Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Reflections on my life on Robben Island

By Professor Saths Cooper

Much has been said and written about apartheid political imprisonment as the triumph of the human spirit under extreme conditions, which it most certainly was.

Distance in time and place usually lends a weird enchantment to views and memories that we may have experienced. Our natural tendency is to shy away from personal trauma, thus avoiding recollection of unbearable memories, especially for those who are close to us. Unfortunately, this masks the harsh realities of that period, making us to even reminisce positively about what was overwhelmingly negative. The toll on those imprisoned as well as those indirectly imprisoned – our family, friends and comrades – has been immeasurable, with festering wounds erupting when least expected.

The impact of apartheid imprisonment on both political opponents of that inhumane system, as well as the thousands of black citizens who were imprisoned for not carrying passes and otherwise falling foul of the erstwhile regime, has been colossal. A sad reminder of our terrible past is the fact that many of us still labour under the perception that white is right, if not superior, accepting the fate that we’re consigned to in a democratic era.

A well known sports stalwart told me last month that he’d read a recently published biography, but was disappointed as he didn’t get a true sense of what life was like on Robben Island where those who fought apartheid were largely incarcerated. This coincided with the request from the Post newspaper to write on my time in prison.

As space does not permit any proper insight of what life on Robben Island was really like, I will detail a few incidents during my solitary confinement, which forms part of my story of the road to Robben Island that I’m currently working on.

As the photos taken by the Post 34 years ago show when I was released from Durban Central Prison in Walnut Road (now the ICC) there was a huge crowd patiently waiting in the scorching sun to welcome Aubrey Mokoape and I. Aubrey wanted the letter from the then SA Medical and Dental Council that had been placed on his file in Robben Island informing him that he’d been struck off the roll of medical practitioners. After over an hour of going from one office to another, I insisted that we should not voluntarily imprison ourselves further, looking for a letter that would not surface. The debt that Aubrey owed me for remaining behind bars when we should have been released some two hours earlier pales into insignificance when compared to the more than eight years that he spent in prison arising from the Viva Frelimo Rallies.

After the fall of the military dictatorship in Portugal, Frelimo in Moçambique and MPLA in Angola were about to form governments in those countries in September 1974. Muntu Myeza, the Secretary-General of the SA Students Organisation (SASO) that was based in Beatrice Street, and I planned nationwide Viva Frelimo Rallies to celebrate this remarkable victory in neighbouring countries. I represented the Black People’s Convention (BPC) despite the prohibitions imposed on me by a stringent banning order and house arrest, which effectively confined me to my mother’s flat in Warwick Avenue from 6pm to 6am daily and from 2pm on Saturday till 6am on Monday.

The banning of the Viva Frelimo Rallies on the morning of 25 September 1974 meant that there was no opportunity for us to inform the public about the banning. There was no television, no private radio stations, and no social media. The Daily News had already hit the streets and the SABC was totally controlled by the apartheid regime. Now one man, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, seems to control the SABC, decimating the continent’s largest public broadcaster.

The police, supported by the military, unleashed dogs and baton charged the large crowd that had gathered outside Curries Fountain and that spilled onto the Mansfield High School grounds. Many journalists and scores of those who had gathered were arrested. Unlike Marikana, nobody was killed, but a few trials ensued.

I was arrested that evening and kept in solitary confinement, first in Rossburgh Police Station and then Pretoria Local Prison, where Steve Biko was to die a horrible death at the hands of security police in September 1977. On 31 January 1975 fourteen of us were charged under the Terrorism Act at an evening court session in Pretoria.

I would never wish solitary confinement on my worst enemy. We were at the mercy of security police and prison officials. The Stockholm syndrome arises when a detainee becomes seduced by, even quite attached to and relies upon the torturer. Amongst the more than two hundred SASO/BPC activists from various parts of the country that were detained in Pretoria – including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – only two Durbanites developed an unnatural relationship with their jailors and were to eventually testify against us.

My fellow detainees and I worked out detailed mind games including crosswords to retain a sense of normalcy and keep any demons that may be lurking at bay. There was the constant struggle between ever-present anxiety, not knowing when there would be the next interrogation – with the inevitable verbal and physical assault – and trying everything to preclude sleeping during the day and insomnia at night. The overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding would do battle with the sheer boredom of being locked up in a bare cell, except for a toilet bucket, a hessian mat, a felt mat, four stinking blankets and a bottle of water.

I was denied the Bible until just before Christmas when I complained to the Chief Magistrate. The Magistrate visited once a fortnight to receive klagtes en versoeke (complaints and requests). After I complained on a couple of occasions about the beatings that I received from the security police, I was abruptly taken from the cell to a large room in Pretoria prison where numerous security police had lined up in an identity parade. Amid a murmur of swearing and threats from the security police assembled, I was asked to tap the shoulders of the policemen who had assaulted me during specific interrogations.

My throat was dry and my heart was pounding so loudly that I felt they could hear. I willed my knees not to shake, braced myself to look straight at each policeman as I walked from one end of the line of police. I saw one of my torturers half way down the line. Captain Welman glared hatefully at me. I stopped in front of him and slapped him on the shoulder. He winced, turned red and swore under his breath. I walked to the end of the line and back, yet could not see the other torturer. The sniggers, swearing and threats were now rising in volume, as I turned and slowly returned, peering closely at each face.

Then it struck me. A few had changed hairstyles and other giveaways, and this particular torturer was hiding between two other policemen. The little hair that he had was combed differently. He was trying desperately to make himself smaller and avoid looking at me, hiding between two others. Of course, I was by now quite emboldened; he was afraid. I parted the two policemen and exclaimed, “He’s hiding!” That moment perhaps defined my interaction with my imprisonment and strengthened my reaction to whatever was thrown at me. I realised that they were more scared of me and what I stood for than I was of them and imprisonment. There was worse torture to follow, which resulted in a Grand Mal seizure and my spinal column being impacted, with deterioration of the discs in the neck and lower back area.

Robben Island did not present such a stark, implacable denuding of self and integrity, and being overcome by almost complete loneliness. The loneliness was different, the depression was different, the boredom was different.

I could engage openly with fellow prisoners – who wished to engage – and did not feel the warders could control my every responsiveness. As it turned out, I spent the majority of my five and a half years on Robben Island in a single cell, smaller than that in Pretoria Prison; initially, with the same bareness. The dawning realisation that there was a definite period of imprisonment, and that I would spend most of my twenties in prison, resulted in the reluctant decision to accommodate to prison life, while doggedly holding them to the letter of their gazetted rules and refusing to succumb to any demeaning behaviour.

Despite extreme circumstances, I’ve continued to live by principles that demanded fighting oppression wherever I may confront it, while retaining personal integrity.

Professor Saths Cooper is currently President of the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) and President of the Pan-African Psychology Union (PAPU), whose inaugural conference will take place in Durban in September 2017. He is also VP: International Social Sciences Council (ISSC), Chair: South African Board for the International Council for Science (ICSU), Extraordinary Professor University of Pretoria and Honorary Professor University of Limpopo. Dec 20 marked the 24th anniversary of Prof. Cooper’s release from Robben Island.

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