How Mandela?s legacy started in a quarry

In a barren lime quarry on an island about 12 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, a group of political prisoners built a makeshift ?university? in the 1960s spearheaded by Mandela. The institution became known as the “Robben Island University”.
The British had used Robben Island as a political prison for rebellious Xhosa chiefs in the 19th century. It served too as a leper colony and as a lunatic asylum. But its darkest time was from the early 1960s onwards, when it housed the political enemies of the apartheid regime. In the heart of the main prison was Mandela’s cell.
Mandela was sent there after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government in June 1964. He spent 18 years of his 27-year incarceration on Robben Island.
He was placed in a 2.4m by 2.1m cell with nothing but a straw mat and the gruelling job of breaking rocks into gravel until he was reassigned to the island’s lime quarry in January 1965.
In the interior of the island is a limestone quarry where the men broke rocks. Without dark glasses, many of the prisoners suffered permanent eye damage from the glare of the white lime – including Mandela.
The prisoners had to work outdoors in the isolated lime quarry and when left to themselves they discussed their views and taught each other what they knew, year after year.
In his memoirs, Ahmed Kathrada wrote: “The single advantage of being sent to Robben Island was the education it offered to many of the early inmates in particular.”
Students of the “university” included prominent political prisoners of the time, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Harry Gwala.
“At the quarry we were better placed,” Maharaj said in a 2002 interview with author Padraig O’Malley, who wrote Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa.
“We could talk in little clusters as we were working, and at lunch time when we dispersed to sit in the shed and get our food, we were able to talk in a larger body,” Maharaj recalled. “We reached a point where we were just not working at all, we would just go there and go stick our spade into the ground and use that as almost a seat to lean on, like a golfer’s seat, and we would re-form, stand around and start having classes, be it history, be it Xhosa, be it English, and the warders would come and try and urge us, push us to work, and we would turn and just take the pick and dig two or three blows and stand.”
Initially categorised as a Class D prisoner, the lowest class, Mandela was only allowed a visit and a letter every six months. 
“The most important person in any prisoner’s life is not the minister of justice, not the commissioner of prisons, not even the head of prison, but the warder in one’s section. Because it was useful to have warders who were well disposed towards us, I often asked certain men to make overtures to selected warders,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
One warder in particular presented a challenge, as he supervised the quarry where the prisoners held their lectures and “seemed particularly hostile” towards the men. 
“This was troublesome, for at the quarry we would hold discussions among ourselves, and a warder who did not permit us to talk was a great hindrance,” Mandela wrote.
One of Mandela’s fellow prisoners was tasked with befriending the warder so that he would not interrupt the talks at the quarry. “The strategy worked, for this warder became less wary around us. He even began to ask questions about the ANC [African National Congress],” Mandela wrote.
“By definition, if a man worked for the prison service he was probably brainwashed by the government’s propaganda. He would have believed that we were terrorists and communists who wanted to drive the white man into the sea. But as we quietly explained to him, our non-racialism, our desire for equal rights and our plans for the redistribution of wealth, he scratched his head and said, ‘It makes more bloody sense than the Nats [the then ruling Nationalist Party]’.”
By 1975, Mandela had been promoted to a Class A prisoner, which allowed him more visits and letters. It was also during this year that he began his autobiography, which was later smuggled to London but remained unpublished. When several pages were discovered, prison warders revoked his study privileges for four years, and he did not resume his law studies until 1980.
He was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in April 1982.
Sources: The Mail Online, Media Club South Africa, The Independent

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