Eddie Daniels’ dignity, resolution and personal moral conduct – before, during and after his 15 years on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela described him as “one of my greatest friends in prison” – was a luminous expression of rising above that foul system. His life stands as a beacon for South Africans.
No convicted member of the African Resistance Movement – a non-Communist sabotage organisation formed after the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, and composed mainly of white members of the Liberal Party of South Africa – served such a long sentence for sabotage as Eddie Daniels, who died last month at the age of 89. He was the only imprisoned member of the ARM (and of the Liberal Party) who was not white. He was given by far the longest sentence.
It was a damning expression of the race mania of the age.
Eddie Daniels’s dignity, resolution and personal moral conduct – before, during and after his 15 years on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela described him as “one of my greatest friends in prison” – was a luminous expression of rising above that foul system. His life stands as a beacon for South Africans.
Born on 25 October 1928 in District Six, in Cape Town, and growing up in the neighbourhoods of District Six and Lavender Hill, Daniels carried his mother’s race classification as “Coloured” through more than six decades, until apartheid’s demise. (His father was a white Englishman).
Confined after his prison sojourn to Cape Town magisterial district, the race system of persecution continued to hound him in the deepest intimacy of his personal life when he became close to a woman whom he’d originally met during the late 1950s while working at diamond mining in Oranjemund, where he’d operated large machines to clear the bedrock of sand (and been accepted as “white”).
His friend Eleanor Buchanan – by then a widow – was white. The Immorality Act forbade them to marry. In 1983 they married de facto in defiance of the law, and then married legally seven years later after the repeal of the apartheid legislation, living happily together until Eleanor’s death in 2001.
Eddie’s encounters with gangs and police injustice during his childhood in District Six formed his lifelong standards of fairness and moral behaviour. Like most working class boys from his neighbourhood, he left school early, with a Standard 6 certificate (Grade 8), and worked at various jobs until he was able to go whaling in 1954, before moving to Oranjemund for the diamond mining.
Deeply sensitive to the inequalities he experienced all around him, he began to attend political meetings and protest marches in Cape Town in 1952, and joined the non-racial Liberal Party in 1959 after his return from Oranjemund, while working in a photographic business. “It was a happy day that I joined the Liberal Party of South Africa, because there I met some of the nicest and bravest people dedicated to the principles of non-racialism and justice,” he wrote later.
In the profound crisis which galvanised every political current opposed to apartheid after the Sharpeville massacre, Eddie secretly joined the underground African Resistance Movement in 1961 and took part in its bombings of symbolic institutions, which began on 26 September 1961. He was arrested in a big police clean-up of the ARM, the Communist Party and the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, in July 1964, a month after Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and their comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.
In prison on Robben Island, he studied. It was his “university” in every way possible, opening avenues that had been closed to him before. He obtained his matriculation certificate and went on to graduate by correspondence from the University of South Africa (Unisa), with a BA and then a BComm. (After his release he obtained a teacher’s diploma, and became a schoolteacher in the time of student unrest and protests).
In 1998 he published his memoir, There and Back: Robben Island 1964-1979 (Mayibuye Books, University of the Western Cape).
However, it says something about South Africa that in the wealth of books about resistance during the apartheid period, there is so little to find about Eddie Daniels – with the principal exception of Nelson Mandela’s classic memoir, Long Walk to Freedom (1994).
There Mandela recalls Daniels the activist – whaler, diamond-digger, the saboteur of railway signals which left Cape Town in darkness – as ready for any break for freedom. He recalls Daniels as hatching “the most imaginative” escape plans, including a proposal for a helicopter rescue of Mandela which Daniels passed on to ANC headquarters in Lusaka after his release, but for which there was no response.
With Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, he was at the centre of efforts to hide the 500-page original handwritten manuscript of Mandela’s autobiography which Laloo Chiba had transcribed in “almost microscopic shorthand”, and which were successfully smuggled out in 1976 by Mac Maharaj. The four cons made use of warders’ ill-attention by digging holes for three containers holding the documents in a garden in the prison courtyard. Danger arose when the prison authorities began building a wall in the area. Eddie was able to destroy two of the containers. The third, however, had already been found by the authorities, who then suspended study privileges for Mandela, Sisulu and Kathrada for four years. (Eddie was not suspected).
Mandela recalls Eddie’s response when a visiting Methodist minister, Reverend Jones, insisted at his Sunday services on lecturing the prisoners on “the importance of reconciliation – implying that it was we who needed to reconcile ourselves to the whites”.
One Sunday, Mandela continues, “I noticed Eddie Daniels shifting uneasily. Finally, Eddie could take it no longer. ‘You’re preaching reconciliation to the wrong people,’ he called out. ‘We’ve been seeking reconciliation for the last seventy-five years.’ This was enough for Reverend Jones, and we never saw him again.”
Three years after his own release from prison, Mandela described his friend as “honest, very humble and very helpful indeed – a very honest chap”.
As he wrote in his foreword to Eddie Daniels’ autobiography: “We recall his loyalty and courage; his sense of humour, and justice, as well as total commitment to the struggle of the prisoners for the eradication of injustice and the betterment of their conditions.”
Eddie even refused Mandela’s advice in an end-of-year prison draughts championship on Robben Island. “He regarded that as improper, you see, so honest he was.”
There is a man for South Africans to remember today, in the age of sleaze, dishonesty, disloyalty and corruption. DM
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Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, Freedom Fighter, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 19641967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of Searchlight South Africa, banned in South Africa.
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