No prisoner is an island

City Press November 2013

City Press November 2013 –

In the B-Section yard of the ­Robben Island prison, South ­African struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada points to the famous black-and-white photograph of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu deep in conversation in that very yard.

As photographers kick up dust ­behind him, Kathrada explains that the prisoners were unaware that this photograph was circulated to the world as part of the apartheid government’s propaganda campaign.

Majed Bamya, a senior official in the Palestinian foreign ministry’s prisoners portfolio, translates Kathrada’s story of the photographs into Arabic for the group gathered beside him.

Kathrada pauses, allowing his words to settle on the Arabic speakers before continuing.

Still pointing to the photo of Mandela and Sisulu, he says Mandela, as a black man, was allowed only short pants and no socks in the prison. Kathrada, meanwhile, as an Indian and was allowed long pants and socks.

His small audience is captivated.

Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti shakes her head in disbelief.

It is a privilege visiting Robben Island with the 84-year-old Kathrada. The man who spent 18 years in the ­island prison alongside the likes of Mandela, Sisulu and Govan Mbeki is the most qualified of guides – a role he was asked to take by Mandela himself in 1994. Since then, he has shown heads of state and celebrities around the notorious apartheid prison, from US President Barack Obama to singer Beyoncé.

Today is different. Kathrada is both tour guide and comrade to a delegation of senior officials from the Palestinian Authority who are here to campaign for the freedom of the man they call “the Palestinian Mandela”. Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in Israel in 2003 for his part in the Intifada uprisings against Israeli occupation that started in September 2000.

Kathrada was inspired to take up the cause of political prisoners on his return from a recent visit to Palestine, which he says made him realise that Palestine is a colony of Israel.

Inside the prison cell that was once Mandela’s, Kathrada signed the
Robben Island Declaration, calling for the immediate release of Barghouti and other Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli custody.

Barghouti, now aged 54, and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was once an ardent supporter of negotiations with Israel, but as talks floundered on the creation of an independent Palestinian state, he rose through
resistance politics to lead the second Intifada. He was convicted of three terror attacks in which four Israelis and a Greek monk were killed, as well as in another charge of attempted murder and membership of a terror organisation.

He was also accused of having founded the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a charge he denies. His lawyers insist he is a political leader who is unfairly being held responsible for actions beyond his realm of influence.

Throughout his trial, he maintained that his capture by Israeli forces and subsequent trial were illegal. He refused to recognise the court, and his lawyers instead sought to put Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory on trial.

It was Barghouti’s rousing speech at the end of his trial that drew comparisons to Mandela. He said in Hebrew: “The occupation cannot continue over the Palestinian people who want freedom and independence like every other people in the world.”

The similarities between the struggle against apartheid and the fight for
Palestine were not lost on the men and women gathered under Kathrada’s wing on Robben Island last week. It was here that political opposition in South Africa was sentenced to a slow death.

“There are so many similarities,” one Palestinian politician remarked.

According to Addameer, a Jerusalem-based nongovernmental organisation offering support to Palestinian prisoners and torture victims: “As of September 2013, there were 5?007 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centres, including 137 ­administrative detainees [prisoners held without trial], 12 women and 180 childr en.”

The organisation estimates that about 40% of Palestinian men have been arrested at least once in their lives.

“This affects virtually every Palestinian family,” says Bamya. “It means you have plenty of families who are missing a father, a brother, a son. It means a strain on mothers?…”

While Kathrada admits it may be some time before the campaign sees results, he believes it will succeed in increasing international support for Barghouti and other political prisoners.

The Robben Island Declaration will be circulated to civil organisations around the world before it is submitted to the Israeli government.

The latter, however, denies that it has any political prisoners in its custody.

It argues that prisoners like Barghouti are convicted terrorists. Similarly, the SA Zionist Federation has condemned the campaign, saying it is “insulting and demeaning” to South Africans to draw comparisons between Barghouti and Mandela.

“Palestinian Mandela” or not, Barghouti – also known as the Prince of the Resistance – is respected, even ­revered, by all Palestinians.

His support base goes beyond the banners of Fatah, Hamas and the
Islamic Jihad. Barghouti himself is a member of Fatah.

And as he languishes in an Israeli prison cell, Barghouti is still considered a favourite to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian Authority president.

In a message read out by Fadwa on Robben Island last week, Barghouti spoke directly to South Africans.

“There is clearly no [Charles] De Gaulle and no [FW] De Klerck [sic] yet in Israel,” he wrote. “The struggle of the anti-apartheid movement has transformed Robben Island from a symbol of oppression to a living testimony of the triumph of freedom over chains, of light over darkness, of hope over despair.

“I will come and visit this place one day, a free man, citizen of a free country, and with freedom as my horizon. I am reminded of a great man, who did not only see that horizon, but shaped it with his companions, including from within prison, the great Nelson Mandela, the heart of your inspirational power.”

His message is signed: “Marwan Barghouti Cell no 28, Hadarim prison.”