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Mandela: reading The Courier on Robben Island

UNESCO informs in prison

Published on 31 March 2012

Author(s): UNESCO Courier/Annar Cassam

Type:  News

Thirty years ago, on March 31 1982, prisoner number 466/64 of Robben Island was transferred to Pollsmoor maximum security prison (Cape Town), thus ending two decades of banishment to the worst outpost of the South African penal system.

During these years, The UNESCO Courier brought regularly news and ideas from the five continents to Nelson Mandela.

Zuid Afrika Courier_Cover_Racisme_Mandela_nov_1983_ENG_WEB3x4.jpg
In November 1983, The Courier published an issue on Racism with a portrait of Nelson Mandela on the cover.

"Newspapers are more valuable to political prisoners than gold or diamonds, more hungered for than food or tobacco." Nelson Mandela

Mandela and his fellow-political prisoners were condemned to life imprisonment in 1964 and their first years in jail were as intellectually and spiritually barren as the terrain on Robben Island itself, the prison authorities made sure of that. Newspapers, even local ones were not allowed. "The authorities attempted to impose a complete blackout, they did not want us to learn anything that might raise our morale or reassure us that people on the outside were still thinking about us", Nelson Mandela sais in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

But prisoners could apply to study for high school and university courses and thus order publications necessary for their studies. And so, together with publications on subjects such as accounting and economics, the prison administration also allowed in The UNESCO Courier magazine which arrived regularly from Paris for some time.

The prison authorities, mostly, if not exclusively Afrikaans-speaking, clearly considered the magazine to be harmless reading materiel for this class of prisoners who, after spending the day smashing stones in the limestone quarry, could retire to their cells in the evening and read its "insignificant" contents.

It was President Mandela himself who recounted this in September 1996 to the then Director- General Federico Mayor, in the President’s Office, Union Buidings, Pretoria, during the latter’s official visit to the new democratic South Africa.

The President explained how pleased he and his companions had been to read The Courier through which they had learnt about so many subjects never before encountered, such as cultural diversity and mankind’s common heritage, African history, education for development and so on. All these subjects did not exist in the apartheid lexicon, let alone in the solitary confines of Robben Island.

Reading The Courier was a way of learning about what was happening in the real world outside. Nelson Mandela wanted the UNESCO Director-General to know this.

I had the privilege of accompanying the Director-General on this visit and as I listened to the President’s words, my mind tried to take in their meaning and significance. The Courier, so aptly named, was the carrier-pigeon that flew regularly from Paris to a remote spot in the middle of nowhere in the southern Atlantic Ocean to bring news and ideas from the five continents to Mandela and his colleagues under the very noses of the watchful agents of the police state that was apartheid South Africa. Knowledge and ideas grow wings when necessary.

A "civilizing mission"

Robben Island was the South African Alcatraz, an island penitentiary from which there was no escape for the black common law convicts who were sent there for life. In the 1960s and 70s, as the struggle against apartheid strengthened and spread, the Island became the place where the racist government sent its most serious political opponents, also for life. In reality, the Island was a prison within-a-prison, for the principle lock-up, the main jail was mainland South Africa itself where the white minority settler community was locked inside its paranoia about its own racial superiority over the indegenous population. Every aspect of existence, both private and public, was governed by racist laws designed to oppress and denigrate the black majority for the benefit of the white minority population, privileged in every way.

In so doing, the ruling class claimed to be preserving and promoting "European values" in keeping with their self-styled "civilizing mission" in Africa. Ironically, they themselves were complete strangers to those values, for they had no understanding of concepts such as liberty, equality, democracy, fraternity, values for which the Europeans themselves had fought across the centuries.

Indeed, UNESCO and the entire UN system were born out of just such a struggle, a devastating war against Nazi racism which had brought the world to the edge of the abyss in the second world war. In 1945, the lesson was learnt that "never again" would the nations of the world allow such horrors to happen. At UNESCO, these countries decided deliberately "to build the ramparts of peace in the minds of men" by sharing and expanding human knowledge in all its aspects,especially through the areas of education, science and culture.

The apartheid regime, however, learnt a different lesson and chose to go the opposite way, to promote separation, exclusion, deprivation, humiliation and violence. For those citizens who dared to question and challenge this backward ideology, the punishment was banishment for life.

I like to think of Mandela and his colleagues leafing through the pages of the Courier, reading about the temples of Abou Simbel in Egypt, standing for thousands of years at the other end of Africa and now about to be saved from oblivion through the combined efforts of the world’s experts. At the height of the Cold War in 1960, UNESCO managed to bring together resources and expertise from East and West to make sure these timeless, ageless monuments would endure for they formed the "common heritage of mankind." How strange it must have been to read this in a place where the wardens made Mandela and his co-prisoners wear shorts, sleep on the cement floor and answer to the call of "Boy!".

Articles on racisme on Robben Island

I see Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters smiling with satisfaction when reading the article on Racism written by John Rex, British sociologist and educationist in 1968 : "The most striking instance of racism today is that of the system of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid is not, as some imagine, designed to provide equal but separate facilities for all races. It is segregation carried through by men with white skins to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of the black and coloured people of South Africa." (The Ubiquitous shadow of racism).

Some years later, Mandela would read of the report made to the General Conference of UNESCO by its then Deputy Director-General, Mokhtar M’Bow of Senegal, on his tour of ANC exile institutions and refugee camps in Tanzania and Zambia in 1971. In this report he recommended two important initiatives: one, to provide educational assistance to all exiles being sheltered in these countries and two, to accord observer status to all African liberation movements recognised by the OAU (Organisation for African Unity). The General Conference accepted these recommendations and thus it was that UNESCO became the first UN agency to give such recognition, a step followed by the rest of the UN system soon after.

The Soweto massacre of school-goers in 1976 was a watershed in the history of the struggle for it brought to the streets an angry younger generation of fighters against apartheid revolted by the hideous Bantu Education Act which made it illegal to teach English, science and mathematics in black schools. It also made it obvious to the world outside that the racist government had no strategy except the use of brute force, even against unarmed school children. By this time South Africa had become an international pariah state, shunned by almost all people of the world if not by all governments.

In the following year, The Courier published its own special edition on racism in South Africa: Southern Africa at grips with racism. It was unlikely to have been allowed on Robben Island but by then the struggle had reached the world stage and it was beginning to dawn on some of the leaders in Pretoria that they would be needing Mandela… sooner or later. As the years went by, Mandela and his cause grew in strength and stature while the apartheid regime continued on its path of destruction and violence against its own black population and against neighbouring African states.

Mandela’s long period on the Island came to an end in the 1982 when he was brought back to the mainland to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and then finally to house arrest and to relative ‘comfort ‘ in a cottage in Victor Verster prison outside Cape Town. During this phase in captivity, which lasted until 1990, Mandela spent hours "talking to the enemy", as he puts it, by initiating dialogue and discussion with the more intelligent, less bigoted members of the regime in order to make them understand that state violence and military action would not resolve the growing unrest in the country, that the pressure for change, coming from all sides, including the international community, would have to be dealt with politically.

Finally, the day came which had to come and on Feb 11 1990, Mandela accompanied by his wife, Winnie, walked out of the prison gates and within days established himself as the moral leader of the country. A remarkable achievement for a man who was not only banished for nearly three decades but whose name, photograph and words it was a crime to publish ! In May 1994, after four years of gruelling negotiations with the De Klerk government, Mandela was elected the political leader of the new South Africa, the first President of a democratic, non-racist society where the ex-oppressors live in peace with the majority whom they humiliated for centuries.

The Mandela’s "ten thousand days"

Mandela’s 27 years can been seen in two ways ; as a terribe sacrifice of the best years of a man’s life and a cruel price in absence and loss exacted from his family. This punishment is undeniable and immeasurable. But Mandela’s "ten thousand days" behind bars, to use his own expression, can also be seen on another timescale ; this is how long it took for him to convince the racists to free themselves of their own ideological and cultural chains, to accept that freedom and dignity for all South Africans ,whatever their colour or creed, were the ultimate qualifications of a civilised state.

The "white tribesmen" of Africa are lucky Mandela waited those long years, that he was there to the bitter end in order to lead them, peacefully and patiently, out of the prison gates of their own minds, out of the delusion of separateness and superiority to a land to which they can all belong and from which none can be expelled because of the colour of his skin.

Robben Island became the first South African national site to join the World Heritage List in 1999. If ever there comes into existence a world heritage list to name those who have expanded and uplifted the collective conscience of mankind, Nelson Mandela will have pride of place on it.

By Annar Cassam (Tanzania), Director, UNESCO Special Program for South Africa 1993-1996

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