Chapter Seven – Life on the Island
Ever seen white people turn green? Lieutenant Pieter Erasmus, one of six people on the ferry to Robben Island, was still quite composed when the boat docked. The other visitors seemed to be really struggling. A middle-aged woman in a floral dress spent much of the boat trip throwing up over the right hand -side of the vessel. Two younger girls tried their best to put up a brave face but eventually also lost their breakfast overboard. The two boatmen seemed to be comfortable with the swaying ferry, as they clearly faced up to these conditions on a regular basis.
Once on dry land, Pieter headed for the administration office. He noted the Correctional Services guards were armed with rifles. They seemed to have the same attitude as he did… Just left the first black make a run for it and … Bang!
Of course, the blacks would not make a run for it. There was nowhere to run to. Most blacks couldn’t swim and were weary of the rough waters. That is what made prison life on Robben Island into a scary thought in the minds of anyone who opposed the state. It was a case of ‘Cowboys don’t cry’ if they opposed the apartheid regime and got caught.
Pieter walked into the office as if he owned the place. He knew that he had to ooze confidence. At the nearest desk, sat a Correctional Services official, with the nametag ‘Vorster’ pinned to his shirt.
“Is jy Colonel Jaap Cornelius se pal (are you Colonel Jaap Cornelius’ friend)?” asked Vorster, as he removed his spectacles from his face.
Vorster pointed at a chair and Pieter sat down, again, checking that the pistol in the holster on his left hip was safe.
“Jy soek vir Mandela (you are looking for Mandela)?” asked the prisons official.
“Wel, hy is nie meer op die eiland nie (well he is no longer on the island).”
Pieter’s eyes widened following Vorster’s latest remark.
“Wat bedoel jy (what do you mean)?” asked the Lieutenant.
Vorster fiddled with his wedding ring on his left forefinger and then started pressing on the top of a BIC pen which made an irritating sound.
“Hy was hier tot gister, maar iets het las nag gebeur (he was here until yesterday but something happened last night),” explained Vorster.
Pieter sat forward in his chair.
“Ek het vanoggend n oproep van die Minister van Korrektiewedienste gekry en die Minister het vertel dat Mandela gisteraand oorlede in sy tronksel is (I got a call from the Minister of Correctional Services who said that Mandela passed away in his prison cell last night),” went on Vorster.
“Waar is die liggaam (where is the body)?” asked Pieter.
Vorster picked up a pack of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes from his desk and offered one to Pieter who declined. Once Vorster had lit one of the fags, he inhaled and puffed out a huge cloud of smoke.
“Ek het persoonlik nie Mandela se liggaam gesien nie want dit was klaar weg toe my oggend diend begin het (I didn’t personally see Mandela’s body because it was already gone when my morning shift started),” said Vorster.
Pieter did not believe a word of it. He worked for the South African Police and knew just how devious his bosses could be. They learnt from the best. PW Botha and his cronies knew how to fool the world. The South African cabinet could side step better than a Springbok rugby centre ever could.
“Dis ‘n pot stront (that is a load of crap),” said Pieter.
Vorster shrugged his shoulders.
“Ek kan nie ja of nee se nie want geen van my aandskof manne was gisteraand naby Mandela se sel toegelaat nie (I can’t say yes or no as none of my nightshift guards were allowed near Mandela’s prison cell last night).”
This convinced Pieter even more that the apartheid regime was playing a game of hide and seek between Mandela and the rest of the world.
“Ek het na Mandela se medieserekord gekyk en dit wys dat hy met longontsteking gesukkel het (I looked at Mandela’s medical record and it did show that he battled with Pneumonia),” said Vorster.
Pieter shook his head. He smelt a rat. A football game was being played here and he refused to be used as the ball. He knew that Vorster was not deceiving him but he was adamant that Mandela was alive and well. P.W. Botha’s men must have transported the ANC man off of the island in a bid to try and turn his mind in their direction, thought the Lieutenant.
The danger was what if Mandela managed to get his way and force the Nationalist Party to compromise on certain whites-only privileges?
“Meneer, jy moet vir my uitvind waar Mandela nou is (sir, you need to find out for me as to where Mandela is),” said Pieter in a stern voice.
“Ek gee jou n brief, Erasmus, Mandela is oppad graf toe (I am telling you, Erasmus, Mandela is on his way to his grave),” said Vorster adamantly.
The Afrikaner military men, be it army, navy, air force or prison personnel, were not known to be the most patient and it seemed that Vorster’s patience with Pieter was starting to run out.
Vorster was beginning to feel that his authority was being questioned by the younger policeman.
“Iemand moet weet wat gisteraand op die eiland gebeur het (someone on the island must know what happened last night),” said Pieter in an aggressive tone.
Vorster rose from his desk.
“Ek dink ons afspraak is verby (I think our meeting is over),” said the prison official as he looked to point Pieter towards the office door.
“As ek uitvind dat jy inligting van my weghou gaan jy spyt wees (if I find out that you are withholding information from me, you will be sorry),” said Pieter.
“Uit (out)!” commanded Vorster, and Pieter left the room.
Something was indeed fishy. Was Vorster on a mission to beat him in terms of murdering Mandela?
Pieter stepped out of the office and Vorster shut the door behind him.
Robben Island was indeed a creepy place. The prison wardens’ faces looked so glum. They looked like they hadn’t heard a joke in years. As he headed towards the Post Office and small shops, people walked past him. He presumed that the women on the pathway and even those on the ferry with him were family members of the prison wardens who live on the island. Nobody greeted. Everyone just kept walking doing their daily chores. It was like some people had not experience the reality of life yet. Perhaps life on Robben Island was like this.
What was next for Pieter? He knew that getting to Mandela’s prison cell was a tough exercise as the security there would be tight. Anyway, he was sure that Mandela was no longer in his cell. The question was, where did the government move him to?
Pieter glanced at his wristwatch. It was already 11h00 and he had made very little progress. He walked down the path towards the ferry area, where he had arrived a few hours earlier. He noticed a second ferry had arrived with a load of women on it. More family members of the prison wardens, he suspected.
As the group of women walked passed him, he noticed a white and black woman in conversation. This was rare on a good day in South Africa, but it was the foreign accent of the white woman that caught his attention.
The white woman stopped to chat to a prison warden.
“Good morning, I am Louise Burrell from CNN television in Atlanta, US, and this is my media assistant… Ur…Vikki Jackson. We have government clearance to conduct a television interview with Nelson Mandela.”
“How are ya?” asked Lindiwe as she tried to push out her best American accent.
The prison warden looked stunned. He couldn’t take his eyes off the black girl. Since when did black people come to the island other than when they were prisoners?
“I have to ask my superior, please wait here,” he said.
Minutes seemed like hours before the prison warden returned with his superior, who happened to be Vorster, the man who Pieter Erasmus met with earlier.
“Sorry, madam, but who told you that you can shoot an interview with Mr Mandela?” asked Vorster.
Louise cleared her throat.
“Sir, I have a letter right here in my file and …”
Vorster changed his tune and all forms of friendliness were gone.
“It is the island’s rules that nobody speak to Mr Mandela or any other prisoner here,” he said.
“Also, what is inside that bag that you are holding?” he asked.
“Well, sir, I work for CNN, so this is a camera,” she replied.
“As I said, I have written permission from the South African government to interview Mr Mandela.”
Vorster called two of the nearby prison wardens to come closer.
“Vat daai kamera na my kantoor toe (take that camera to my office),” he ordered, to which the prison wardens complied.
“Madam, this is not America, do you understand me?” he said in a harsh tone.
“I have that letter right here if you will just let me take it out,” retorted Louise.
Vorster refused to allow her to show the letter to him.
“I am confiscating your camera equipment and will only release it once my authorities tell me too. Cameras and media in any form are forbidden on this island, as I am sure you are well aware.”
“But…” began Louise.
“No, madam, I am going to have to ask you and your friend to leave this island immediately,” commanded Vorster, as he pointed to two other prison wardens to escort the women back to the jetty.
Reluctantly, the women headed back to the sea edge.
Pieter watched on with interest. Something was up with the Mandela situation. How he would have loved to see the letter the white American woman claimed that she had in her possession.
As for the black woman, Pieter had an inkling that she was far from an American. The younger girl looked so familiar. He was convinced that she was far from being an American. He knew a South African posing as a foreigner when he saw one.
However, the mere fact that the black woman had made it on to a security tight island was strange. How did she give the security at the harbour the slip?
All this time, Vorster had his back to Pieter. The Lieutenant moved to the side of a building so that it would be more difficult for Vorster to spot him. He watched as the prison official read the riot act to two prison wardens. Clearly, Vorster was not happy that the security levels on the island were slipping up badly.
Then he turned and headed back to his office.
At the jetty, Louise was still arguing with the prison wardens. Lindiwe was backing her up in her best American voice. Like Vorster, the prison wardens at the jetty were not keen on seeing the government letter that Louise alleged she had, which gave her permission to be on the island to interview Mandela.
Once on the ferry, Louise and Lindiwe were mainland bound.
What was the big secret that the clan on Robben Island were trying to keep from the world? How could the South African government grant CNN permission to interview Nelson Mandela and then snub her when she arrived?
If Mandela had been moved from the island, why did the government not inform her?
Louise had more questions than answers. She had travelled all this way and was still not closer to getting face-time with the world’s most famous prisoner.
Tring… Tring…. Tring….
A phone in Pretoria was ringing.
“Ja, hy was hier (yes, he was here),” said Vorster from his desk on Robben Island.
“Ek het gedoen wat jy vir my vertel het (I did exactly what you told me to do).”
Pieter Erasmus would have been foolhardy to think that he wasn’t being watched. Was the National Party government quite happy for Pieter to eliminate Mandela after all? Did they need someone to blame it on?
“Hou hom dop (keep an eye on him),” said the voice over the phone from Pretoria.
“Reg so (alright),” answered Vorster.
“Maar waar is Mandela. Is hy oorlede (but where is Mandela, is he dead)?”
The voice on the other side was not too helpful.
“Dis vir ons om to weet (that is for us to know).”
The apartheid government did not like to be beaten when it came to playing games, especially games that they invented. They considered themselves to be masters of deceiving people. They believed that they could fool the world forever.
apartheid was not a sin in their eyes. Black people were simply not as intelligent as whites. That is why a merit system would always be the way to go. The cleverest, most skilled person would be first pick for jobs. Of course, blacks were way behind in many skills because the skills were barred from them for centuries.
On the mainland, many whites had coloured men working in their garden and coloured maids in the house. There was always a fear that black gardeners and black maids may work a plot against the white baas or madam.
South Africa would never change, most whites thought. They were keen to live that way. They could sleep peacefully at night and have solid medical and education systems. All the best job opportunities would go the way of the whites -too.
However, whether or not Pieter Erasmus eliminated Nelson Mandela or not, the apartheid regime could not hold power forever.
Download Black and White, edition-1, published at 20 May 2020. Download Other Editions