Room with a view
You are in: surefish > news > South Africa
Date: 25 March, 2004

Top: 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 change.'

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 worked

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 together."

"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 deprivations."

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 relatives withheld.

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 occasionally.


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 compensated.

"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 Island.

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 continues.

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."

Back to South Africa index