Ex-prisoners show lighter side of Robben Island

Nelson Mandela visits Robben Island
Former South African President Nelson Mandela visits his former cell in notorious Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town. A new book presents a twist on the story of hardship and weighty revolutionary discussions associated with life inside the prison.  AFP

From spying on a fellow inmate with "girly" grooming habits to fears of a new-fangled invention called television, South African political prisoners also shared lighter moments while on Robben Island, according to a new book.

"The Lighter Side of Robben Island" presents a twist on the familiar story of hardship and weighty revolutionary discussions associated with life inside the country's most notorious political jail, where Nelson Mandela was captive for 18 years.

The book — commissioned by ex-prisoners, some of whom are now prominent businessmen and government ministers — give an account of some moments of levity on the island and tells of unexecuted escape plans.

In one instance the prisoners became intrigued with a fellow inmate's grooming habits, including his tantalising scent.
Co-author Fred Khumalo says Tokyo Sexwale, a Soviet trained guerrilla who is now minister of housing, was tasked with investigating the "malodorous emanations" from his young permed-haired comrade.

The strange smell turned out to be a perfume, which the character in question went on to spritz on Sexwale, just to give him a sniff.
"The purpose of the book is to show the other side of life on Robben Island. Stories that are hardly told," Khumalo told AFP.

"It is also meant to document to experiences of other prisoners who are not as well-known as Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu."
Dozens of books have been written about life on the prison island off the Cape Town coast.

Most document the story of its most prominent inmate, Nelson Mandela, and his fight for liberation.
Khumalo also recounted the prisoners' initial reaction to television when it was first introduced in 1986.

"When they saw television they just assumed that it was Pretoria's new system of spying on them. They didn't like it at all," Khumalo said.

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