Picking Up the Strands of Our Heritage

by Garth King

This text was originally published on Davis’ artist page on asai.co.za

Muizenberg artist Lionel Davis, 77, had a special connection with Nelson Mandela — as a fellow political prisoner in the B-Section of Robben Island’s Maximum Security Prison in the 1960s.

Initially, B-Section held about 30 prisoners — including some common-law prisoners — but was later reserved for those in the struggle leadership or those seen as potentially influential among the political prisoners. All were held in single cells but were exercised in the prison yard daily for an hour and often worked together in the yard, breaking stones or in the lime quarry on the island.

Mr Davis was born in 101 Canterbury Street, District Six, in 1936, and as a young man he was working at a fruit juice bottling factory in 1961 when he joined a cell of the National Liberation Front. In 1963, he was on holiday, at home, when the security branch arrived at his house and arrested him. He was interrogated under the 90-days detention clause. In 1964, he was sentenced to 7 years for “conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage”. Ten other NLF members were arrested too and charged similarly, including the late Neville Alexander.

“Like all black male political prisoners, I was sent to Robben Island. I arrived there on April 14, 1964”, said Mr Davis, interviewed at his Muizenberg Village home this week, X days before Mandela’s death.

Seven of his male NLF comrades were dispatched to the island, and the NLF women arrested were sent to Kroonstad Prison.

In June 1964, after the Rivonia Trial, Mandela arrived back on the island (after a short period there before the trial) and eventually Mandela and Mr Davis both found themselves among the 30 men in B-Section.

B-Section was to be Mr Davis’s “home” for the next seven years. “It was very cold in winter in those concrete-floor small cells. We each had three thin grey blankets and a coir mat to sleep on at first. Each cell had a bucket with a cover, a plastic bottle of water, a tin mug and a tin plate. Eventually we got felt mats in addition to the coir mast, which was somewhat better”.

Despite the relative isolation — not living in communal cells — the B-Section prisoners were treated with respect. “It was less horrendous than the communal cells and warders treated us with caution”, he said.

“At the weekends, we were allowed to walk around the exercise yard for an hour each day, and at first, the warders tried to stop us talking to each other — but they soon gave up and simply let us get on with it. There were many opportunities to chat, when we chopping stones in the yard, or out cutting firewood on the island, for example”.

Mr Davis said he did not talk often with Mandela. “He had his own organization. They were always engaged in conversation. When we did chat, Mandela asked about my family, my background, that sort of thing. We didn’t talk about intellectual matters”.

Soon, Mr Davis developed great respect for Mr Mandela as well as other leaders from different political organizations. “I noted that Mandela was not arrogant. He had respect for people, no matter their political views. He was down-to-earth, he had a quiet dignity. He was patient with people. He didn’t get angry”.

But Mandela could get angry at times — notably when he was delegated by the prisoners to present their grievances to the prison authorities. “When he had a mandate from the prisoners he would not relent with the warders when pursuing rights to study, or for better food, clothing and medical attention”, said Mr Davis.

Mandela, he said, loved playing draughts and chess in prison. “When he played draughts he would laugh heartily and make jokes. He was very good at those games”.

Towards the end of his sentence in B-Section, Mr Davis said his long goodbyes to his B-Section comrades and took the ferry back to the mainland — but not to any proper freedom. He had to submit to five years of house arrest in Manenberg.

Looking back on our democracy, Mr Davis said that “It was a pity that Mandela did not serve a second term as president of South Africa. I think his vision for a new South Africa would have been realized, his destiny would have been more fulfilled. There would have been more reconciliation”.

“Unfortunately, we are still very far from achieving our dreams and we need to work at breaking down prejudices. All South Africans were victims of colonialism and apartheid rule. Each person needs to bring more energy to reconciliation and we must all engage in the healing process, starting with ourselves. We need more sharing and caring, a better regard for others. That, I believe, is the message of Mandela, the message of the Island”.

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