Room with a view
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Date: 25 March, 2004
Lionel Davies. Above: Robben Island from Table Mountain - the
island can be seen on the left in the middle of the picture.
Photos: Charlotte Haines Lyon
'The youth from all black communities
were becoming more militant. In the 80s we had the same upsurge
of the youth. One could almost smell there was going to be
Once a prisoner on Robben Island in the
same block as Nelson Mandela, Lionel Davies now works for the island's
museum as a children's educator. Interview by Charlotte Haines Lyon
Robben Island has become a pilgrimage for many
visitors to South Africa. Once a leper colony, it is now famous
for the prison that housed those who fought the apartheid regime.
Many its political prisoners were to later form the foundation of
the new South Africa, including, of course, Nelson Mandela.
Seals swim alongside the ferry that take you
to the island. Their playfulness belies the fact that this 12-mile
stretch of choppy sea is cold and treacherous, making the island
inescapable. The sun is dazzling as it bounces off the lime quarry
in which many prisoners worked and damaged their eyes.
Lionel Davies greets me warmly after my tour
around the small, grey barren cells that once incarcerated him and
others. I am stunned by his grace as we talk about his life story
and begin to understand the power of Robben Island.
Born in Cape Town in 1936, Lionel was to experience
the cruel apartheid regime from its inception in 1948 until its
final demise ten years ago. Unsurprisingly, his early experience
of police racism made him very anti white.
His political education started at college, when
he joined the African People's Democratic Union of South Africa,
known as APDUSA: "I realised that it was not because people
are white or that the government were white, that people were suffering
those atrocities. Any government can be as ruthless, or as brutal."
Arrested for recruiting people into the National
Liberation Front, Lionel was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1964
after he and others formed the group that was going to take up arms
as a response to the killings of many of their people. He was to
spend his seven-year sentence in B Wing alongside Nelson Mandela.
Top: The entrance to the prison
on Robben Island.
Above: The island's limstone quarry where most of the prisoners
Many would assume that this is where Lionel's life turned
sour, but not so. He explains that as the prisoners had come from
a divided society: "we had to learn to agree to disagree politically
but it shouldn't stop us playing, studying together and fighting
"The most important thing we learnt,"
he says about the essence of Robben Island, "was that the next
person was even more prepared to give up his life for a liberated
South Africa. So you did not own the right to be the only voice.
We had to fight the atrocities of Robben Island and overcome the
Not only did the prisoners illegally educate
each other in politics but through their collective fight, won the
right to study for exams. "There were some highly qualified
people in our section: university graduates, lawyers and teachers,
so the quality of the education was of a high order." Like
many prisoners, he came out more qualified than most of his community
on the outside.
However such fights were often punished too.
Alongside general violence prisoners were falsely told in come cases
that their wives had divorced them or had information about sick
But is was the loneliness and harassment caused
by the five years of house arrest after prison that Lionel found
most distressing. Yet it led to another dimension of his life as
to help recover from the trauma he attended art classes and became
an art teacher.
And the political fight didn't stop. Lionel eventually
started a screen-printing workshop: "All over the Western Cape,
and from further afield, people came to us for assistance to learn
to print posters calling people to meetings, protest against government
brutality. That would end conscription for whites, or support boycotts
and so on and we did that for ten years, being raided by the police
Once Mandela was freed, Lionel left the project to go to university
to study fine art, although the press continued up until the elections
ten years ago.
I asked at what point Lionel knew that change
would happen. As with many South Africans he answers: "1976,
the Soweto uprising. The youth from all black communities were becoming
more militant. In the 80s we had the same upsurge of the youth.
One could almost smell there was going to be change."
However the question of liberation brings an
interesting response. Apart from the process being much shorter
than Lionel anticipated, he argues that: "we may be politically
free but economically we are not free yet, apart from a few stinking
rich people in the black community.
"In South Africa those who held the purse
still hold the purse today," he complains. "The only difference
now is that poor whites are forming part of the underclass today.
Yesterday you could have been a white hobo, but you would have been
my boss, but that no longer happens."
It is election fever in South Africa as the date
for the third democratic elections has been set for the April 14.
Is Lionel hopeful of change? "Come election time you always
find the most wonderful promises are made, alleviating poverty and
all that. It happens all over the world, we're no exception."
Nevertheless, Lionel has not lost hope: "I
am an optimist. Whereas opposition to exploitation used to be a
local, national thing, it can become an international thing. Today
the working people are rising up against globalisation."
The much revered Truth and Reconciliation Commission also draws
some criticism: "It has done a lot of good because it was a
catharsis for a lot of people but I also believe that the compensation
given to people was too little and took too long.
"Many of these people lost their breadwinners
and have had to struggle since. Those who went to the gallows, those
who were tortured to death, their relatives have not been adequately
"The police force and the security branch
were only the arms, hands and eyes of those who make policy. Those
engineers are the ones who are sitting very rich today, they haven't
been touched. This is where I feel the imbalance is," he adds.
Despite such real concerns, Lionel is adamant
about that life has improved in South Africa: "The fact that
I am sitting here now, in this job, on this island, the fact that
I can eat where I want to, travel where I want to and say what I
want to, is testimony to the fundamental changes. Nobody is shutting
me up. I am not scared. I don't have to look over my shoulders."
Now as he creeps ever closer to his retirement
and looks forward to becoming a full-time artist, Lionel Davies
is still fighting for a better world. He is currently arguing for
more consultative rights for his 120-strong community on Robben
But he sees his educational work with children
as the most important battle of all: "It gives me an opportunity
to talk to them about the past, human rights, anti racism, anti
xenophobia and how we benefited from education on Robben Island;
how it transformed us.
"In our still marginalised communities, the educational standard
is still very low, facilities are almost negligible; the dropout
rate is very high. We need to instil hope in their life," he
But how can he live and work on an island that
played such a brutal part in his life? "What I would like to
focus on rather is the humanising of our own selves; the transformation
of the self, even of criminals and warders as a result of our working
for change on the Island. The triumphs are always more important
than the suffering experienced."
Before escorting me back to the ferry, full of
solemn, satisfied tourists, Lionel leaves me with a challenge: "Transformation
begins with you, not with government, not with your neighbour. Each
person that makes an effort to become a better human being, makes
an impact on the next person."
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