In Their Own Words: Recollections of Former Political Prisoners

Interviews with former political prisoners of Robben Island Museum

By Robben Island Museum

Robben Island Museum

Recollections of former political prisoners

What follows are extensive video interviews with three leaders of the freedom struggle:  Ahmed Kathada, Kgalema Motlanthe, and Tokyo Sexwale.   Their words carry the history of the anti-apartheid movement, the weight of their experiences as prisoners on Robben Island, and provide a unique window into how the prison became a crucible for a new vision of South Africa as a nation and a people. Following these longer interviews are 10 brief video interviews with other former political prisoners. They recount the circumstances of their imprisonment, hunger strikes and the struggle to improve prison conditions, and describe how they spent their time and what their last days of imprisonment felt like.

Interview with Ahmed Kathrada

Listen to an extensive interview with Ahmed Kathrada recorded on 13 April 2015 at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Houghton, Johannesburg.

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada (born 21 August 1929, sometimes known by the nickname "Kathy") is a South African politician and 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, alongside Nelson Mandela, 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.

Interview with Ikgalema Motlanthe

Listen to an interview with Kgalema Motlanthe, conducted on 10 April 2015, Houghton Johannesburg.

Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe is a South African politician who served as President of South Africa between 25 September 2008 and 9 May 2009, following the resignation of Thabo Mbeki. After the end of his presidency, Motlanthe was appointed as the Deputy President of South Africa by his successor, current South African president Jacob Zuma.

Motlanthe was previously a student activist, trade unionist and member of the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe during the struggle against South Africa under Apartheid, and was imprisoned on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities, alongside figures such as Nelson Mandela.

Interview with Tokyo Sexwale

This extensive interview was conducted on 30 March 2015, at Mr. Sexwale's offices, Houghton, Johannesburg.

Mosima Gabriel "Tokyo" Sexwale (born 5 March 1953), is a South African businessman, politician, anti-apartheid activist, and former political prisoner. Sexwale was imprisoned on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities, alongside figures such as Nelson Mandela. After the 1994 general election—the first universal franchise election in South Africa—Sexwale became the Premier of Gauteng Province. Later, he served in the government of South Africa as Minister of Human Settlements from 2009 to 2013.

Interview with Jama MbatyotiRobben Island Museum

Jama Mbatyoti
Served time between 1977-1981.

Interview with Thulani MbasoRobben Island Museum

Thulani Mbaso
Served time between 1986-1991.

Interview with Ntozelizwe TalakumeniRobben Island Museum

Ntozelizwe Talakumeni
Served time between 1986-1989.

Interview with Vusumsi McongoRobben Island Museum

Vusumsi Mcongo
Served time between 1978-1990.

Interview with Sipho NkosiRobben Island Museum

Sipho Nkosi
Served time between 1986-1991.

Interview with Sipho MsomiRobben Island Museum

Sipho Msoni
Served time between 1984-1988.

Interview with Itumeleng MakwelaRobben Island Museum

Itumeleng Makwela
Served time between 1983-1990.

Interview with Ntando MbathaRobben Island Museum

Ntando Mbatha
Served time between 1986-1991.

Interview with Lulamile MadoloRobben Island Museum

Lulamile Madolo
Served time between 1977-1982.

Interview with Dumisani MwandalRobben Island Museum

Dumisani Mwandla
Served time between 1986-1991.

Interview with Sedick Isaacs

The Key
The day I found myself in prison I made the resolution to resist imprisonment, to continually endeavour to escape and to resist with all my strength the possible adverse effect of imprisonment.

The incident with making a master key to the cells of Robben Island must have been my fifth attempt to escape.

Before turning to the idea of making a key. Japhta Masemola and myself considered other means of escape. Cutting through the bars was impossible, since each prison bar had a thinner high grade steel bar mounted on ball bearings inside an outer bar which made it virtually cut proof. We first tried jacking the bars aside with a screw jack. This jack proved too weak. A hydraulic jack might have worked.

Duplicate Prison Key by Sedick IsaacsRobben Island Museum

It was my job to observe the pattern of the key the warders used. I noticed that the manufacturer of the lock was British, and concluded that the measurements will be in inches. The height, depth and diameter of the ring at the top of the keyhole was carefully measured. A thirty-secondth of an inch was deducted from these measurements and the width, height and diameter of the barrel of the key was obtained. Bra Jeff was thus able to grind the basic blank key from these dimensions. He did this very expertly since the only grinding tools he had in his blacksmith shop in the quarry were a grinding wheel and a whetstone.

The basic key was brought in twice to get a good fit. Once this was complete the key came in with a small supply of fat. Late in the night Anthony Suze and myself lit the fat and the blank key was held in the smoke until well blackened. This blackened key was then carefully inserted into the lock, strongly twisted and slowly withdrawn. The first pattern of the key was formed onto the blackened blank and measured. The pattern was drawn on paper and taken to Bra Jeff. Bra Jess then spent about two weeks grinding the first prototype of the key. The key was now brought back by Tony, expertly hidden in the search or tauza lines which all prisoners coming from the quarry must pass.

Credits: Story

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
Robben Island Museum

Videos Production: produced by Jungle Corner
Digital technologies company

Executive Creative Director: Neil Whitehead
Film Director: Christopher Bisset
Cinematography: Ross Hillier
Art Director Kirsten Felbert
Editor: Grant Birch
First assistant camera: Keenan Ferguson

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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