Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 16:47 UK

Robben Island prisoner 15 years on

Robben Island prison in 1994

Former African National Congress fighter Oliver Nqubelani, 56, was jailed for 11 years on South Africa's Robben Island.

Over coffee and lunch in Cape Town, from where the notorious ex-prison island can be seen, he told the BBC about his experiences and what democracy means to him 15 years after the end of apartheid.

When I see brown sugar like this for the coffee, it reminds me of Robben Island - it was part of the menu there.

Oliver Nqubelani
Oliver Nqubelani was 28 when he arrived on Robben Island

I don't often think of Robben Island, but when I do, it is with a proud spot in my heart - it's not traumatic [to remember].

And you always feel a sense of achievement having felt part of the process of bringing democracy to the country and former prisoners are still respected.

For me, the ANC has meant being part of a family - and even if the family does have its quarrels, I've never had an inkling of going away from it.

There have been some things that have gone wrong since 1994, but it has achieved a better day-to-day living for the people.

I joined the ANC in 1977 when I was a university student at Fort Hare and from there I enlisted with the military wing, called MK.

The uprising of 1976 - between the students and the apartheid government - was one of the motivating factors of the time and the death of Steve Biko had an influence too.

I was attached in Angola, Botswana and Zambia for military training, thereafter came back inside the country to be part of the underground fighting forces.

When you're in prison you even miss the very simple things which you take for granted outside

I was captured in the process of one of those battles - after an attack on Cape Town's Supreme Court in 1979.

It was a sad day but you expected one day or another to be killed or to be captured, arrested and sent to prison.

My one-year trial resulted in a sentence of 20 years and I was sent straight to Robben Island.

'Life was tough'

I started in A section in isolation and then I joined the other inmates in G section.

Oliver Nqubelani
As soon as one left prison you never had any time to begrudge the life that one spent on Robben Island

At one time we were about 600 - I was privileged to meet the top [ANC] leaders although they were always separated from ordinary prisoners.

Life was tough, but one always got some encouragement from those already serving like Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu - those guys were our inspiration.

We were young and they had some experience of how to make life tick even if you are behind bars.

Those guys were very organised, they had a lot of influence despite the fact that they had been in prison for more than 20 years.

They fought very hard to make Robben Island a bearable place - hard labour was no longer in existence and newspapers started to be allowed, [and] radios.

We were able to further our studies through the efforts of these men in the ANC and their international connections.

I finished my degree there - a bachelor of commerce - and I got a painting and decorating certificate.

Day-to-day life was very regulated - to make your life worthwhile you obeyed the rules and regulations and even the ANC had their own disciplines for their fellow convicts to behave in accepted ways in order to survive the rigours of the prison.

It doesn't anger me if these born-free kids don't register

The warders were told to be tough, so we tried to make friendships in order for these men to make our stay acceptable.

Some would do secret tasks for the ANC like bringing in banned literature.

When you're in prison you even miss the very simple things which you take for granted outside like food, like sport, like relationships with a woman.

But there was great camaraderie there: Everybody was a brother; everything was done in a very collective spirit.


I was released in March 1991 after having finished 11 years - prompted by the spirit of the talks started outside between the ANC and the apartheid government.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island where he arrived in 1964

You had to undergo some rehabilitation process by psychologists because it was a different world.

You were no longer used to walking on the streets - you needed to check the direction in which the cars were going; you had to start from scratch, doing things like driving a car or simple things like riding a bicycle.

As soon as one left prison it was back to the struggle, you just felt the momentum outside was so quick and you never had any time to begrudge the life that one spent on Robben Island.

Since I left I have married and had children. I have a stable life and business sidelines in petrol and transport to survive.

I went into politics after prison becoming a city councillor for a time. Even now I lead a political branch in my area, canvassing door-to-door, encouraging the young to vote.

It doesn't anger me if these born-free kids [who don't remember apartheid] don't register - the country is free you don't expect everybody to be part of the political process. Life is not only about politics, you just encourage them to register.


[The emergence of Cope] is a positive sign because South Africa is a maturing democracy.

When you're outside, you're on your own

When we went to war we wanted to level the playing ground for everybody to participate in politics.

We, as liberation fighters of the ANC, we don't own the voters - they should make up their mind and everyone who wants to formulate his political party to advance the objectives of democracy, I encourage that.

I am very optimistic for the future. [But] our leadership needs to hold the high moral ground as there are some values like greediness and corruption which are starting to creep in and we don't want to see the legacy of our children being eroded.

Nostalgic moments do come for one's time on Robben Island because we really were a close-knit family - one made friendships with people from all over South Africa.

That's what you miss when you're outside because when you're outside, you're on your own.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific