Seemingly hardened Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) politicians were reduced to tears during a three-hour tour of Robben Island on Wednesday, to honour the wishes of the late struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada.
In an unusually pensive mood, the party's president Julius Malema described the trip as “exciting” and “emotional”. It made him realise the country's elders were being neglected, particularly struggle veterans.
The opposition firebrand said the African National Congress (ANC) was making the island about its own heroes. The stories of other veterans, such as United Democratic Front activist Laloo Chiba, who had helped guide the tour, were being forgotten.
Laloo was a platoon commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, during apartheid. He was arrested while trying to sabotage a railway line. The subsequent torture by apartheid police left him deaf in one ear, according to SA History Online.
When he was eventually sent to Robben Island on the grounds of subsequent political activities, he transcribed Mandela's biography for smuggling off the island by fellow prisoner Mac Maharaj.
“I have seen a lot of fighters crying when veteran Laloo Chiba told some untold stories,” Malema said.
One was of how they travelled to Cape Town from Pretoria to be taken to the island. They were barefoot and their open toilet was put in the back of the police van with them.
“When Uncle Kathy said we must go to Robben Island, in my mind he was saying to us 'you need to know what we went through so that you don’t mess up what we fought for',” Malema said.
No messing up
“We are here, saying we will not mess up what the Robben Islanders stood and fought for.”
He encouraged young people to visit it, so they would not get “political apathy”.
EFF leaders on the trip included its deputy president Floyd Shivambu and spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, both MPs.
For Kgalema Motlanthe, who went from former Robben Island prisoner, to president, the visit brought back memories, and new revelations.
A former warder who joined them on Wednesday, confessed that staff would tamper with letters between prisoners and their girlfriends, to create turmoil in their personal lives.
Motlanthe was president briefly between September 2008 and May 2009. He was sworn in when then president Thabo Mbeki was recalled. He was replaced by President Jacob Zuma. Malema was one of those behind Zuma’s ascension.
Malema was kicked out of the ANC Youth League and the ANC for bringing the party into disrepute, and went on to become a founder of the opposition EFF.
Motlanthe said Wednesday's trip was not one he had been looking forward to.
“When I left Robben Island, I went into a caucus with myself, and the two of us agreed that I will never go back to that place.”
He said Wednesday's company made the trip easier and reminded him that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
The trip was arranged by the Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela foundations, and the Robben Island council. It came after a long-standing wish by the late Kathrada, who died on March 28.
Kathrada Foundation CEO Neeshan Balton said that in 2016 “Uncle Kathy” wanted to take Democratic Alliance (DA) and EFF leaders to the island. Kathrada saw in both organisations “the hope and the future for South Africa”.
“He wanted to express his sentiment that liberation history, particularly that of the island, should not reflect one political party only.”
Arrangements are being made for the DA after they accepted an invitation to visit the island with the foundation, said Balton.
Kathrada's widow, Barbara Hogan, said the EFF leaders were great company on the trip.
“Going with the EFF was just so lovely because the EFF people listened and were so respectful in so many ways.”
As the press briefing concluded, the EFF announced it would start attending parliamentary sittings when Zuma was present again.
However, they would refer to him as “Duduzane's father” because they did not consider him the “father of the nation”.
Duduzane Zuma has been accused of colluding with wealthy industrialists the Guptas to get government contracts for companies they own.