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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
DFA Mabaso shows President Michael D Higgins around Robben Island prison in 2014.
A Robben Island prisoner visits Kilmainham Gaol to commemorate Mandela
Thulani Mabaso has given tours of the Robben Island prison since 2002.

WHEN THE STORMS came, the roof of Thulani Mabaso’s school was often ripped apart. 

“The teachers would ask the boys to come repair it,” says the now 55-year-old Mabaso, sat in a wooden chair at the Department of Foreign Affairs on Friday morning, wearing a Robben Island tour guide jacket. 

“There were 86 children for the one teacher. One blackboard. One textbook.”

Aged 16, Mabaso – whose family’s land in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal had been confiscated by the South African apartheid government – was radicalised.

I was a very young, angry man.

Seeking to end white rule, he signed up to Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, was trained to use firearms and familiarised himself with explosives. 

His commanding officer then came to him with a mission. “My task was a heavy one,” says Mabaso, who was given the job of infiltrating the South African Defence Force and detonating a bomb at its headquarters in Johannesburg. 

The bomb exploded on a Wednesday afternoon at 3.01pm, injuring 57 people. 

Three months later, an infiltrator within the organisation revealed the 19-year-old Mabaso to authorities. He was arrested, tortured and sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1983.

After two years spent in Johannesburg, Mabaso was moved to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned between 1964 and 1982, became involved with fellow-ANC inmates and threw himself into political organisation. 

We even tried to escape. We dreamed. We had our dreams.

‘Strongest Pillars’

Twenty five years since the system of racial segregation in South Africa ended, Mabaso has travelled to Ireland to visit From Prisoner to President: Nelson Mandela Centenary Exhibition at Kilmainham Gaol. 

His trip serves as a reminder of Irish support during his time on Robben Island, he says, recalling the anti-apartheid Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike.

In July 1984, shop steward Karen Gearon gave a union instruction to her colleagues not to handle any South African goods.

Protesting against the apartheid regime in South Africa, the three-year strike helped draw attention in Ireland to the movement to end white rule.

“That news came through to Robben Island,” says Mabaso. “We were excited when we heard they were boycotting South African goods”.

Increased international attention was drawn to South Africa in the years following Mabaso’s imprisonment and to Mandela whom Mabaso says was “one of our strongest pillars”.

Robben Island Prision - Cape Town PA Archive / PA Images The former Robben Island prison. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Political prisoners were sent to Robben Island, four miles off the coast of Cape Town, where they were forced into hard labour. 

Outside of his 8 by 7 foot jail cell Mabaso rallied ’round fellow inmates, however, many of whom were ANC members.

Prisoners gave each other practical tasks, educated themselves daily and smuggled information from the outside world, keeping abreast of growing anti-apartheid sentiment.

“We were very good smugglers,” says Mabaso, who organised several hunger strikes on Robben Island and acted as intermediary between political prisoners. 

“There was conflict amongst ourselves. But I also made sure there was peace between organisations.”

Political activity, too, kept Mabaso and his fellow inmates engaged. 

We were in the enemy camp. We made sure that everybody stayed alert and that there was no leaking of information. We didn’t want to lose comrades.

To keep spirits up, Mabaso frequently told political prisoners that they “must stay on the train until it stops”.

‘He’s still here’

After 2,190 days of incarceration, Mabaso was released from prison on 7 July 1991, following the lifting of the ban on the ANC and Mandela’s release in February 1990. 

In 1994, Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president. Apartheid-rule had ended. 

Mabaso, who will visit Kilmainham Gaol in the coming days, says that South Africa is still a “fresh democracy” following decades of violent internal protest. 

Five years after his death in 2013, Mandela’s legacy is kept alive, says Mabaso. “He’s still here”. 

Following a 1995 decision to create a national monument, Mabaso returned to Robben Island. Initially reluctant, he has conducted visitor tours of the prison since 2002.

People ask him why he came back. “‘Does this not traumatise you?’” he says. “‘Why are you still here?’”

To be in there everyday is very hard in an emotional way.

However, it is important to pass on the stories and legacy of the anti-apartheid movement, says Mabaso, and his part in it. 

He still meets with his former-Robben Island inmates. “If someone passes on we always make sure to come together”.

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