it quietly. He then told us to carry on and spun on his heel and was gone. We were glad the order was rescinded, but suspicious as to why.
For the remainder of the day, we were not forced to work very hard. Suitcase did his best to be friendly, and said that as a gesture of goodwill he had decided to withdraw all pending charges against us.
That afternoon, I discovered that my cell had been moved from number 4, near the entrance of the passageway, to number 18, at the back. All of my belongings had been dumped into the new cell. As always, there was no explanation.
We guessed that we were to have a visitor and I had been moved because the authorities did not want me to be the first among the prisoners to talk to whoever was coming. If each prisoner in turn voiced his complaints, the authorities could yell "Time up!" before a visitor reached cell 18. We resolved that in the interest of unity, each individual along the passageway would inform any visitor that while everyone had individual complaints, the prisoner in number 18 would speak for all.
The following morning, after breakfast, we were informed by Suitcase that we would not be going to the quarry. Then Major Kellerman appeared to say that Mrs. Helen Suzman, the lone member of the liberal Progressive Party in Parliament and the only voice of true opposition to the Nationalists, would be arriving shortly. In less than fifteen minutes, Mrs. Suzman all five feet two inches of her came through the door of our passageway, accompanied by General Steyn, the commissioner of prisons. As she was introduced to each prisoner, she asked him whether or not he had any complaints. Each man replied the same way: "I have many complaints, but our spokesman is Mr. Nelson Mandela at the end of the corridor." To General Steyn's dismay, Mrs. Suzman was soon at my cell. She firmly shook my hand and cordially introduced herself.
Unlike judges and magistrates, who were automatically permitted access to prisons, members of Parliament had to request permission to visit a prison. Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, members of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners. Many stories were circulating about Robben Island, and Mrs. Suzman had come to investigate for herself.
As this was Mrs. Suzman's first visit to Robben Island, I attempted to put her at ease. But she was remarkably confident and utterly unfazed by her surroundings, and proposed that we get down to business right away. General Steyn and the commanding officer stood by her, but I did not mince words. I told her of our desire to have the food improved and equalized and to have better clothing; the need for facilities for studying; our right to information such as newspapers; and many more things. I told her of the harshness of the warders, and mentioned Van Rensburg in particular. I pointed out that he had a swastika tattooed on his forearm. Helen reacted like a lawyer. "Well, Mr. Mandela," she said, "we must not take that too far because we don't know when it was made. Perhaps, for example, his parents had it tattooed on him?" I assured her that was not the case.
Normally, I would not complain about an individual warder. One learns in prison that it is better to fight for general principles than to battle each individual case. However callous a warder may be, he is usually just carrying out prison policy. But Van Rensburg was in a class by himself, and we believed that if he were gone, it would make a disproportionate difference for all of us.
Mrs. Suzman listened attentively, jotting down what I said in a small notebook, and promised to take these matters up with the minister of justice. She then made an inspection of our cells, and talked a bit with some of the other men. It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.
Van Rensburg was exceedingly nervous during Mrs. Suzman's visit. According to Kathy, while Mrs. Suzman and I were talking, Van Rens- burg apologized for all his past actions. But his contrition did not last long, for the next day he informed us he was reinstating all the charges against us. We later learned that Mrs. Suzman had taken up our case in Parliament, and within a few weeks of her visit, Suitcase was transferred off the island.
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