‘We were not terrorists. We were freedom fighters.’  ⋆

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — For several years, Ntozelizwe Talakumeni, 66, said he endured daily, cruel conditions during his time in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island Prison. 

The prison, now closed, is located nearly nine miles off the coast of Cape Town and nestled between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. 

Like freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, Talakumeni was remanded to prison for political “crimes” for 14 years. He ended up serving four years of his sentence, from 1986 to 1990. Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress Party, was also released in 1990 after serving a 27-year sentence in South African jails, including Robben Island from 1964 to 1982.

“We were not terrorists,” said Talakumeni. “We were freedom fighters.” 

After being punished for fighting for the basic human rights of liberty and freedom, Talakumeni and many other Black South Africans had their letters from family containing personal information preread by prison officials and redacted before receiving them. 

At times, Talakumeni slept in a matchbox-size jail cell on a mat that resembled floor padding on the island that is significantly larger than California’s Alcatraz Island. 

Talakumeni lost about 1,400 days in prison during his 30s. 

Ntozelizwe Talakumeni | Ken Coleman

However, he also believed that the racist apartheid way of life in South Africa was in its final stages. 

“There was so much pressure [to end apartheid] from the outside and inside,” Talakumeni, told the Advance last week. 

Like the Jim Crow laws and practices in the American South during the first quarters of the 20th century, South African apartheid relegated Blacks to second-class citizens. 

In 1948, the National Party (NP) that largely was composed of whites with Dutch ancestry forced some Black families from their ancestral land into areas where government resources weren’t always offered. They ultimately were forced into a Bantu education system in which half the school subjects were taught in Afrikaans, a language created by the Dutch, German and French colonials. 

Black people also didn’t have the right to vote. 

Coleman A. Young of Detroit as a Michigan state senator in 1973. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

Many Black leaders in the United States were involved in the fight against apartheid. In 1985, music recording artist Stevie Wonder and the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who were both Black, were arrested as they protested against apartheid at South Africa’s embassy in Washington, D.C. The late U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), who also was African American, was arrested there in 1984. 

”It’s about time the attention of the whole world, and certainly this nation, be focused on this,” said Young in 1985, according to Associated Press reporting at the time.  

Talakumeni, who works as tour guide on Robben Island today, told visitors that he and other prisoners understood that their treatment would be harsh, but they nonetheless were resolute in their fight against apartheid. The rebel music of reggae band Bob Marley and the Wailers and Peter Tosh, a Jamaican musician who later left the band for individual stardom, motivated and inspired him. 

During Mandela’s years in prison, inmates would perform meaningless hard labor tasks like chipping limestone with an ax, gathering the small rocks generated from the exercise and transporting them to a nearby site on the island. Then on the following day, they took the collection of rocks back to the original site, and did the same labor over and over again. 

Sometimes, the powerful sun struck the limestone and reflected on their faces, causing damage to their eyes. This happened to Mandela and resulted in significant damage to his pupils, according to Robben Island Museum tour guides. Mandela had to have eye surgery after his prison release.

For much of the time Mandela was imprisoned, Frederik Willem de Klerk of the NP served as South African president from 1989 to 1994. Under mounting pressure from world political and business leaders, political prisoners were released from Robben Island in 1991 after the NP agreed to end apartheid. 

Democratic, multiracial elections were held in 1994. The African National Congress won with 63% of the vote and Mandela was inaugurated as the nation’s first Black president. De Klerk served as his chief deputy. Mandela’s presidency was dedicated to dismantling apartheid in the country. 

The Robben Island prison has been a museum since 1997. 

Nelson and Winnie Mandela in Detroit in 1990. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Isiah Thomas with UAW President Owen Bieber as well as Winnie and Nelson Mandela in 1990 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Isiah Thomas with Detroit Pistons teammate John Salley, UAW President Owen Bieber, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young as well as Winnie and Nelson Mandela | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes (L) and Governor Tony Evers speak to the crowd during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival on June 19, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. | Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela | Wikimedia Commons


Michigan politicians fighting apartheid

In addition to Conyers and Young, many Michigan state and federal lawmakers were involved in the fight last century to end apartheid.

They included, but were not limited to, then-state Reps. Perry Bullard (D-Ann Arbor) and Virgil Smith (D-Detroit); state Sen. Jackie Vaughn III (D-Detroit); and then-U.S. Reps. George Crockett Jr. (D-Detroit) and Howard Wolpe (D-Kalamazoo). 

Wolpe, the late U.S. House member from Kalamazoo, was influential in spearheading the 1986 federal legislation that pressured the National Party to end apartheid and paved the way for the nation’s first democratic election in 1994.

Wolpe chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa from 1982 to 1992. It was during that period when Wolpe sponsored the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 that imposed sanctions against American companies doing business in South Africa. 

Among its provisions, the act called for government pension plans to withdraw their investments from corporations doing billions of dollars of business there. Then-President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, vetoed the legislation but the House and Senate overrode it. Reagan had continually favored a policy course of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s leaders to bring about change.

In 1992, Wolpe chose to retire after redistricting resulted in him having to face his U.S. House colleague, Fred Upton, a Republican. Wolpe was later elected as the Michigan Democratic Party nominee for governor in 1994 but was defeated by incumbent John Engler, a Republican. He died in 2011 while living in Saugatuck.

Crockett, a Detroit Democrat, sponsored a bill in 1984 that called for American economic sanctions against the South African government due to racist policies. After serving on Capitol Hill for five terms between 1980 and 1990, Crocket died in 1997.

Talakumeni told the Advance last week that American government officials, along with other nations, played an important role in ending the racially discriminatory set of laws and practices in his nation.

After about a dozen years of college rallies against apartheid in Michigan, as well as the rest of the country and the world, large corporations like General Motors, Chrysler and others began to divest from South Africa. 

Mandela House in Johannesburg, South Africa | Ken Coleman

Mandela House in Johannesburg, South Africa | Ken Coleman

Soweto community in Johannesburg, South Africa | Ken Coleman

Nelson Mandela Drive in Detroit | Ken Coleman

University of Michigan students in 1979 urge their university to divest its economic interests in South Africa because of apartheid. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Group of students at the University of Michigan in 1979 carry a large banner and other protest signs urging the university to divest its economic interests in South Africa because of apartheid. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

U.S. Rep. George Crockett Jr. in 1981 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Robben Island in South Africa | Ken Coleman


The Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights leader from Philadelphia and GM’s first Black board member, proposed a corporate code of conduct and argued that economic development benefited non-white workers in apartheid South Africa, as well as in American cities like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. It came to be known as the “Sullivan Principles.” 

As early as 1980, Bullard and Smith called for the state of Michigan to divest from South Africa. 

“Given these facts,” said Bullard through a press release at the time. “There can be no doubt that U.S. investments help support a brutal, racist regime in South Africa.”

Smith agreed. 

“In fact,” said Smith, “the more developed the economy of South Africa has become, the greater has been the degree of exploitation and oppression of the Black majority.”  

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg preserves the history of the nation’s apartheid era and includes personal letters, photos, audio and video featuring anti-apartheid activists like Mandela, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Walter Sisulu.

“From the 1940s to the 1970s, resistance to apartheid took many different forms,” the museum website reads. “In the 1940s, the resistance movement was still moderate, but in the 1950s, it turned to open, but non violent, confrontation. In the early 1960s it took up arms in the struggle.”

Tutu visited Reagan in Washington, D.C., in 1984 before he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Tutu was not impressed.

Jackie Vaughn III resolution at Nelson Mandela House in South Africa | Ken Coleman

“He sits there like the great, big white chief of old who can tell us Black people that we don’t know what is good for us,” Tutu later said about Reagan. “Your president is the pits.”

The Nelson Mandela House where Mandela and his wife, Winnie, once lived, is located in the Soweto section of Johannesburg once lived before they divorced in 1996. Nelson Mandela died in 2013 and Winnie Mandela, who went on to be a member of Parliament, died in 2018.

In the historic home, two Michigan state government documents are prominently showcased. One is a resolution signed by several state lawmakers ahead of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Detroit in 1990. The other is a 1999 resolution from Vaughn celebrating Winnie Mandela’s Detroit visit. 

A portion of the 1990 resolution reads: “Freedom is precious, and Nelson Mandela is a symbol is of freedom for all of us.”  

authored by Ken Coleman
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F03%2F01%2Fwe-were-not-terrorists-we-were-freedom-fighters%2F

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