Obituary: Thami Mkhwanazi, journalist who exposed Robben Island

13 December 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron


Thami Mkhwanazi, who has died in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, at the age of 75, was a journalist who was sentenced to seven years in jail under the Terrorism Act for conspiring to recruit people for the ANC and help smuggle them out of South Africa for military training. In 1980, he was sent to Robben Island where he spent the first three years of his sentence.After his release in 1986, he wrote a series of articles, which, for the first time in a South African newspaper, lifted the lid on what life was like for prisoners on the island, including the most famous prisoner in the world, Nelson Mandela.The series was published under Mkhwanazi's byline in the Weekly Mail in 1987.It was an extraordinary scoop that could easily have landed him in jail again.Mandela and his fellow Rivonia inmates were all banned and writing about them and life on Robben Island without permission was a criminal offence.Prisoners who were still on Robben Island - Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders had long since been moved to Pollsmoor - were afraid that the articles might provoke the government into withdrawing their hard-won privileges and appealed to the newspaper to stop running them. But it went ahead.The authorities, presumably mindful of the worldwide attention the articles had received, chose to ignore them.Security on the island, particularly in B-section, where Mandela and other Rivonia triallists were kept, was so tight that some people had spent 10 years on the island without ever having cast eyes on Mandela.In 1982, Mkhwanazi was transferred from A- to B-section, which he attributed to the fact that letters he had received from Mandela through secret prison channels were found in his cell.This gave him a chance to observe the lifers like Mandela, Sisulu and Govan Mbeki at close quarters.Mbeki, notorious from the authorities' point of view for his uncompromising communist views, never went to films, watched television only for the news and on weekends would strum his guitar and sing Afrikaans folk songs such as Hasie, hoekom is jou stert so kort? and Jan Pierewiet, wrote Mkhwanazi.story_article_left1Mbeki never went to church, unlike his fellow committed Marxist Harry Gwala, who attended Catholic services regularly in order to hear the priest philosophising in his sermons.Mkhwanazi recalled that when prisoners went on a hunger strike, Sisulu refused to be exempted because of his age, and once went a week without eating.Sisulu, he wrote, had the manner of a conscientious teacher and a tattered dictionary was among his favourite possessions."Sisulu was the organisation's encyclopaedia in prison," he said.PAC leader "Uncle" Zeph Mothopeng, a former school music teacher, would pace up and down the courtyard humming Mozart.He subscribed to the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport.Born on March 5 1940 in the Catholic parish of Garsfontein, adjacent to the village of Eastwood in the east of Pretoria, Mkhwanazi found a job in 1960 as a chief clerk at Unisa's department of library services.He was fired after organising a protest against segregated canteens and getting a Sunday Times reporter to cover the story.This gave him a taste for journalism and he joined the black edition of the Pretoria News, where he exposed a maternity clinic in Ga-Rankuwa that made women carry their afterbirth home in a plastic shopping bag.Mkhwanazi also worked for The World, which was banned in 1977, Sunday World, The Post, Sunday Post and Sowetan, as well as the Weekly Mail.In 1977, he exposed the R5-a-week poverty wages paid at Babelegi factories in Hammanskraal in the Bophuthatswana homeland.He also covered the 1978 trial of ANC cadre Solomon Mahlangu, who was hanged in 1979.Mkhwanazi, who had Parkinson's disease, died in Kalafong Hospital in Atteridgeville while waiting for an operation on his hip, which he had injured in a fall.He is survived by his wife, Grace, and six daughters.1940-2015

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