Christmas Day on Robben Island

Three years ago this Christmas the movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom had its international premier. In an interview with Huffington Post at the time, Saths Cooper reflected on the years that he spent on Robben Island with Mandela, and specifically how they spent the holiday season.

Inmates playing soccer on Robben Island

Inmates playing soccer on Robben Island

Cooper, a member of the Black Consciousness Movement and former resident of Himalaya House, talked about the excitement that could be felt on Robben Island around Christmas time when inmates participated in their annual end-of-year sports and recreation competition. Prisoners were allowed to buy small prizes for the winners of the various tournaments, with Mandela and Cooper, who were inmates in the same cell block, participating in the tennis matches, and games of Scrabble and checkers.

Cooper spent five years on Robben Island for his role in garnering support for Mozambique’s liberation from Portugal. During this time Mandela and Cooper would have heated debates: while political and economic freedom was of paramount importance to the both of them, Cooper disagreed with Mandela’s non-racial approach to the problem, and Mandela saw problems with this new breed of prisoners who were “brave, hostile and aggressive…[with an] instinct to confront rather than cooperate”. Christmas and New Year’s Day also meant visits from friends and family members, and the two inmates would discuss the stories that their visitors had reported, offering their own take on the various stories. Visitors weren’t allowed to bring gifts, but money could be deposited into the inmates prison bank accounts, which could  be used for buying special treats like dried fruit and biscuits, but these orders had to be placed well in advance. Inmates were also given a ‘gift’ by the government – an extra cup of coffee for black prisoners, and a small Christmas cake for white inmates – the system of apartheid was alive and well on Robben Island.

Dr Saths Cooper and President Nelson Mandela

Dr Saths Cooper and President Nelson Mandela

Christmas cards were allowed, but would count as a letter, which were limited to a set number per year depending on the category of prisoner – category D prisoners were only allowed one letter every six months, so many inmates would forgo a Christmas card in lieu of a letter, which was generally filled with far more news.

Something else that added to the excitement and got the Christmas spirit going was the concert that would take place on Christmas morning. Prisoners sang a mix of Christian and African carols with a few protest songs thrown into the mix. According to Cooper the wardens seemed to enjoy the festivities, and didn’t even seem to mind the politically themed songs, although, he admits, there’s a good chance they didn’t know the difference!

Dr Saths Cooper is a practicing clinical psychologist and one of the founding members of the Psychological Society of South Africa, South Africa’s first psychology organisation that failed to discrimate on the basis of race or gender.

Images courtesy of and

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