What I smuggled onto Robben Island

By Jane Vorster
27 October 2013

Entertainer Pieter-Dirk Uys tells the story of a visit to Robben Island during the apartheid years – and reveals what he sneaked into the prison . . .

In early 1988 I received a message from the lone PFP MP in Parliament, Helen Suzman. She said there was a prisoner on Robben Island who wanted to meet me. He liked my work. He was a fan. He was allowed a visitor. Would I go? Of course I would go, I said, with a casual smile while inside my stomach exploded. The last place I wanted to be was there, virtually walking into the lion’s den covered in the smell of satirist-mouse.

I was given a permit. I was instructed. This was a maximum security area. Not for public consumption. Do not break the rules. I did. The idea of going there without something creative was a no brainer. What would these prisoners in so much darkness crave more than even light? Information! So I collected some news magazines. A Newsweek, a TIME, a Financial Mail, a Weekly Mail. I thought of rolling them up and hiding them somewhere on my person (!), but soon found out that such genius is only possible in a Hollywood film. I put them in a Pick n Pay bag with the banned script of my play Selle ou Storie. If they arrest me for the treason of information, I might as well also be locked up to distributing a banned play!

The journey across on the Susan Kruger was uneventful, except the knowledge that most of the people on board were not going for a picnic. Women with carrier bags of blankets and biscuits. Men without smiles. And somewhere, prisoners in handcuffs. I didn’t see them, but in my mind’s eye I heard them. My mind has a Hollywood studio of its own.

We arrived in the small harbour. Everyone was friendly. No one looked into my sling bag. Someone winked at me and said he’d seen my show at the Baxter and where was Tannie Evita? I was taken to a reception room for visitors and their families. I was alone. Then a uniformed man came in and shook my hand. Didn’t glance at my bag tick-toking with subversion. A youngish man of Indian descent entered. He embraced me like a long-lost friend. I was visiting him!

The uniformed man left us alone. I glanced around for mikes or hidden bumps in the plastic flowers dusty on the windowsill. My imprisoned fan talked about seeing my videos. Where? I asked. Here, he said. On Robben Island? Smuggled in? No, he laughed, we listen to the news, even watch on TV. With a beating heart I took out my package of danger. This is what I brought you, I whispered, expecting to be arrested at any second. He looked through the cluster of magazines once, then again into the Weekly Mail. Seen all these, he said. Didn’t you bring a Scope? Of course! Scope magazine! Maybe things were getting easier on Robben Island, but tits were still at a premium.

The next time I stood on that sacred ground was in high heels - Evita Bezuidenhout was making a series for M-NET called Funigalore in 1995 which saw her visiting Robben Island with then Minister of Transport Mac Maharaj who had spent 12 years imprisoned there.

[caption id="attachment_44130" align="alignnone" width="300"] Evita Bezuidenhout with Mac Maharaj on Robben Island in 1995. 

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Pieter-Dirk Uys’ new novel, Panorama, which is set on Robben Island, is published by Missing Ink and is now available at book shops. Click here to read a review.

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