Nelson Mandela Foundation:
Meeting with the ‘Robben Islanders’

Posted by on Jan 11, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

During the inaugural Gandhi Satyagraha Tour of South Africa June 2014 we had the opportunity to participate in a historic gathering at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, with several of whom were imprisoned with Mandela for decades and then went on to play important roles in the re-establishment of the post-apartheid government. This is a partial account of that amazing time together.

gandhi tour participants at nelson mandela foundation meeting
Tour Delegation led by Arun & Tushar Gandhi meeting with Ahmed “Uncle Kathy” Kathrada, and
Robben Islanders Laloo “Isu” Chiba, and Shirish Nanabhai at the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela, following his Presidency, would ask his staff of that time to do various tasks and they would remind him that they did not work for him anymore.   So Mandela “Madiba” founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation Trust and rehired his team, to manage his office and support his continuing work, according to Ahmed Kathrada. Mandela worked at the Foundation office up until his official retirement in 2010.  The Foundation is the location of the historic round table that occurred during the inaugural Gandhi Satyagraha Tour of South Africa.

nelson mandela Foundation Office B

Ahmed Kathrada, or as the country fondly refers, “Uncle Kathy,” greeted us at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and gave us a tour.  After our tour, we sat down for an intimate exchange with the historic anti-apartheid leaders.

Notable anti-apartheid leaders present at the historic meeting –

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, is a South African politician, former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist. Kathrada’s involvement in the anti-apartheid activities of the African National Congress (ANC) led him to his long-term imprisonment following the Rivonia Trial, in which he was held at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. Following his release in 1990, he was elected to serve as a member of parliament, representing the ANC. His Tribute to Nelson Mandela.

shirish zumaShirish Nanabhai  received the National Order of Mendi for bravery.  Because of his struggle activities, Mr Nanabhai was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by the apartheid government for sabotage. 

Laloo Isu Chiba was born on 5 November 1930 in Johannesburg where he was also raised. The 1956 Treason Trial sparked his interest in politics. In 1964 Chiba was charged with sabotage and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment which he served on Robben Island. On his release, from Robben Island, in December 1982, Chiba became active in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and continued to work in the African National Congress (ANC) underground. Chiba was elected ANC Member of Parliament in the first and second democratic elections in 1994 and 1999. In 2004, the South African Government conferred Laloo Isu Chiba with The Order of Luthuli in Silver for his lifetime contribution to the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist, just and democratic South Africa.

A brief exchange occurred between Ahmed Kathrada and Arun Gandhi wherein Arun invited Kathrada to provide some impressions about South Africa. Before we continued Laloo Isu Chiba requested that we each briefly introduce ourselves.  There are 10 of us from the Gandhi Satyagraha Tour of South Africa that begin to introduce ourselves after Arun Gandhi’s introduction.  This first video showcases the brief exchange and Arun Gandhi’s introduction.  

After introductions Ahmed Kathrada kicked off the conversation by highlighting Mahatma Gandhi’s role in South Africa’s revolution.  In part 2 of our video, he explained that over the years different freedom organizations were started because different laws applied to different ethnic and racial communities.   These different organizations Kathrada is referring to for example, are the India National Congress (INC), the African National Congress (ANC), the Colored Congress and others, and it was emphasized that they ultimately worked unitedly.  He covered the history of passive resistance going back to Gandhiji’s time. Kathrada addressed the purpose and reasoning for the armed struggle in the process of the fight for justice and freedom.  

Robben Island was the subject of discussion at Nelson Mandela Foundation

Kathrada introduced Laloo Chiba and described Chiba’s role in the struggle.   Chiba was charged with 18 counts of sabotage and sentenced to Robben Island in solitary confinement.   Chiba addressed our delegation and added important points for us to note in order to more deeply understand the process of their struggle for justice. He highlights the connection he and Kathrada personally share.   

Kathrada continued by talking of Mandela’s underground activities, explaining that “8 of us were arrested and convicted in the Rivonia Trial.”  Kathrada shared stories about his incarceration at Robben Island with Mandela.  He described a day in the life of a Robben Island prisoner, what they wore, what they ate, how they labored for 13 years with a pick and shovel in the lime quarry, and how they were segregated in prison.  He described what isolation was like for them in their confined single cells.  He stated they were in prison with the now current President Jacob Zuma, for 10 years but never saw him one time during their incarceration. 

Laloo Chiba talked about Nelson Mandela’s influence on his education during their time in isolation. He said he was able to complete his high school education at the age of 34 in Robben Island as Nelson Mandela “Madiba” impressed upon them the necessity of study.  He went on to complete his Bachelors Degree in history and economics.  He then went on to serve as a member of the South African Parliament for 10 years.  Shirish Nanabhai, a fellow Robben Islander addressed our group.  He was not in solitary confinement, rather he lived in the communal section of the prison.

Greg Garson, our South African based tour guide, a white South African, offered a comment.  Greg states he was taught these gentlemen were the “devil incarnate” as it was explained to him in military training in 1972.  He mentioned he was educated by Irish Jesuits who told his class of students that they were living in a system that “stinks” so he never believed these Robben Islanders were the “devil incarnate.”  He was honored to be there and meet Mr. Kathrada and fellow Robben Islanders.

Kathrada continued on about the torture and conditions that his fellow prisoners endured. He also mentioned that initially they were allowed 2 letters and 2 visits per year and by the end of their incarceration it was 40 letters plus 30 visits annually. 

Laloo Chiba said it was important to note, that no black warden was ever brought to the island.  There was only one white prisoner at that stage of the struggle while they were in prison.  The wardens were taught and trained that the prisoners were terrorists.

In part 3 of our video coverage, Ahmed Kathrada talked about a special relationship he shared with one warden.  There was no violence in B-Section (solitary confinement) but there was violence in the communal section.  There were 30 prisoners held in solitary confinement and 1200 in the communal section of the prison.  After 18 years in B-Section, Mandela and Kathrada plus 3 others were transferred to a Cape Town (Pollsmoor) Prison.

Over the course of their incarceration, they managed to establish personal relationships with some of the wardens.  The wife of one of the Robben Island wardens would bake “Kathy” a Christmas cake each year.  Now that Kathrada is free, the warden’s wife still bakes him a Christmas cake and a birthday cake. 

Greg Garson interjected that we had heard Mandela’s response to the question of his being faced with the gallows, but not yours Mr. Kathrada. Greg then asked Kathrada how he felt when he was charged and faced with a possible death sentence by hanging at the Rivonia Trial.  In part three of the video, Kathrada shares his responses with our delegation. 

Kathrada explained how weak the case was against him, and he was looking at a minimum sentence at the most, but as a collective they had decided that they would NOT appeal.  Ahmed Kathrada ultimately ended up serving a 26 year sentence.  

Kathrada shared that in 1985 President Botha made an offer to all political prisoners in South Africa that they would be released on certain conditions.  Less than 20 prisoners accepted his conditions.

The armed struggle was in two phases.  Kathrada talked about how they smuggled the arms in. Neeshan Balton was one of the parties who received the smuggled arms concealed in a safari truck. Neeshan is the Executive Director of the Kathrada Foundation today.

Neeshan Balton, executive director of the Kathrada Foundation, proposes a question to Arun Gandhi.   “Hearing all these things about the armed struggle, and given the work you are doing in relationship to Gandhi, your grandfather, how does this sit with you?

            Arun Gandhi: Well it is still a matter of contention whether arm struggle really helps in bringing about peaceful resolution or not.  It is an on-going debate.  I personally do not feel it has a role because non-violence should be achieved through live, understanding, acceptance and appreciation.  When we introduce armed conflict within that, there is a lot of confusion.  This is my personal feeling about it. 

            Ahmed Kathrada:  We never envisioned a military victory.  The armed struggle was part of the struggle, but always the mass struggle would of been THE main struggle. We couldn’t even think of a military victory when the South African army was so strong, they could walk through Africa. 

            Arun Gandhi:  My personal understanding of non-violence as my grandfather talked about it, was not just a protest, or a political tool, or a weapon.  Today a lot of scholars say that non-violence is a weapon to be used in certain situations and I disagree with that.  Non-violence is a way of life.  If you do not believe it and do not live it you cannot really practice it.  It is not something you can use now and give it up next time like a tool.   A gun is something you can use and put it away.  Non-violence, you must believe and incorporate into your life and learn to build relationships at all levels.   Today our relationships are all self-motivated.  We are always selfishly interested in what we can gain from each other and if I don’t gain anything from the relationship why should I bother to cultivate it AND that kind of relationship starts a conflict.  The moment you stop gaining anything from the other person you do not care about that person whatever happens to them.  I understand my grandfathers philosophy to mean that we have to start at a personal level to learn how to build relationships that are based on mutual respect, understanding acceptance and appreciation. 

Today we identify people by many labels, religious, economic, and national labels, you name it and we have a label.  We identify each one of us by those  labels.  Bapuji said that we must remove all those labels and begin to look at each other as human beings.  Whatever our race, our nationality, where ever we come from, we are all human beings all going to the same ultimate end and we need to assist each other making life better for all of us.  If we have that kind of an outlook toward each other, then we reduce conflicts.  A lot of the conflicts are based on, exploitation of each other for whatever reason, we want to get something for ourselves.  We exploit, and that exploitation, from a personal level translates into national politics.  Today every country in the world has its foreign policy based on what is good for that country, not for what is good for the world.  Nobody cares about the world, we are only concerned about our country.  We want something, we have the means to get it, we are going to get it.  We do not care about the consequences to the rest of the world.  We assume that each country can be stable and secure by itself.  That they can have a strong army and weapons of mass destruction and they can protect themselves.  If the rest of the world is going down the tube, we are going down with them, however powerful we may be, however rich we may be, we are going down with the rest of the world. So the security and stability of any country depends on the security and stability of the whole world and we have to work on that outlook.

          Laloo Chiba:  In the end  South Africa did have have a peaceful transition

          Arun Gandhi:  Yeah!  and that was very good.  Not only the peaceful transition, but then the forgiveness, building up of a better realtionship. That was an outstanding example really.

          Ahmed Kathrada: And Mr. Mandela became President.  One of the first things he did, as a gesture of reconciliation was to invite to tea the wives and the widows of the Apartheid Presidents and Prime Ministers.  The widow of Dr. Verwoerd was ill and she could not come to tea so he flew to her.  That is how it got started.  

          Laloo Chiba: The philosophy of non-violence is extremely important.  It has certain assumptions that everybody must embrace for it to work.  The history of the whole world dating back 1000’s of years has been a history of violence, and no freedom, no country, has achieved its freedom without bloodshed.  True here in South Africa, you say we had a peaceful transition, that is correct, but 1000’s of people have lost their lives, we must never forget that, that is the most important thing.  We cannot assume while there is this philosophy of non-violence, which is wonderful, but it  can only work if each and every one of us adheres to it.  By and large, the imperialist and the colonist of this world have never accepted it. 

Today the United States of America, look what they did to Egypt, look at what they did to Syria, look what they did to a  whole host of countries, Iraq for example.    Where ever they have been, they have left those countries in a mess.  Absolute mess!

          Arun Gandhi:  It is not just the imperialism, it is more the materialism, they colonize world because of material wealth.  They want to exploit the material wealth and take all of that and became rich with it and that was the whole purpose of colonization.

lynnea bylund at nelson mandela foundationLynnea Bylund is managing director of Gandhi Legacy Tours, board director of Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute, founder of Catalyst House and has nearly three decades of experience in administration, marketing and business development. She was a nationally recognized spokeswoman for the emerging alternative video and information delivery industries. She has a degree in holistic health-nutrition from the legendary and controversial health educator and activist Dr. Kurt Donsbach, she founded two not-for-profit small business-based wireless trade associations and has lobbied on Capitol Hill and at the FCC where she has spoken out strongly against the cable TV monopoly, illegal spectrum warehousing and ill-conceived congressional schemes to auction our nation’s precious airwaves to the highest bidder.

Ms. Bylund is a founder and former CEO of a Washington DC telecommunications consulting and management company with holdings in several operating and developmental wireless communications systems and companies. In 1995 Lynnea became the first female in the world to be awarded a Broadband PCS operating permit – she was one of only 18 winners, along with Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon in the biggest cash auction in world history, raising a whopping $7.7 billion. Lynnea also spear-headed the successful effort to launch the first cable TV network in the South Pacific islands.

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