Former Robben Island prisoners reminisce about Mandela

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Deputy Minister of Defence, Petrus Iilonga who during his time on Robben Island tailored jail garb for Mandela.

WINDHOEK – Veteran Namibian politicians who were jailed on Robben Island during the 70s and 80s together with the late revered freedom icon Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela poured out their hearts about Mandela this week.

The Deputy Minister of Defence, Petrus Iilonga, who spent eight years on the notorious
island for political prisoners, said he met Mandela on many occasions, especially since he was responsible for tailoring prisoners’ clothes, including those of
the towering South African political giant. “I did not only see him from a distance,” reminisced Iilonga, adding that he used to deliberately cut clothes that were either a size too big or too small for some prisoners in Section B,
so that he could have access to Mandela, Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo and other influential inmates.

He said those were the people who inspired him and many others to remain determined and to be prepared
to die for the cause. On a personal level, Iilonga said he remembered Mandela as a man of caliber, full of humour, but very encouraging and a people’s person. “We lost him but his legacy will be remembered forever. With that spirit, we will carry
on,” he added and called on Africans to remain united and to continue with the struggle for
economic emancipation.

Marten Kapewasha, Namibian Ambassador to South Africa spent seven years on Robben
Island from 1974 to 1981. “It was a special occasion to meet Mandela and Ya Toivo,” he said, adding that the older
prisoners were very instrumental in mobilising other prisoners not to lose faith and to
carry on with the liberation struggle. He said prisoners on Robben Island were very focused and encouraged each other to
carry on with the struggle, to work hard and to defeat the common apartheid enemy. Congress of Democrats (CoD) president Ben Ulenga, a former Swapo Party stalwart and a former minister, who was jailed at Robben Island from 1977 to 1986 said during his incarceration, the chief of prisons had relaxed prison regulations and although communication between prisoners was not officially allowed, prisoners from different sections were able to meet or communicate occasionally.
“I met him quite often. He was a humourous person,” recalled Ulenga, adding however that when it came to serious conversation, Mandela was a very thoughtful and engaging individual. He said Mandela exchanged intellectual notes on various topics, including one that
Ulenga remembers specifically, which was the subject of the “the understanding of nationhood.”

“These notes were mainly exchanged between Swapo and the ANC and other political parties and
were done undercover,” recalled Ulenga. Former Swanu president Gerson Hitjevi Veii said he did not meet Mandela while on Robben Island from 1968 to 1972 after he was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act, but communicated with him through letters.
Mandela (95) died last week Thursday after battling pneumonia and
a recurring lung infection.

He was sentenced to jail for 27 years, of which 18 years were served on Robben Island.
Following his release from prison, he became the first black president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Robben Island is situated about 7 kilometres (4 miles) offshore of Cape Town and was
turned into a banishment centre by Dutch settlers in the mid-1600s before it became a
leper colony, a hospital for the mentally ill in the 1800s and a training and defense
base during World War II. In 1961, the island was declared a maximum-security prison.

By Magreth Nunuhe

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