Freedom fighter Ebrahim Ebrahim returns to his cell on Robben Island

Johannesburg – On January 16, 28 years to the day since former freedom fighter and parliamentary adviser to the president, Ebrahim Ebrahim was convicted of treason and sentenced to his second prison term on Robben Island.

On the island, he shared a cell with President Jacob Zuma. He was also one of the confidants of Nelson Mandela’s inner circle where political developments and possible negotiations with the former apartheid government were discussed, subsequently leading to Mandela’s historic release.

In the New Year, Ebrahim returned to his Robben Island cell and shared his memories with the African News Agency in an exclusive interview.

Ebrahim joined Unkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1960. He was arrested in 1963 along with eighteen other people and, as Accused No.1, was charged with sabotage and sentenced to 15 years. at Robben Island.

He was released in 1979, was banned and restricted to his hometown of Durban. In 1980, he went into exile in Swaziland and headed the political-military committee of the ANC which directed the underground cells of the ANC in South Africa.

Six years later, he was kidnapped by South African intelligence agents who smuggled him across the border into South Africa.

He was then sentenced to an additional 20 years in prison for high treason, but in 1991 the Court of Appeal ruled that his kidnapping in a foreign country was illegal and that the South African court had no jurisdiction to try him. . He was then released from prison in early 1991.

“It was not the first time that I returned to the island after my release, but every time I come back I remember what it was like when I was first incarcerated,” he said. Ebrahim told the ANA.

As the veteran freedom fighter neared Robben Island, he was filled with mixed emotions.

There was sadness for the years lost in the desolation of the island where prisoners were forced to hew stones during the day and were starved on weekends if they did not meet their quota.

But there was also the joy of being a free man and the feeling of victory that the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement finally triumphed.

“Our victory meant that our time on the island was not wasted. The ANC achieved its goals despite the hardships and hardships we suffered during the struggle, ”Ebrahim said.

At first the conditions on the island were very bad. These included hostility between the ANC and the Pan-African Congress (PAC) and the difficult working conditions of teams early in the morning to break stones in the stone quarry in freezing conditions, where prisoners were regularly assaulted by prison guards.

“We did not have enough clothing and bedding, and yet we were able to survive these days despite the guards’ attempts to break our morale,” Ebrahim told the ANA.

“Many of us got sick from the harsh conditions, but no medical treatment was provided. Our food was also insufficient, and if the guards didn’t like you, they would refuse the food as punishment.

But contrary to breaking the minds of the cadres, they decided to retaliate by complaining to higher authorities and visitors, as well as resorting to hunger strikes.

The Soweto uprising of June 1976 saw ANC political prisoners on the island join young political prisoners who had started out as stone throwers, but who soon became politicized by veterans after extensive political training, to eventually become seasoned politicians.

Ebrahim’s most positive memories of his incarceration followed one after the other as conditions improved on the island.

“We were finally allowed to play sports and immediately formed teams. ”

“There was also the feeling of camaraderie even when there had been political antagonisms between the older generation of prisoners and the younger ones, as well as between the ANC and the PAC. But these were resolved through political discussions, ”Ebrahim recalled.

When Ebrahim was first released in 1979, he cried and vowed never to return. But that was not the case, and after the conviction for treason, exactly 10 years later, he began his second term of imprisonment.

“Conditions had improved dramatically by then, after the international exposure and the sentencing. Prisoners were no longer sent to the stone quarry to break rocks, and the food had improved. We also got television and newspapers – a first, ”he said.

Although he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the second time, Ebrahim was released after two years following the decision of the Court of Appeal which overturned his conviction.

“I was suddenly informed by the prison authorities that I had one hour to pack my bags while I was transferred to the mainland. However, ironically, I didn’t want to leave immediately. I wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to my comrades, but it was refused, ”Ebrahim explained.

Fearing to arrive alone with no money and no place to stay, Ebrahim’s fears subsided as the authorities had already informed his family that he was released.

“A huge crowd of sympathizers and supporters gathered on the platform to welcome me home. As I was overwhelmed by the support and happy to be free, a pinch of sadness marred my joy when I thought of all the comrades still imprisoned on the island.

“The beauty of Cape Town was overwhelming and it was amazing to walk around breathing the air as a free man and witness all the changes that have happened over the years,” Ebrahim told ANA.

African News Agency

Thelma J. Longworth

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