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South Africa: ICRC documents enrich collection of Robben Island Museum

14-05-2010 Interview

On May 13 the ICRC handed over to the Robben Island Museum reports on visits it made during the apartheid era. Lekgetho James Makola, acting senior manager at the museum considers the reports an invaluable resource for research. In an interview he explains why.

©ICRC/J. Matas 
Presented by the ICRC during the ceremony, this painting contains the names of some individuals visited by the organization. 

Stone quarry on Robben Island. Prisoners haul a huge stone from the bottom of the quarry using a steel rope. 

10 April 1967, Robben Island prison. Prisoners drying seaweed during an ICRC visit. 

'H' block, Robben Island prison, 10 April 1967. 

10 April 1967, Robben Island. Prisoners working in the stone quarry. 
Lekgetho James Makola 
   What value do the three reports of the first ICRC visits to Robben Island in 1963 and 1964 represent for the museum?  

Robben Island Museum places a high value on the reports and appreciates the ICRC's gesture in making this donation. The reports will add a new dimension to the museum's collections. Currently the materials on imprisonment in the Historical Papers Collection include documents from the Robben Island Sports and Recreation Committee as well as letters, study materials, notebooks and similar items of political prisoners. In addition, there are some items on the role of lawyers who handled the affairs of prisoners during their incarceration.

Adding material from a third party will definitely enrich our collections. The ICRC reports will be an invaluable resource for research on Robben Island during the Apartheid era.

The museum looks forward to the release of later reports, which should make it possible to draw further links between ICRC documents about the donation to the prisoners of recreational materials such as music records that now form part of the Audio Collection.

 You have no doubt received comments from former detainees on the museum's importance for them and their families. Could you share a few with us?  

Former political prisoners often refer to the role of the ICRC. They give credit to the Red Cross for its part in the struggle for improved conditions. In the words of Philemon Tefu (imprisoned on Robben Island from 1963 to 1985), " Improvements came markedly in 1974 when the Red Cross representatives were allowed to get into the prison unescorted by the warders. "

Younger delegates representing the ICRC in the 1970s are often mentioned, Dominique Dufour in particular. Jackson Fuzile (incarcerated on the island from 1965 to 1977) said that " young fellows came, fellows who were very bright sparks. One of them was Dufour and the other I can’t remember – two French guys but all from Switzerland. You felt the day you spoke to them that these people knew what prison was about, and they knew what their work was about: to make prison less harsh. "

South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe (imprisoned on the island from 1977 to 1985), describes his own role along with that of the ICRC: " I served on the prison Red Cross Committee, which was a committee that liaised with the International Committee of the Red Cross and dealt with general grievances and problems of the prison population, ranging from organization of sports and cultural activities, to problems [like ] the quality of food. "

Velaphi Masuku (held at Robben Island from 1977 to 1987) mentioned how important family visits funded by the ICRC were, especially at a time when few prisoners had visits.

 How does the museum enrich its artistic and historical collections?  


The museum's Collections Unit together with its Research Unit endeavour to expand the collections and add to our understanding of them in many different ways. One of the things we do is to interview the people who have produced or donated items already in our collections.

 Is there anything else you would like to say?  


The handover event on 13 May represents the beginning of an era involving the sharing of information about the island prison. The additional information should add to and reinforce the story of human triumph over hardship.

 What sort of feelings does the artwork that was handed over to museum stir up in you?  


It was very moving to hear the artist speak about her work and recount her feelings when she first visited the Old Fort Prison women's section in Johannesburg, and to imagine what imprisonment must have been like. She spoke very passionately about her emotional journey in producing the work.

It was indeed a privilege to witness the ceremony for the handover of this work to the museum in the presence of former political prisoners who were once held on Robben Island. The ICRC assisted in improving their living conditions. To witness the ex-detainees’ appreciation of the art work and their meeting with the artist was an unforgettable and emotional experience.

This work will forever remain a tribute to the special relationship and bond between the Red Cross and the many South African political activists who were assisted by this great humanitarian organization.