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Beyond Cricket

For more than the first decade and a half of his incarceration, Nelson Mandela never tasted bread.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2003 11:24 IST


For more than the first decade and a half of his incarceration, Nelson Mandela never tasted bread. Black prisoners in the high security Robben Island prison, half an hour by catamaran from Cape Town, were allowed only soft porridge and rice. Never bread. And if you consult the diet entitlement chart up on the grey wall of the communal cell, you'll get to know that blacks were literally given less food than white or Asian inmates. Rice: 400 gms for whites/Asians; 350 gms for blacks. Meat: 60 gms four times a week for blacks; 110 grams for everyone else. The list goes on.

Mandela spent eighteen years of his thirty on Robben island, most of it in cell number 5 in the 'leaders block': a row of cells meant for solitary confinement. But he worked towards correcting imbalances even within the prison. In the late 70s, the rules were changed so that everyone got the same amount of food.

Robben Island is a living museum. Every wall speaks, every courtyard has a story. A draft of Mandela's book Long Walk to Freedom was hidden in the shrub in the yard. The prison authorities confiscated the book, naturally. What they did not know is that another copy of the draft had already been smuggled out.

On the same courtyard is a tennis court. A high wall surrounds it-the idea was to cut the leaders off so that the other prisoners wouldn't come under their influence. But sometimes, the men in the cells played tennis a little differently. They would cut the ball, write messages on the inside and pretend to have mistimed a lob. That's how they sent messages across.

The establishment had a cruel Psy Ops department. Men employed there knew every language spoken in South Africa, and they would vet every letter before sending it out. Sometimes, all that would remain was the name and address of the intended recipient. But there was worse. Assisting the censors would be a group of expert forgers. Political prisoners would often get letters, apparently from their wives, saying that they could no longer continue the relationship. Such letters had the intended effect--it drove many inmates to insanity.

And if you've wondered why Nelson Mandela didn't weep with his nation as he addressed them after his release, the answer to that question is also in Robben Island. Mandela work in the limestone quarry on the island. Lime dust caused many to develop serious lung disorders. But in Mandela's case, it dried up his tear glands.


In 1997, Hillary Clinton, then American First Lady, and comedian Bill Crosby visited the Island for a fundraiser for the political prisoners' pension fund. The fundraiser went off well enough, bar one little incident: a bus at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

American security and logistics people put in several weeks of preparation for the trip. The only buses on the island at the time were the battered all-purpose types meant to transport inmates (like Mandela or Walter Sisulu, for instance). There was no way they were going to take Ms Clinton on to one of those. The Americans got around the problem with the help of money. They announced that they would donate a first rate bus to the island. And its first passenger would be Hillary Clinton.

The bus cost just 2.5 million rand (about 15 million rupees). So far so good. But there was a problem --- getting the thing across to the island. The ferry on which it was to be transported developed a technical snag. But the infinitely resourceful Americans organised a chopper. They decided to hang the bus to it by a cable and fly it across. Great idea. Except that midway through the crossing, the cable broke. With the bus at the bottom of the sea, Ms Clinton had to get onto available transport. She took one of the old buses, without properly cushioned seats.

There's a final thought. Given the crisis in the Gulf these days. If the Americans drop their bombs on Iraq with the same precision with which they dropped their bus on Robben Island, it's going to be a long war.

First Published: Mar 10, 2003 11:24 IST