By Rachel Foster-Gimbel
In the 1990s, political prisoners streamed out of the notorious Robben Island jail. And in their arms they carried boxes filled with all their possessions from their time behind bars. These materials documented their stories from prison and the meetings and gatherings of some of the most well-known political activists of the time. Upon their release, many of the political prisoners decided to donate their stories to the Mayibuye Centre at the University of Western Cape. They came in carrying the cardboard boxes that detailed the years of their lives they had sacrificed to imprisonment on this island—and nearly all of them were apple boxes.
“Kromco, Golden Delicious, Heidedal, Stallion, Cape…always apples,” a newspaper article read. But these boxes were not filled with fruit.
Thousands of documents were collected and put together by the prisoners. Robben Island became affectionately known as the “university.” Despite the warders supervising the prison, the political prisoners there began to lecture in their respective areas of expertise and debated a wide range of topics, including literature, philosophy and political theory. This “Robben Island University” became a breeding ground for learning and offered the first higher-level education some of the prisoners there had ever gotten. From these apple boxes one can find the fruits of the labor of extraordinary men.
Among the Mayibuye Archives, one can also find a list of prisoners’ numbers and the dates of imprisonment—including that for “N. Mandela.” However, the list is by no means comprehensive. The majority of men incarcerated at Robben Island were never mentioned in the archives, and many were incarcerated elsewhere or not given the opportunities to comprise such materials in their own incarceration. This is revealed in the gaps in numbering in the lists of political prisoners. A digital list of these prisoners can also be found now on South Africa History Online.
At Robben Island, now a museum, the former political prisoners give the tours. Ntoza Talakumeni is one of them. Talakumeni was cell number 58/86. The “86” stands for 1986, which was the year he was first imprisoned. He was sentenced to serve 14 years but only served four, being released in 1990 with the majority of the prisoners.