Fragments--sparks, flecks--from ten years' imprisonment (1963-73), with other rebellious ""kaffirs and coolies"" (blacks and...


ROBBEN ISLAND: Ten Years as a Political Prisoner in South Africa's Most Notorious Penitentiary

Fragments--sparks, flecks--from ten years' imprisonment (1963-73), with other rebellious ""kaffirs and coolies"" (blacks and Indians), on South Africa's benighted Robben Island. The son and grandson of Indian political activists, Naidoo was caught dynamiting a railroad signal box in 1963--as a member, we learn from the foreword, of the armed wing of the banned African National Congress. (Neither the foreword nor Naidoo's account explains, regrettably, that the group was engaged in symbolic acts of sabotage.) He is also, clearly and openly, a Marxist; and readers may get the mistaken impression (somewhat regrettably too) that so were all his ANC ""comrades."" Nonetheless it was their militance, cohesion, and esprit (backed up by international protests) that brought about change--less brutality, some of the usual ""privileges""--during his time on Robben Island. In short, charged chapters, we hear of ""running naked,"" chased by dogs and beaten with sticks; 40 small sheets of toilet paper a day for ""dozens of uses""; the quarry, with its impossible quotas; an eye scratched out (""a complete, round human eye"") in a fight over food. There is ""apartheid within apartheid"": ""Africans"" get a cap or sandals, Coloureds and Indians a felt hat and shoes; Africans (""F"" diet) get one spoon of sugar, Coloureds and Indians (""D"" diet) two. A protesting prisoner is buried up to his head--the warder, to the laughter of his fellows, urinates in the man's face. ""A scrap of newspaper could result in anything from two weeks' spare diet to three months' solitary confinement."" Then, at one-meal's reduction in the F-diets, the prisoners mount a hunger strike (which only members of the rival Pan-Africanist Congress break); after six days, the authorities ask their ""complaints."" And so begins the turnaround--to legal smoking, study-by-mail, movies, soccer and rugby teams, a band; also, ""no assaults"" and ""kerels"" (chaps) instead of ""kaffirs"" and ""coolies."" Robben Island is still a wretched, isolated place: a ""Space Trip"" to beautiful, busy Cape Town--for medical treatment--is the book's most luminous episode. But this is meant to be a witness against the worst and for the best in the human spirit; and, allowing for some propagandizing, it is. One can only regret, again, that Naidoo's 1973 release isn't framed by a factual update on ANC and the resistance movement.

Pub Date: May 7, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983