TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION

SPECIAL HEARINGS - PRISONS

 

DATE: 21st JULY 1997

NAME: MR JOHNSON MLAMBO

HELD AT: THE FORT - JOHNNESBURG

CASE: JB0.....

DAY 1

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DR BORAINE: The following witness is Mr Johnson Mlambo and we ask him to come forward please. Welcome Mr Mlambo, would you remain standing for just a minute please to take the oath.

MR JOHNSON MLAMBO: (sworn states)

DR BORAINE: Thank you very much, please be seated. We are very, very happy to welcome you here today and we look forward very much to hearing from you. Mr Tom Manthata will assist you in your presentation, thank you very much.

MR MANTHATA: Mr Mlambo you are welcome, please feel at home. I think I am just going to request you to highlight those issues that you consider to be stressed during the period of your imprisonment.

MR MLAMBO: Thank you Tom. Mr Masondo has already touched on some of the salient aspects of the type of life we lived on Robben Island. I know at the time when I was convicted and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment on Robben Island, I was actually looking forward to reaching Robben Island because I felt too confined and I thought perhaps on Robben Island I would be able to walk around, swim and such.

One of the aspects I want to highlight is the fact that the situation on Robben Island was as abnormal as the whole country was and it was a state of war, although the formal state of emergency had been lifted in the country towards the end of 1960 we know that in certain areas like the Transkei it still continued. The fact that the state sentenced me under sabotage it was presumed that I was guilty as charged. I had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that I was innocent, that an invasion of the normal way in which the courts had functioned.

I arrived on Robben Island on the 26th of June 1963 and the 27th was spent on registration. In the old prison we were mixed with common-law prisoners, hardened ones and they had a lot of freedom to move around and they suddenly found themselves a rank higher than the political prisoners so because they were hardened prisoners they were also being utilized. I did not know for instance, in the early days when I saw somebody who was there wielding a stick I thought he was also a warder and beating me up to work.

These common-law prisoners belonged to different prison gangs. There has been much talk of prison gangsterism even recently in the media so we were in that type of situation wherein they themselves had formed these gangs for mere survival and also, cohesion is something that is greatly resisted by the prison authorities. Theyíd say watch your ticket, donít care what happens to the next person and they would implement this on the very, very first day by seeing to it that when, we were a group of twenty six when we arrived on Robben Island and we were all divided and sometimes they would invite some of these common-law prisoners who were hardened and some of whom who, because of the prison conditions were sodomites they would say come and pick and choose.

It was that very, very difficult but let me deal with the work situation. On the second or so day on Robben Island in the Agricultural Team that was under the command of a man called Piet Kleynhans, I was one of those people who had to push a wheelbarrow and in pushing it because we were dumping our loads in one place and then it was rising and becoming more difficult to go up, I had sustained a cut in one of my feet and when I reported it, the man in charge said no, is it a bullet wound, you were cut by a piece of corrugated iron, that does not matter so I had to go on pushing the wheelbarrow in spite of that.

My hands had blistered because having not worked for all those months when you were awaiting trial and you then have to work hard, the blisters start developing and they start to open up and bleed so I found difficulty in pushing my wheelbarrow up to the very, very top to empty it. As I was having this difficulty, the man in charge Piet Kleynhans was saying, you must be sick, you need a doctor and I certainly agreed that I did need to see a doctor and then he says, Lange take him. Now this man called Lange I subsequently came to learn is ... He was quite a tall guy and he grabbed me and choked me, he choked me until I passed out. When I regained my consciousness I was down and I was trying to get up, there was quite a lot of noise but I saw that my wheelbarrow had been emptied and it was facing the opposite direction. As I was trying to just recall what was happening there were the pick handles, the sticks that we were using, being applied on me as it was happening to everybody else so I had to rise up quickly and go on with the work. That was the type of situation that we were facing.

On another occasion I was put into a trench, forcibly held there and then some prisoners were actually instructed to cover me up, I was therefore being buried alive up to a point where it was only the face that was remaining above the earth. My whole body was covered and I was in that situation for quite some time, I had to scramble out at the time when the prison warders wanted to urinate into my mouth. That was one of the particular incidents which happened to me.

On other occasions I was assaulted like others. There were occasions when one felt that you were no longer prepared to work under these conditions, itís better that they shoot you. As my colleague has already indicated they had a high sense of sadistic humour and they would call each other and say Piet, Piet listen to what heís saying, heís still telling me to kill him and heíd say no my Polko we are not going to kill you, we are not going to shoot you, the wheelbarrow will kill you. They would also say, you want to govern the country but you are not even able to govern a spade, you want to govern the country but youíre not even able to govern a wheelbarrow. This was the type of situation and very, very often I know, a co-accused of mine Abel Chilwane at one stage was saying that heís no longer prepared to work but they hit him so continuously that he had to fall in, as my colleague had indicated here. The other aspect I wanted to highlight is that we were being overworked, driven at a very fast pace and we were being starved of food. For various reasons to attain their own ends, the common-law prisoners would smuggle the food and they would use it as a bait. Even the hard work that people were being subjected to at work, sometimes some people who had been fancied by these people who were sodomites, were being targeted and they would overwork them so that they should succumb because they were resisting as we all were. This was the type of situation that we found ourselves in and we had to fight against it in various ways.

It did happen that because this practice had been pursued over a long time particularly for those of us who started in the old jail and even in the new jail when we started there, there was still this element where some common-law prisoners were with us. There were casualties even amongst us who, perhaps started to enjoy some of these smuggled special dishes made out of the common food of the prisoners as a whole and it was in that context that we resolved, particularly as a measure of discipline within the PAC that from that time when we discussed and resolved this, we would never allow any of our people to take the smuggled food.

MR MANTHATA: With due respect, in terms of time could we raise a few questions. The prisons later meant to separate the common-law prisoners from the political prisoners because the political prisoners seemed to exact the kind of influence that would recruit the common-law prisoners to join the organisations. How possible was it even at this time, or were there traces of this even at that time?

MR MLAMBO: There were some of these common-law prisoners, even from the early stage, who were very sympathetic, who understood the question of oppression. As we continued, for instance we managed to expose the suffering that we were going through and when it became apparent that we were making a small breakthrough and some of the influence that we were exerting was also beginning to rise, it was this that finally compelled the authorities to fill that word, to separate political prisoners from the common-law prisoners.

MR MANTHATA: I have no further questions so I will hand over to the Chairperson.

DR BORAINE: Thank you very much, are there any other questions? Mr Dlamini?

MR DLAMINI: Thank you Mr Chairman. Mr Mlambo as you know part of the aim of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to heal the country and bring about rehabilitation so that we can walk together as a united nation but when one listens to such traumatic experiences like yours, one feels that something more should be done. I just want to get your view as to what you think this Truth Commission should focus on or perhaps put more emphasis on, in order to bring about national unity, healing and reconciliation, if you have any such views.

MR MLAMBO: Some of the aspects did arise in our discussion, I must say that prison was a very educationally broadening experience because there were some that were saying, man we are going to look for these warders, we are going to do this but the overall concerns were that there would be more important tasks to do in building the country. I would want to emphasize that prison warders were being drawn from only one segment of the population, particularly within the White population it was perhaps the people who could not fit elsewhere so proper training would have to be one of them. There should be very, very clear ways of separating prisoners who are in there for serious crimes. Those who are hardened must be clearly separated from the people who are perhaps there for very minor or petty type of crimes. I would suggest that people who are being arrested for small or petty crimes should in fact not be put in and criminalized in the process because if they interact with hardened criminals, they are certainly going to learn the tricks of committing more serious crimes.

DR BORAINE: Mrs Seroke?

MRS SEROKE: Mr Mlambo in your statement you mention that when you were in prison, Robert Sebukwe was also there but separated and isolated and serving six years after the completion of his sentence and you would wave hopefully, I suppose that was a symbolic way of getting in touch, how did you feel about his presence in that prison when you were there?

MR MLAMBO: I would say that his presence was quite an inspiration to us because we could see that here was a man who had a very, very good job lecturing at Wits, a White university and he had sacrificed all that so he was an inspirational figure to us. The manner in which he was treated did cause a lot of concern for us because there was no need for him to be kept in prison when he had actually completed his sentence.

DR BORAINE: Mr Mlambo thank you very much indeed. Youíve been very modest in the description of the very long period of time you served in prison. I know for a fact that you lost an eye while you were in prison, you havenít even mentioned that, you have focused on the fact that many of you were there together and you donít want to push yourself forward and now you are continuing to serve a country that you want to see healed and we are very grateful for the witness that you have given today, we wish you well in the future. Thank you very much for coming.

There will be a twenty minute break and we would like to come back at half past eleven sharp please as weíve got a lot of people we want to hear. There is tea for the witnesses only Iím afraid as we cannot cope for everyone in these facilities but you are very welcome to go and stand in the sun, thank you.

Hearing adjourns for tea.

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