Koos Kombuis
Koos Kombuis

A short story about a small room

“I’ll get stuck in a small room with you
Any day now, any day now”
Karen Zoid

Recently, I took part in a video shoot on Robben Island.

The day’s work entailed that I had to spend several hours in Madiba’s old jail cell, the little space where he had spent seventeen of his twenty seven years behind bars.

While I had to wait for the crew members to set up their cameras in the corridor outside and in various positions in the close proximity of the cell, I was left all alone in the room. I sat on the bed. I looked at the bed stand. I stood up, took in the limited view through the window.

I was all alone. In that room. That very small room.

At first, it was not a moving experience at all. There was certainly nothing mystical or magical about it. After a while, I started getting simply bored.

Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No relief from the drabness, the monotony, the sheer infuriating lack of sensory input.

After some more time in the cell, I became aware of other things. I started hearing the wind outside. It was a terrible sound, the sound of desperation and longing.

I wondered what it felt like to hear that wind almost every day for seventeen years. To hear nothing but the wind. To become literally nobody. To get to that point where all hope is abandoned, where neither gods nor men hold out a helping hand, that crucible of pain in which you face yourself, and yourself alone.

Several hours in that drab little room certainly was no picnic. But seventeen years of the same would have utterly destroyed me as a man. After such an experience, almost anyone would be an empty shell, catatonic with grief, overwhelmed by cynicism or the lust for revenge.

Yet, incredibly as it seemed, that was the room where something incredibly positive was born: the idea of South African reconciliation.

If Nelson Mandela had not spent time in that cell, our hope for a better future would have been forever extinguished. The candle of our faith would not have survived the raging wind.

A day in that small room reminded me that I, too, am a South African. And it gave me the hope that we can handle whatever fate throws at us. If he could make it, we can make it.

I think I understand now what helped Madiba. I have thought about that tiny little space, and I think I know the truth.

Even though he had no view from his window, he had another view, a view his captors could not see. He had a vision of the new South Africa. He heard the awful moaning of the wind around the walls of his prison, and he heard in it, not the sounds of hopelessness, but the sounds of hope. Others smelt the confinement of the prison. He smelt the scent of the sea. For him, that howling wind became the wind of change. And he knew that, one day, that wind would blow away all the cobwebs of the past, all the remnants of racism and habits of hatred and the culture of blame.

We can escape from the small room of our prejudice and resentment and we can enter a bigger place, a place as large as this whole country with all its wide open spaces and wonderful opportunities.

I believe, like Madiba, that we can rid ourselves of the shackles of the past. We can make it. We must make it. For his sake.

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  • Madiba’s tears
  • In Tambo they trust
  • Justice is fundamental in dealing with the effects of mass trauma
  • Reflections on my life on Robben Island
    • michael

      Koos, twenty seven years.

    • liesl

      Hoendervleis. This is why I love South Africa. The diversity and the challenges are so overwhelming and the possibilities for becoming better people are all around us, in fact we are forced to change, like Mandela was. We, however, choose if the change is positive or negative.

    • Zeph

      The relevance of seventeen is?

    • Thandiwe

      Michael, Koos is coorect – it was eighteen years. He was then moved to Pollsmoor.

    • The Creator

      No, michael, he was moved to Pollsmoor in the early 1980s because a) there were fears he was having too much influence over the new inmates, and b) Robben Island wasn’t a suitable place from which to negotiate with him (Pollsmoor was much more comfortable and it was a sort of a bribe which didn’t really work out).

      Good article, Koos.

    • Cardo

      What about other political prisoners who had served more than that at the very same Robben Island I mean the likes of Bra Jeff Masemola. The so-called South African history is totally not fear at all is one sided and biased.Not all of us really buy that story of twenty seven years in prison.

    • Riaan

      Someone informed me , that the last 7 years in prison ,Mandela lived in 3 bedroom homes on the prison grounds – guarded 24/7. First at Polsmoor and then at Victor Verster prison in Paarl. Also heard that he had communication facilities on hand to communicate with top National Party members.

    • Percipient

      Maybe you were hearing The Winds of White Guilt?

    • MLH

      Excellent piece. The thing about being so alone is that you are stuck with your own soul and your own God, with nothing to do but meditate on whatever strikes you.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      What all that time alone seems to me to have done to Mandela is let him create in his mind a fantasy Africa based on idealisted memories of his childhood and tribalism.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      A lot of claptrap is spoken in the Black Diaspora about “Christianity destroying African Culture”. The Roman Catholic Colonisers and Arab Colonisers forceably converted conquered populations to Roman Christianity or Sunni Islam, but the Protestant Christians and Shia Muslims believe in Freedom of Worship.

      None of the former British Homelands of Southern Africa, with the sole exception of Botswana, had their tribal Chiefs convert or modernise.

      Prince Buthelezi is a Christian but he is the Zulu King’s Prime Minister, not the King – and the Zulu King and his Prime Minister have very different concepts of Monarchy, and have been in disagreement for decades.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Maybe Mandela though Communism would unite the Tribes and He would persuade the people that Ubuntu meant ALL Black African Tribes First, and not MY Tribe First (which is does mean).

      Well it did not work did it? All Pan African open borders achieved was South African Black Tribes now not only clashing with each other but also with all foreign Black Tribes crossing our open borders in continual xenophobic attacks.

    • Michelle vd Heever

      It’s because they had access to books, by hook or by crook, that the inmates could read so that their souls wouldn’t wither and their minds would grow. Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island – Daily News | Lifestyle | IOL.co.za – http://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/lifestyle/reading-revolution-shakespeare-on-robben-island-1.1231112#.UXJfk4k6s4Y

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      When Mandela went to prison in the 1960s Pan Africanism was still a romantised Africa created by Black American Slave Descendants from the writings of Du Bois and others, and many idealists still believed in Communism.

      Until the 1990s Mandela was isolated from Newspapers, Radio, Books and News. By the time he realised what Communism and Pan Africanism had mutated into he was no longer President of SA, but had been replaced by Mbeki.

      Black Americans had mutated this Ideal Africa into an Ideal Arab Muslim Africa which had supposedly existed before the “White” “Christian” “Colonisers” invaded Africa for Slaves. This happened during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s under Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Movement.

      And the result has been Islamic Fundamentalist in the USA itself – like the 2 Boston Bombers.

      Which comes from American children studying myths and not history or geography.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      They were only allowed to read books on Robben Island which were approved by the authorities, mainly those relating to the subjects they were studying through UNISA by correspondence.

    • Lucky Ntuli

      Ms. Beddy,

      With all due respect, the amount and level of unauthorized books that got in was quite a bit. Though what you state is true, I can tell you that during Doctor visits, quite a bit was sent back and forth. The amount of information was quite a bit and free flowing including but not limited to encoded texts from inside toilet paper rolls from suppliers as an example.

      The challenge we face today is that the same tactics are in use in various ways and forms but digitally encoded today as well, by the same crew, mind you with roles reversed.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The DA deciding they are the “Heirs of Helen Suzman” and using her picture embracing with Mandela is the first intelligent marketing they have done in my opinion.

      The Nelson Mandela Center of Memory has cautioned against using his image for political reasons.

      The ANC Youth League has stated:

      “We are perplexed by the arrogance of the DA to abuse the symbol of the ANC for their own selfish purpose…Everyone knows Madiba is a product of the Youth League. He has never been associated with other parties.”

      Now figure out THAT contradiction!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I am bored to tears with the moans and groans from the ANC about Whites doing better than Blacks in the former Whites Only Homeland of South Africa, and there not being enough “transformation:.

      When are we going to have ANY transformation at all in the Xhosa only Transkei and Ciskei, the Zulu only Zululand, the Venda and Pedi and etc only Homelands?

      As far as I am concerned after 150 years it is obvious the Tribal Chiefs have no ability to develop these lands and the land should be surveyed and sold to people who can develop them.

      Remember that the main Xhosa and Zulu Homelands were created by the Brits in the 19th Century when they annexed Natal to prevent a Native Genocide or Black Slavery like had happened in America.

      After 150 years of no development at all – how much longer do we wait for “transformation”?

      The other, much smaller, Homelands were only formed after the Anglo Boer War.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      There is actually no point at all to keeping any Xhosa Homelands. There was never any peace between the Xhosa and the Whites like there was with the Zulu, Swazi, Basuto and Tswana, because the Xhosa had no central leader or King. One Xhosa petty chief after another would start raiding white farms and cattle and start a new frontier war.

      And since the ANC has bussed so many Xhosa into the Cape anyhow, especially in 1993 and 1999, the Transkei and Ciskei might as well be merged into the Cape Province.

    • Michelle vd Heever

      Yeah Lyndall, but like this book reveals, they managed to sneak a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works from the prison library b telling the ill-read prison guards that it’s the Bible by Shakepeare. To guard the book against confiscation during inspection, one prisoner stuck his depictions of his Hindu faith all over the cover. It allowed the inmates to circulate it amongst themselves. Sometimes the prison guards didn’t ask too many questions coz they didn’t want to come across as ill-informed. I can’t recall it’s title or author, but they snuck in a book with a stong political message similarly. About their coursework, their course material often got to them too late (for the exam) or not at all, sometimes coz of logistics & sometimes coz it was withheld by spiteful guards.

    • Michelle vd Heever

      In this book of Shakespeare’s the inmates who read it encouraged each themselves to mark their favourite line(s) of a play of their choice by writing their own names in the margin. Each chapter of Desai’s book begins with a particular quote and then reveals a bit about each well-known former inmate’s approach to learning by reading. An inspiring read indeed.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      @ Micelle

      But why did they have to “sneak” a book out of the prison library? If it was in the library it was not banned in the first place.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Interesting article.
      Sometimes you need solitude and silence to hear yourself. We spend far too little time listening to ourselves and far too much time filling our time up with bustle and noise. It could just be that the small room was the key to Madiba’s ability to find serenity within. Spiritual leaders, from all parts of the world, find meditation a great teacher.