Wednesday marks 25 years since five Rivonia Trialists stepped out from prison as free men. Two of the trialists, who are still alive, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, shared their views on the occasion. On 15th of October 1989, five of the eight ANC long term political prisoners were released after 26 years of incarceration in Pollsmoor Prison and Robben Island.
They included Ahmed Kathrada Andrew Mlangeni, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, and Elias Motsoaledi. Wilton Mkwayi, Oscar Mpetha and PAC prisoner, Jafta Masemola, were also freed on the same day. Three of the eight Rivonia prisoners were released before and after 1989: Dennis Goldberg (1985), Govan Mbeki (1987) and Nelson Mandela (1990).
Support for international campaigns
Kathrada and Mlangeni were surprised when reminded that it was 25 years ago that they walked out of prison. However, they both used the occasion to reaffirm their support for two international causes. Kathrada renewed his support for the global campaign for the freedom of Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouthi. The campaign was launched last year on Robben Island.
“On this occasion, I would like to renew my call for the release of Marwan Barghouthi and all other Palestinian political prisoners. Their stories bring back our own memories and we empathise with them. For some, they have it much worse than we did. We had one life sentence, while Barghouthi is currently serving five life sentences.”
Mlangeni used the occasion to remember the plight of the people of Western Sahara.
“Like we are calling on Israel to leave the Palestinians alone, we are also saying that Morocco must get out of the land belonging to people of Western Sahara. Just before the elections this year, I was requested to lead a delegation to Western Sahara. It was terrible to see the conditions. I am calling upon the entire world to make sure that the people of Western Sahara get back their land.”
Recalling events leading up to their freedom
The stalwarts recalled the events leading up to their release.
“On the 10th of October, we were taken to see Madiba,” explained Kathrada. Mandela was at the time transferred to Victor Verster Prison. “Madiba was already agitating for the release of political prisoners. He said to us, ‘Chaps, this is goodbye.’ We stated that we would believe it (our release), when it happens.”
That evening, Kathrada and his fellow prisoners were having supper when a television was brought in, and they were told by the 8pm news that they would be released.
“From that moment,” explains Mlangeni, “we were treated as human beings, as gentlemen. We were no longer prisoners and the warders began addressing us as Mister so and so.”
“After that, things happened quite fast,” says Kathrada. “Our warder, Christo Brand came to us and said that we should pack up as we were to be transferred to another prison. On Friday, the 13th of October, we were flown from Cape Town to Johannesburg.”
Asked to describe the flight, Kathrada explains that the prisoners wore civilian clothing, and were seated early at the back of the plane. “It was an ordinary flight, but we were guarded by warders.”
“On Saturday night, the 14th of October, we were told that the prison headquarters had sent through a fax stating that we were going to be released. Our first question was, ‘What is a fax?’ On Sunday morning, we were released.”
When questioned about his emotions on the day, Kathrada says that there was “excitement”, but unlike the others, his blood pressure did not go up.
Mlangeni however, states that his blood pressure levels soared.
“We had been preparing for this day for years. We decided that we would be calm about the release and not get excited. But after the announcement, contrary to what we had planned, my blood pressure went up. The hospital nurse indicated that I cannot be released as long as I was not well. So, there was that possibility of me staying behind!”
Along with the euphoria, also came the concerns. Mlangeni had to be assured that his study materials would be waiting for him in Johannesburg, as he was preparing for a law exam. With the sweeping events that followed his release, he later gave up his studies. But, this was not before he postponed the law paper twice, finally writing it in Lusaka. He agrees that being released from prison, was probably one of the best excuses a university could get from a student!
Kathrada remembers being driven with his luggage and prison officials in three cars from Johannesburg to his home in Lenasia in the early hours of the morning. His fellow prisoners were taken to Soweto. Raymond Mhlaba was released in Port Elizabeth, where he lived.
“I was told that ever since the 10th of October, people had gathered outside our houses, especially the media. On Sunday morning at 4am, they got fed up of waiting and left. I arrived at about 5am,” Kathrada says.
Having been deprived of seeing children for most of his prison term, Kathrada clearly remembers them on the day of his release. “For the children, I was a curiosity. They didn’t know what is prison, and if a prisoner is a different type of a person. So they touched my head and were very curious about whether I was an actual human being.”
It is not surprising that Kathrada’s first visitor that morning was his comrade and jail-mate of 18 years, Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba. “It was the first time I saw ‘Mr L’ after his release. I was very excited to be reunited with him,” says Kathrada.
Mlangeni chuckles as he recalls his first day home.
“I surprised my family by arriving at 7am. The gate was still locked. So I took a stone and threw it on the roof. My daughter came out through the kitchen door. She saw three cars outside and me standing there, and shouted, ‘Papa, papa, papa!’ Everyone awoke. There was great excitement.”
Kathrada laments that although overwhelmed by the experience of freedom, there was “no chance to go on holiday”.
“The first few weeks was one media interview after another. So, we were swept into freedom, without a holiday!”
Kathrada recalls residents of Lenasia spontaneously gathering at a park outside his home on the day. The Indicator, a local newspaper, put the crowd at 5000 strong.
“The first day was a blank. It was only after a week or two, after watching a video that everything came back. I had actually gone to Soweto twice on the day, once to see Walter Sisulu and a fellow prisoner, Eric Molobi, and thereafter for a press conference.”
“One of the first few things I did in the days following my release was to visit the grave of Suliman ‘Babla’ Saloojee (a close friend of Kathrada’s, who was killed in detention). We also visited Helen Joseph at her house.”
Mlangeni recalls similar throngs of people at his home. He remembers that a then leader of the student movement and now MEC for Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture in the Eastern Cape, Pemmy Majodina, led crowds to his and Sisulu’s homes. He states that at press conferences, the former prisoners urged children to go back to school.
“We emphasised, whereas yesterday we were using the AK47s to fight for freedom, now we are going to use a pen. There was a sentiment of liberation before freedom. We said we cannot allow that. It must be education before freedom, as we cannot have the country led by illiterates.”
Prison habits that remain
After 26 long years behind bars, prison habits die hard. Kathrada continued waking up early and 25 years later, still starts his day at 5am. It is the cold showers though, that simply don’t have a logical explanation.
“From the first day in prison, out in the open courtyard, in winter, one has to take a cold shower. For the next ten years in prison, it was cold showers. Today, even if I’m in the American winter, I start my shower with warm water, but must end off with cold water – otherwise it’s incomplete.”
For Mlangeni, it’s the dishes.
“In prison, each one had a plate, a mug and a spoon, which we would wash and put away after eating. I still do so.”
Just like Kathrada, Mlangeni enjoys taking guests for visits to Robben Island.
“But, I don’t miss prison,” he says. “I tell people that they should not wish to be in prison even for just one hour. It is in prison that you realise what you are missing outside – your relatives, friends and children. You realise the importance of the company you took for granted.”
Kathrada misses the time that prison offered.
“Prison gave us time to think. Take the letters for example – we had time to think about what to write. And now, when I look at my book, Letters from Robben Island, I am struck at how much thought was put into those pieces.”
Adapting to life outside prison
As for adjusting to life beyond the bars, Kathrada explains that it was “new world”. “Everything was new, from the fax, to the new roads streets and road maps.”
Kathrada entered prison as young man at the age of 34. Released at the age of 60, he was nearing his pension years. Did he feel the difference?
“It didn’t dawn on me at all. Physically, I just adjusted to a new life. After my visit to the prison doctor, where they checked my blood pressure before the release, I can’t remember when next I saw one.”
Mlangeni echoes these sentiments. Having entered prison at 38 years and leaving at the age of 64, he says that the emphasis placed on exercise in jail, and having no unhealthy food, contributed to his fitness.
Being what he calls a “township boy”, he says it was not difficult to adapt, but he found it disturbing that living conditions in Soweto had deteriorated since his arrest. “It is only now that people’s lives are improving and that they are rebuilding,” he notes.
He was however, taken aback by the mini-skirt. “Upon my release, it was a culture shock when I saw women with very short dresses. I asked, ‘What’s going on?’” laughs Mlangeni.
Just as the former prisoners started adapting to their newfound freedom, South Africa as whole was undergoing change. The prisoners realised soon enough that the road to democracy would still be a long one.
“It didn’t take long to realise,” says Kathrada, “that we may have been free from prison, but that the country was not free. The struggle still had to continue.” VOC