Bad food on Robben Island

Hlubi and I attended a wedding of a over the weekend. The groom, a friend of ours, spent some time on Robben Island during the eighties after being convicted for offenses relating to his involvement in the then banned African National Congress. During the reception he an a number of speakers related their experiences of life on Robben Island. Things on the Island were difficult. Living arrangements, clothing “too big” or “to small”, isolation from family and friends, bad food, forced labour, censored mail, sadistic handlers. Some spoke of the deep and lasting friendship that were formed. Freindships that have lasted to this day.

I came to wonder if the differences between their time on Robben Island and the uncomfortable time myself and others spent conscripted into the SADF were in fact all that great? We were “imprisoned”, kept behind four metre high fences with armed guards. We wore over sized overalls, ate bad food, carried out futile tasks……I only wondered about the similarities only for a short while and then realised that the Robben Island experience was of course much more severe. The torture and even death at the hands of the security police, years without ever being allowed to go home, even to bury a parent, lengthy sentences, no pass and no beer!

But it came to me that the in fact the significant difference between the experience of conscription and that of Robben Island, was that the Robben Island hardships can today be related openly as rivetting content of wedding reception speeches and stories. People speak with some pride of their hardships on Robben Island, audiences are spellbound, the stories are interesting, sad and funny (often all at the same time) Robben Islanders were imprisoned for their dedication to the ANC (or other liberation movements) they took selfless stand against the apartheid government, and for this they paid the price of imprisonment of Robben Island. When they speak of their experience, they speak from the moral high ground. They fought on the right side of history.

When last have you heard a white man in his thirties or forties speak publicly about his time in the army. It is almost a taboo. I for one have decided not to conceal my time in the SADF. I am sorry for it (for reasons I have explained before) but I have a story to tell and I insist on being heard. I, in my own way, was a victim of a brutal system. I did not suffer as much as those on Robben Island, I was on the wrong side of history, I know, but I am still pissed off about the whole thing. I am angry for those two years that were taken away from me, two years of wishing every day that it would all just end that I could go on with my life, two years of the most small minded, stupid, fascist, PF, dutchman, idiots in your face every day….two years….two years is a long time for a seventeen year old!

PS ….. I am illustrating these blogs with sketches I have found in letters and journals from 1986 and 1987 when I was in the SADF (mostly because I have very few photgraphs from that time)

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

3 thoughts on “Bad food on Robben Island”

  1. Well Tim, MK also has its silences. There were witch-hunts, torture and death in detention in Quatro and other camps. The TRC managed to steer clear of these since people like JZ would have had to take the stand. I guess a deal was struck by the big knobs on both sides to let each other off the hook. Interesting to see how once the exiles returned, the most creative and passionate internal struggle leaders were sidelined – sent around the world as ambassadors for example.Sometimes I tell myself “no wonder the rainbow nation went awry – it´s run by a bunch of PFs.”


  2. I have to say that your description of things (Tim) sums it up for me as well – I was conscripted in 1986-7 and had a soft option, working at a desk job in Pretoria. But your words struck such a chord – every day from basic training on, we were at the mercy of brainless idiots, the kind of people you would not trust to clean your toilet or wash your car because they were essentially incompetent not to mention violent and unstable, emotionally damaged, the list is endless, the thing was that these people were fully and totallt in charge of my life. If they said jump, you had to jump. If the felt like getting you all out of bed at 3 am to stand around for no apparent reason, you had to do this. If they felt like humiliating you on a whim, all you could do was stand to attention and avoid eye contact and hope they would get tired of it.Bastards. Even at this distance in time I bitterly resent the two long years of my young life that was utterly wasted by those cretins. My deepest regret is that I went at all. If only I had had the nerve to leave the country. Thank you for your blog and facebook group. I have enjoyed it tremedously. There were moments during that time which were not so bad – like hiding up a tree to avoid being roped in to “Chicken parade”, endlessly picking over the camp gavel for litter. Or the morning when the whole camp was put on parade because persons unkown had defecated on the “holy ground” of the parade ground. Those are the moments and the memories, which I treasure.


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