ADDRESS BY THE DEPUTY PRESIDENT, JACOB ZUMA, AT THE OFFICIAL OPENING OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN CAPE (UWC)-ROBBEN ISLAND MAYIBUYE ARCHIVES, 13 June 2001
Mr Ahmed Kathrada,
The Acting Rector of UWC, Prof Ike Van der Rheede,
Mr Andre Odendaal, Director of Mayibuye Centre,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure this evening to formally launch the new UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives and the new facilities in which these collections of Robben Island will be housed.
The launch of this splendid new UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives is of great significance. It is indeed appropriate that a National Cultural Institution of the new democratic government now professionally conserves the fragments of the struggle here, often produced and conserved at considerable risk, and even loss of lives.
Mr Rector, on behalf of the government of South Africa, we wish to thank the University of the Western Cape for firstly recognising the importance of establishing the archives, and for later agreeing to Cabinet's request that the archives become part of the national estate.
The establishment of the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives is in essence the synthesis of two of this country's foremost heritage institutions, namely the Robben Island Museum and the Mayibuye Centre. The Mayibuye Centre has a long history of preserving for all South Africans the history, historical processes, and the socio-political commentary that was hidden from the majority of South Africans. Its documents, books; films; documentaries; and posters embody the legacy and a spirit of a people. It produces for us a mirror of ourselves; a self that was banned; hidden; legislated against; and erased. Likewise, the establishment of the Robben Island Museum heralded a new age for museums in South Africa.
At the same time, it has come to symbolise the triumph of humanity. Its history and commentary was preserved and etched in scraps of paper; in prison records; prison writing; and in the words and living memories of those who were incarcerated here on the island for many years as political prisoners.
The incorporation of the Mayibuye Archives in the Robben Island Museum will ensure that co-operation with other declared institutions, for instance with the South African National Gallery, in the exhibition on George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba's work; will continue, and in so doing, will continue to strengthen the mirror image we hold up to ourselves.
This step is in line with the moves of the National Archives of South Africa to transform the archives and to collect previously marginalised history. The National Archives of South Africa has recognised the need to transform and update its collections.
Ladies and gentlemen, please allow a former inmate of Robben Island to share with you some of his experiences and thoughts; these will be fragments, rather than a grand narrative sweep of events.
As much as Robben Island has become a place today that symbolises the spirit of resilience, resistance, courage and determination, we should also be mindful of its history. The apartheid authorities also set out from the 1960s onwards to turn it into a vicious site of punishment for freedom fighters whose only crime was a yearning for freedom, democracy and social justice.
I also wish to note our hope that this project would fully capture the history of Robben Island from the days of the incarceration of the first freedom fighters against colonialism, like Autshumato, Makana, Langalibalele, various Muslim clerics and many others. In fact, Robben Island has always been used as a place to house undesirables from the very first day of the colonial times from Van Riebeeck onwards. Those deemed troublesome to the regime were exiled here - this included both political prisoners as well the undesirables of society, like thieves, lepers and the mentally challenged. In fact, in 1915, a missionary found one leper who had been on the Island for 45 years.
During these earlier periods, the Island was used to incarcerate those that defended their rights against the onslaught of the colonial authorities to dispossess the indigenous people of their land. Later, the Island was used to imprison freedom fighters who fought for our freedom. The Island therefore played a central role in the expansionist strategy of the colonialists and to subjugate the oppressed.
The heroic deeds of these early freedom fighters must also be rightfully restored to its place in history. Autshumato managed to escape from Robben Island, whereas others like Makana and his companions unfortunately drowned in their quest for freedom. One of the stories that must be contextualised is how none of the political prisoners from the 1960's onwards managed to escape; yet, plans were hatched.
The apartheid regime set out to make life as uncomfortable as possible for its inmates. I can recall that when we set foot on Robben Island, the warder told us that you are now entering the "Blue Hell". He probably forgot to add - a very special kind of hell that we have prepared for you. Their intention was to break our spirits and dehumanise us. This we did not allow to happen. We also set out to improve the conditions on the Island as well as making it a home away from home, however possible that was. We therefore studied, played games, collected and listened to music, even did ballroom dancing, sung in choirs, composed music, poetry and freedom songs.
Our foremost activity was political discussion, and that is why Robben Island has been dubbed the Robben Island University. It was obviously a university of a special type, geared towards the search for knowledge, but with the purpose to change South Africa. This was the overpowering passion and abiding interest as it still is today, for an activist like me. When one left the Island, one certainly left it a richer person for the experience and the interaction with your fellow comrades and activists. The regime also forgot that by incarcerating us in this manner, they allowed us to plan our struggle much better. Prison life allows one to reflect on previous phases, evaluate it and ultimately strategise for better implementation. These interactions also allowed us to become more mature and holistic in our approach to the struggle and life.
On Saturday, we will also be celebrating the 25th anniversary of what has become known in the popular lexicon as the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976. This further underscores the need for all of us to remember where we come from, what had to happen in order to achieve our liberation in 1994 and the road ahead in our transformatory project.
We should remember that the 1976 uprising followed on the heels of the 1973 Durban strikes where the working class struck a decisive blow for worker rights in particular and that of the South African oppressed in general. These first heroic steps by the black working class set the scene for the epoch-making events of 1976 and the subsequent events that ultimately led to the historic elections of 27 April 1994. This period also ushered in the liberation of Angola and Mozambique in Southern Africa, thereby providing us with more support and increasing the challenge to apartheid South Africa.
The events from 1973 to 1976 followed a period from the 1960s that was characterised by firstly the bannings of the liberation movements, followed by the adoption of the armed struggle that took the struggle to new heights. This was swiftly followed by the ruthless clamp-down of the apartheid state. This saw most of the leadership and activists of the liberation movement being sent to Robben Island and others going into exile. This period of harassment, incarceration and banishment resulted in a severe downturn in revolutionary activities over the ensuing decade. This period was characterised by an apparent despondency on the part of the oppressed and accompanied by a reorganisation and regrouping on our part.
This careful regrouping and reorganisation bore fruits from 1973 onwards. The 1973 Durban strikes, the Bus boycotts of 1974/5 at Emadadeni and on the East Rand of the old Transvaal and the 1976 uprising were not entirely spontaneous or accidental, but came about through painstaking work on behalf of our cadres to build the underground and organisation in general. These events were to a certain extent assisted by the involvement of comrades like Joe Gqabi and Philip Matthews amongst others who had spend time on the Island. The Soweto uprisings shattered the myth of the invincibility of the regime. It also gave renewed hope and determination to the oppressed masses in the country.
In addition, it swelled the ranks of the struggle against apartheid enormously with young, energetic, courageous and militant youth activists, many of whom joined the glorious ranks of MK, community structures or ended up in prison. On Robben Island for example, they questioned things to a great deal and had a positive effect on events generally. It galvanised all of us into more decisive and determined action to defeat the insidious apartheid system.
The events of 1976, together with those of 1973 ensured that the regime could not continue to rule in the same manner as before. It effectively spelled the beginning of the end.
Tonight we therefore also pay special tribute to the heroic youth and also remember the sacrifices of all who contributed so richly and unselfishly to our freedom struggle. These heroic and selfless acts have ensured that we could gather here tonight to reaffirm the importance of heritage, culture and human rights and the need to conserve it for future generations and making the current generation conversant with their history and how our freedom was attained.
That is why it has been pleasing to see the appearance of recent publications like Raymond Mhlaba's Memoirs, Walter Sisulu's 'Conversations', Mac Maharaj's Reflections from Prison', as well as a book on the Yengeni trial, all of which Robben Island Museum has helped produced as part of its Memories Programme. (Comrade Mhlaba's Memoirs, incidentally, gives recognition to numerous grassroots activists of the 1940s and 1950s in Port Elizabeth who otherwise would have been forgotten).
The publishing of these memoirs and stories bring those who were previously on the margins, to the centre of the national narrative by conserving, researching and engaging with the past. This will also help with the formation of new identities in a country struggling to become whole after a long experience of domination, division and gross injustice.
Comrades, ladies and gentlemen, our country has come a long way in the 25 years since 16 June 1976. As we prepare to remember June 16 over the weekend, we hope our young people will learn from the archives, and from such experiences, choose a path that will make them better South Africans. Our experience has shown that people choose to make a difference in society early in their lives.
The Robben Island Museum is one institution in one area of national life, which shows the constant progress we are making. It has grown steadily in a relatively short period, having hosted, for example, nearly one million visitors already. And by its emphasis on outreach, it has reached many more people and shown it is fulfilling its mandate to be a museum of international standard.
We are heartened to note that hundreds of million of viewers watched the 'Millennium Moment' on the island on 1 January 2000, and that 250 000 listeners are going to be exposed to a forthcoming 6-part Xhosa language radio series, and that the Robben Island-On-The-Move travelling exhibition, consisting of more than 50 000 photographs and 1000 film productions for learners, has been to 14 rural areas in the Western Cape in this year. This must to be extended to all communities.
I believe that more than 200 ex-political prisoners have been interviewed as part of the Robben Island Memories Project and interviews are continuing. Clearly, this process needs to be speeded up in order to capture all the experiences, as many comrades are getting old or passing away. Many more are so over extended that they are unable to record their experiences.
In conclusion, I wish to concur with the sentiments of Harriet Deacon in her book on Robben Island, who says that Robben Island has always been regarded as a Hell, Purgatory or rural Eden depending on the vantage point of whatever group.
Furthermore, I think it will be appropriate to conclude with a thought from that outstanding revolutionary intellectual of our struggle, Comrade OR Tambo who said in 1980, that "the tragedy of Africa, in racial and political terms, has been concentrated in the southern tip of the continent - in South Africa, Namibia and in a special sense, Robben Island".
Comrade Kathy, Director and staff, a big job still lies ahead as we are sure that Robben Island will achieve World Heritage Site status, which will rank it among the best in the world. We congratulate the University of the Western Cape and the Robben Island Museum on tonight's event and wish you the very best for the road ahead.
It now gives me great pleasure to declare the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives formally opened.
I thank you.
Issued by: The Presidency, 13 June 2001