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Letters from a small island
The codes used by African National Congress political prisoners on Robben Island have been disclosed for the first time by Ahmed Kathrada in a new boo

Barry Streek
The codes used by African National Congress political prisoners on Robben Island have been disclosed for the first time by Ahmed Kathrada in a new book.

Nelson Mandela was referred to as "Uncle Soapy", chosen after one of his clan names, Sophitsho, while former ANC national chair Walter Sisulu was the "soccer-playing Uncle Jokotea", derived from a nickname he acquired when he played soccer in his youth.

Kathrada said that at no stage did security police crack the ANC codes, despite constant surveillance of their correspondence and censorship by the prison authorities. "They never cottoned on that they were coded."
He also disclosed for the first time how the text of the autobiography by Mandela was smuggled out in the covers of files belonging to former minister of transport Mac Maharaj when he was released from prison at the end of 1976.
Maharaj went into exile in the middle of 1977 and three years later, the biography, No Easy Walk to Freedom, was published in London.

Before he left the island, Maharaj and Kathrada agreed on a code by which Maharaj would indicate whether he had smuggled the biography out or not. Kathrada was head of the ANC's communications committee on the island and Maharaj was a member.
The ANC leaders on Robben Island realised that Maharaj had been successful when they received the coded message, "Zora sends her love."

Kathrada then wrote a letter, dated March 28 1981, to an old friend, Dasoo Iyer. This letter is reproduced in the book, Letters from Robben Island: A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence 1964 to 1989, edited by Robert D Vassen (published by Mayibuye).

In the letter, the censors cleared this paragraph: "I haven't been hearing about Mannikum for some time. Is he still so peripatetic? Somehow I got the idea that he had settled at the late Anand's place. Or am I wrong? It's good to hear that his musical ventures are meeting with such phenomenal success. I'm sure his Uncle Soapy will be very happy and proud of him. Not to speak of his soccer-loving Uncle Jokotea. One can just imagine the reaction of the latter. Mannikum was always a favourite of his. The two of them were forever engaged in analysing some topic or other."

Kathrada explained that Mannikum was Maharaj. "Anand's place was East Germany, where Anand Fisher, the son of an exiled colleague, Paul Fisher, had been treated medically and died. His musical ventures was the autobiography and Mandela and Sisulu were very pleased he had succeeded in smuggling the text out."

Maharaj was nicknamed "Cyclops" in other correspondence because he has only one eye.
The first letter he received on the arranged code was cut by the censors, "but they left all the coded stuff".

ANC prisoners devised the codes and gave them to prisoners who were being released. They then passed the codes on to the ANC in England.

Kathrada said many of his letters had been lost - particularly from his early years of detention - but 900 original letters are now stored at the Mayibuye Centre at the University of the Western Cape.

His letters were carefully drafted: "I never used to study over weekends. I thought about the letter on Friday nights and Saturdays, then wrote a bit. It was not so systematic, but it worked quite well."
The very first letter was withheld from him and he only got it when he left Robben Island 18 years later because it was his prison property.

The censors also objected to the contents of a letter written to him by his brother in 1964. In one paragraph, his brother had referred to the election of the Labour government under Harold Wilson. The censors did not want the prisoners to know this.

The warders also tried to block the news of the Americans landing on the moon. There was no pattern to the censorship and it differed from censor to censor.

Kathrada also revealed in the interview that princess Diana had played "a big part" in helping the long-term ANC prisoners at Pollsmoor in the 1980s overcome prejudices about Aids. Some Umkhonto weSizwe cadres, all HIV-positive, were placed in the same cells as them and they did not know how to handle the situation.

"We were not allowed to see them and they were not allowed to see us. One day they were exercising and they saw us and rushed up to us. Physically, we did not show anything, but we were scared."

But when they saw a warder put his arms around the Umkhonto weSizwe member, and shortly after-wards saw Diana on TVkissing an Aids baby, they realised there would be no danger if they touched their comrades, Kathrada said.