‘I was jailed along with Nelson Mandela’

Noted journalist and former South African political prisoner jailed in Robben Island remembers a fallen comrade.

Rafiq Rohan was the last prisoner to occupy Nelson Mandela's old cell at Robben Island [Rafiq Rohan/Al Jazeera]
Rafiq Rohan was the last prisoner to occupy Nelson Mandela's old cell at Robben Island [Rafiq Rohan/Al Jazeera]

Fathers love their children and, at times, become so angered by the child’s behaviour, they won’t speak to them. Nelson Mandela was like my father and also, even though there were so many shared similarities in experiences as political allies on apartheid’s Robben Island Prison, there were times he wouldn’t speak to me.

For instance, in one of his moments of sadness and need for strength he asked the prison authorities to allow him to visit a Muslim shrine on the island. Madiba described the experience and the impact sitting in the “kramat” (shrine) where an early Muslim slave who was regarded as a saint is interred, had on him. I discovered this fact in a 1982 letter Madiba wrote to Cape Town’s Muslim Judicial Council recently, whilst he was still a prisoner.

I was the only journalist in 1989 imprisoned on Robben Island and, along with a fellow prisoner, Ashley Forbes, requested permission to be allowed out of our cells to spend the morning in the shrine – to clean it up.

The prison authorities agreed and it was an uplifting experience to clean up the very meditative space at a time when things were particularly difficult at the prison. The prisoner release programme was underway, and we were dealing with a situation of uncertainty of whether our names would be called.

It was a torturous time. My best friend and comrade, Jude Francis, was being released that day and I could not bear the thought of saying goodbye to him. Going into the shrine gave me relief and sanctuary from that burden. I only returned to my cell once Jude, and others, were marched to the Robben Island ferry with their meagre belongings and were released to freedom on the mainland. Mandela, in his visit to the shrine while a prisoner, also spoke about the comfort and spiritual sanctuary it gave him.

One of the features of the Cape area in South Africa are the numerous shrines marking the landscape. Many South Africans visit these places on mini-pilgrimages as a way to reconnect with, remember, and gain strength from the past. Most of the shrines contain the remains of the first Muslims that came to the Cape and who practiced their faith despite the threat from the Dutch that they would be put to death if caught doing so. The practice of Islam was a crime punished by death at the time.

The past of these South African slaves – many brought into the country from Indonesia – has constantly been referred to by Madiba as one of the sources of his strength and reason to resist the system of apartheid, which many of them did, although apartheid had not been institutionalised during slavery. It didn’t have to be because the white masters owned and could do what they liked with their slaves at the time.

The good and the bad

Over the years, my experiences with the man – almost revered like a saint – have been mixed.

There were times when Madiba treated me like a favoured son. Like the time while I was the political editor of the Sowetan – at the time the biggest daily newspaper in South Africa.  We were a group of five senior journalists from SA accompanying Madiba to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Zealand soon after his appointment as SA’s first Black president.

During photo-calls and breakfast sessions, Madiba would always insist I stand or sit next to him on his right hand side – a practice of cultural significance in SA. It’s an honour accorded to a favoured son in ethnic African belief. Other journalists complained that I was receiving preferential treatment due to my shared political past and experience with Madiba.

One reporter, at the time political editor of a white, Afrikaner publication, said, just loud enough for me to hear: “OK, we all know of Rafiq’s political past, but, hell, c’mon. This is not fair.”

One of Madiba’s aides, Parks Mankahlana, whispered in my ear: “They are complaining but we don’t really care. You have earned your place at his right hand.”

But being a favoured son also involved moments when I was treated with anger and fury. I was with Madiba on a state visit, soon after New Zealand, to the United Kingdom when we were part of the delegation that attended an official banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth. In true, royal style, you made your entrance, and you were announced to the queen and Prince Philip who shook your hand with a gloved hand and a pasty look. I was introduced to “Her Majesty” as “Rafiq Rohan, from the Sowetan from South Africa.”

She had a glazed look on her face and, on introduction, Prince Philip whispered in her ear, “Oh look dear, he’s from Soweto.” I grinned and made fun of the incident throughout that royal trip. Mankahlana heard me telling the story and he told Madiba. The next day Madiba, with a very stern voice, looked at me and said: “That is not a nice story you are telling.” He was seriously cross even though I thought the entire affair was funny and silly.

After the incident, for the first time I was not on Madibas right-hand side during a photo-shoot with the SA media. His anger with me only increased on returning to SA when, just before a local government election campaign, I wrote an opinion piece wherein I said that Mandela and other leaders only visited Coloured areas like Mitchells Plain and Bonteheuwel before elections to be photographed holding Coloured babies as vote-catching exercises.

Coloured people in the Cape came about during a process of miscegenation – where the white masters of the time cohabited with slaves and locals. The Cape has the biggest community of Coloureds, a people who were treated in the same way as Blacks during apartheid, but who feel neglected by consecutive African National Congress governments since Madiba was president.

My opinion in the Sowetan was not well-received by Madiba, who called my editor, Aggrey Klaaste and who insisted I be removed from one of the most important media positions at the time. Klaaste was furious with me but would not bow to the pressure to fire me. He instead agreed to an opinion piece the Sowetan would publish to oppose my position. The brilliant cabinet minister who Mandela depended upon during those years to deal with the media, Professor Kader Asmal, wrote the piece, where I was admonished.

It had the opposite effect intended. My career in the SA media soared from that point to various editor positions on different major newspapers in the ensuing years. This only served to irk him more. In fact it was the practice of Mandela and the Presidency to congratulate any Black media person who was appointed to a senior position held by whites in the white-run SA media and to get an invite to lunch with Mandela. I was a trail-blazer in stepping into positions previously only occupied by white journalists but not once in that meteoric rise did Mandela offer congratulations and, according to insiders in the Presidency, Mandela took this position because he never forgave the comments I made about him using Coloured people for electioneering purposes.

At times an ordinary man

While Mandela might not have publicly embraced the saintly status he was accorded, he also never took very kindly to criticism that could impact on his sainthood.

While my relationship with the great man was not always smooth-sailing, I nevertheless saw him as a towering personage the likes the world will never see again. But I also saw him at times being an ordinary man, with ordinary failings – many wives later – and ordinary levels of parenting tolerance.

Mandela was a man who appeared to forgive easily but the levels he extended himself towards white masters could never really be understood by many who came along the same political path as him. When we were the last remaining political prisoners on Robben Island, on hunger strikes and almost dying in our beds, Madiba was out visiting and hugging the wife of the grand architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, Betsie.

When we were expressing our anger at the likes of F W de Klerk, we never fully understood the rescue net he threw to De Klerk. It must be understood that De Klerk’s history in the apartheid National Party (NP) did not begin in 1990 when steps were taken to un-ban the ANC and release leaders like Mandela from prison. De Klerk was involved with the NP in government since 1969, was a cabinet minister from 1978 variously as minister of Energy and Mines, Education, Internal Affairs and Sport.

De Klerk and his ilk were pretty much Mandela’s jailer for the 27 years of imprisonment but Mandela shook his hands, made up and together they won Nobel Peace prizes.

Mandela was truly like a father, who loved and disciplined his son, but who also took positions that parents take that never seemed to make sense.

Source : Al Jazeera

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