… Recalls the ‘stubborn’ inmate, who became his friend
By Elvis Muraranganda
Former Robben Island prison warden, Christo Brand, has expressed his anguish over the death of Herman Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, who was one of the prisoners he guarded.
Brand, who spoke from Dubai this week, said that he and Ya Toivo had developed a deep friendship in the late 1970s, while on Robben Island, which was forbidden at the time.
It is this friendship that resulted in Brand being one of the guests of honour at the Swapo stalwart’s 90th birthday bash three years ago.
The Namibian icon was imprisoned for 16 years on Robben Island, between 1968 and 1984.
Ya Toivo, who died last Friday at the age of 92, was conferred national hero status by President Hage Geingob this week, and flags will be flying at half-mast from next Wednesday across the country. Ya Toivo will be buried at Heroes’ Acre on 24 June.
A teary Brand said this week that Ya Toivo had not only fought for the total liberation of Namibia, but also of South Africa and every black person in the world.
“This is a big loss for South Africa, Namibia and Swapo. The best way we can pay tribute to him, is to respect what he has done for South Africa, Namibia and the world,” Brand said.
“When I return to South Africa, I will contact the family and I will arrange to be at his burial.”
Brand further narrated how last December, the Brand couple joined Ya Toivo for dinner in Cape Town, after which the Namibian hero asked for the contact details of the late South African politician, political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist, Ahmed Kathrada, who died on 28 March this year.
Ya Toivo, Kathrada, the late global icon Nelson Mandela and fellow African National Congress stalwart, Walter Sisulu, were inmates on Robben Island at the same time.
“This year, we lost Kathrada and the news about Ya Toivo’s passing on is too much to handle. Those were the only two people from Robben Island whose birthdays are just days apart,” Brand said.
Friendships between wardens and prisoners behind the walls of Robben Island were strictly forbidden during apartheid, and any interaction took place under a microscope, particularly to avoid guards being used by prisoners to smuggle communication in and out of prison.
“When I came to Robben Island in 1978, the prison head told us that we will be working with the biggest criminals in the South Africa.
“I was supposed to hate them, but when I saw their ages, and how they were always polite, even when they are being treated badly, I felt differently,” Brand said.
According to Brand, the other wardens labelled Ya Toivo as a stubborn prisoner, and he would not even greet them back, if they greeted him.
“The first time I saw him, I greeted him in a friendly manner, and he did not say anything. The second time when I greeted him, he simply nodded his head without saying anything.”
According to Brand, it was after this second encounter that Ya Toivo finally greeted him back.
The former apartheid guard explained that Ya Toivo would accept nothing from the South African prison authorities, as he believed that he was a Namibian and not a South African.
“He was a Class D prisoner, meaning that he waived all benefits from the South African government. He did not want any privileges and did not want to be classified.”
This, according to Brand, became so intense that Ya Toivo refused to accept a visit from his 91-year old blind mother, because he did not want special favours from the South Africans.
It was Brand who informed the prison head that Ya Toivo had refused to accept the visit.
“He was summoned to the office of the head of the prison, and he complied. At the time his mother was sitting in the office, behind the door. When he walked in, I closed the door and his mother started talking.
“I saw him go onto his knees, and he held his mother’s hand, and they spoke for an hour. That is the only prison visit that was never recorded, and probably the only one that he ever accepted, while I was there.”
It is this stubbornness and conviction which anti-apartheid lawyer George Bizos described in his book, Odyssey to Freedom.
Bizos represented Ya Toivo and 37 other prisoners during their trial in 1967.
“We decided that Ya Toivo would follow the example of Mandela and read a statement from the dock… He insisted on answering the judge’s criticisms of him in strong terms,” Bizos wrote.
“[This was] even though we warned that his sentence was likely to be increased. He didn’t care; he was going to have his say.”
It was at this juncture that Ya Toivo read his famous speech about being tried in a foreign country, leading to his 20-year sentence.
Bizos wrote further that it was Ya Toivo’s statement that eventually led to an amendment to the law, which deprived an accused of the right to speak from the dock
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015