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Covid-19: Death, despair, renewal – lessons from Robben Island


Ashley Forbes became active in student organisations while at high school, and was active in the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983. He later joined uMkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. He went into exile in 1986 and completed his military training in Angola. After his release from Robben Island in 1991 he completed a three-year Business Management diploma in Singapore. He assisted with the establishment of the Robben Island Museum and returned to the island in an act of unintended irony to take up the position of Estates and Services Manager.

It is every ANC and uMkhonto we Sizwe member’s responsibility to clean up the mess we find ourselves in by taking our power back. Our sacrifices must surely not be in vain. We have always been stronger together. Whether an activist from a generation before or a fresh, young agent of change, let’s harness our collective power to change course, decolonise our economy and elect bold, courageous, ethical leaders who will act in the interests of all.

Death seems everywhere, as does suffering and despair.

I recently visited an old comrade, a respected activist who feels isolated and severely depressed, grieving the loss of family and close friends who, due to Covid-19, have recently died, and like many I know is driven to despair, even to the point of questioning their self-worth and the relevance of their efforts to effect real change. 

The pandemic demands that we behave in ways contrary to the deeply embedded social aspects of our nature. Close personal interaction is severely constrained and limits are placed on our being together in groups. The pandemic impinges – for compelling public reasons certainly – on every facet of how we live. It restricts those social rituals so vital to our communal wellbeing: how we work, learn, travel, socialise and recreate, bury our dead, mourn, grieve and celebrate.

Jokes are only really affirmed as funny when physically present friends respond with spontaneous laughter. There is nothing like a hug to show and feel love. How one misses those face-to-face encounters and the powerful soothing social cues to remind us that we belong. Compulsory isolation is frightening, whether in prison or at home. It removes choice, makes us feel helpless, unappreciated, angry and unloved. Worse, we step into darker places and question who we are and why we exist at all.

Restricted living conditions under Covid-19 are not as grave as a maximum-security prison like Robben Island, though some aspects may be. A public health lockdown protects and saves lives while a prison punishes, breaks the spirit and destroys. But both are designed to isolate and confine, to keep those inside separate and apart. On the island, prisoners were locked into sections, separated according to generation or groups as may have evolved over time.

During a public health emergency such as this, prison lessons are instructive, to show just how much individual survival depends on preserving and strengthening collective bonds. Prisoners on the island knew that each one’s survival depended on finding ingenious ways to stay connected and in touch. Prison duties were executed with diligence because each activity presented an opportunity to seize control. Whether it was cleaning cells and courtyards, distributing meals, repairing and issuing prison clothes, running the tuck shop, maintaining the garden, cutting hair, dumping refuse, cleaning the kramat or maintaining the water boiler, these were all opportunities to connect with one another, share information, affirm, encourage or console.

Prisoners tasked to distribute meals from various sections would clandestinely disseminate information as they went. If someone received important information from a visiting relative, it was written on tiny papers, smuggled in with the prison food, communicated in the garden the next day and whispered while cleaning, digging or cutting hair. If a new arrival was struggling with prison life, the “timers” would devise a plan to find a match with a more experienced prisoner who would make contact somehow in the course of daily tasks to console, boost morale, strengthen and show care.

The greatest Robben Island lesson of all is that prisoners were there for a just cause, deeply invested in a future for all, not just for themselves, their families or a privileged few. As do the healthcare workers of today, those who risk their lives and the lives of their children for a humanitarian cause. As do millions of ordinary workers who run the gauntlet each day to keep the wheels of industry turning, from 9 to 5, Mondays to Fridays, day in and day out. Considered essential to our needs during Covid-19, but previously regarded as menial and hence low-paid, they still showed how capable they were of the most altruistic of acts. They are the best among us, choosing others over their own.

The worst are the corrupt and avaricious few, who could have used their power and privilege to benefit all but chose instead to act in their own interests and those of kith and kin, taking from and not giving to the most vulnerable and in need.

The liberation movement entered into negotiations to avert a revolutionary seizure of power, choosing instead a peaceful path that was meant to restore political and economic justice to all South Africans, especially those previously excluded. Instead, the movement struck up relations with the captains of industry and continued to defend their interests at the expense of the poor. The rich benefit the most from our democracy and nothing has been done to decolonise our economy.

Corruption is rife in most institutions and manifests especially through patronage and the monetisation of relationships inside the ANC. Loyal and ethical members have been violently purged from within the ranks, sidelining and alienating many more. Covid-19 and the PPE corruption saga exposes the great divide between the unethical leadership and ordinary members on the streets, who have been abandoned to greed.

Covid-19 may have isolated us from each other but corruption has alienated us from the values and principles that our organisations were meant to uphold. We must all take responsibility for the current state of affairs. We entrusted our leaders with the responsibility to represent our interests and we often choose to look the other way or even worse, defend our comrades when they deviated from the path.

Our greatest downfall is our blind loyalty and failure to hold our public officials to account. We have abandoned the poor, the street committees, community organisations and trade unions that give expression to the real aspirations of our people. We now face the daunting task of starting over, building back our organisations, stronger, better and from the ground up.

This pandemic has taught us much about ourselves; our common humanity, how interconnected and interdependent we all are. We know our future is shared and will be destroyed unless we work collaboratively in the interest of all. This holds especially true if we are to succeed in overcoming the global challenges of our time; most immediately, the equitable and timeous distribution of Covid-19 vaccines when they arrive to all across the world, building more resilient, affordable and effective healthcare systems and mitigating the impact of the climate crisis.

We may feel as though the world has closed in on us, and it has. But if we take the time to reflect, we may well see the opportunities that lie ahead. But let’s not snap back into old ways. Let’s confront the harsh realities of our changing world and take this time to consolidate, adapt and emerge renewed. Revolutionary change starts with the little things that ordinary people do. Sometimes we may not even grasp the power of our collective action, which often may start as tiny ripples but turn into tsunamis of change. Let us be creative in our strategies to stay connected, act together, find ways to be productive again and acknowledge the sterling efforts of every person, black and white, who sacrificed to free us all.

Let us harness new forms of communication to stay in touch and breathe fresh life into our community action networks, our grass-roots organisations and social justice movements, while keeping safe. No lockdown or load shedding should ever stop us from reaching out. Let’s act to make public policy and legislation that is truly transformative and in the interest of all. We must steady our economy for fundamental change and become active citizens in our country, change the current trajectory so that we can create prosperity and wealth for all. Let us reach out across all divides, to find common purpose to organise, live and work together.

Our sacrifices must surely not be in vain. Our blood, sweat and tears have brought us to this point. We may have hit a bump in the road, but we have always been stronger together. Whether an activist from a generation before or a fresh, young agent of change, let’s harness our collective power to change course, decolonise our economy and elect bold, courageous, ethical leaders who will act in the interests of all. It is every ANC and MK member’s responsibility to clean up this mess by taking our power back.

Whenever my mom visited me on the island, she always asked in her gentle way, “Do you get a chance to see the seagulls fly?”  That I was able to say “yes” made her seem at peace and satisfied. I thought that, to her, seagulls in unconstrained full flight symbolised freedom, something that I had lost. She hoped the sight would lift me up and make my spirit soar. But on reflection there may be another meaning. Seagulls, of necessity, fly in flocks, never solo. They depend on strength in numbers to survive; more effective together than alone against predators or threats.  

As my gentle and wise mom encouraged me then, let us draw on and use our collective power and strength like those seagulls in the sky. DM

The author acknowledges Delecia Forbes for her editorial assistance.





"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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  • Well written piece! BUT the good old days of the ANC have come and gone, all that is left is a dried out husk. Your sacrifices were in vain. Slogans do not hold water any more. Your leaders grow richer on the backs of the poor. How can you “decolonise” when those you follow are driving Aston Martins and Mercs? It is yet another slogan! Looking back is not constructive, it is time to move on. Time to build a new free and democratic South Africa. Time to think before voting.

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