Many remarkable people were imprisoned on Robben Island from the early 1960s until the last prisoner left in 1991. All had their individual stories worth telling. As one of them, Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada has said, ‘Every prisoner’s story in unique.’
One of the most remarkable and distinctive of those people is Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba. Curiously, his name is not a household word in South Africa. It should be. Until now, except for a sketch in the publication, Men of Dynamite: Pen Portraits of MK Pioneers, he has only in parts made guest appearances in the books of others.
The few years between Sharpeville in March 1960 and the four great sabotage trials of 1964 saw a seismic shift in South African political history. Irenic campaigns of the late 1940s and the 1950s, including the Passive Resistance movement and the Defiance Campaign, made little or no headway against a regime intent on entrenching a system based on racial nationalism and national socialism. As the years recede, the relentless details of that everyday grinding system are forgotten or buried. But at the time, they pressed heavily on society.
Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, a decision was taken by the African National Congress (in conjunction with the South African Communist Party) to adopt a strategy of armed resistance. Violence was to be used to balance the violence of the state, which was regarded as illegitimate. A handful of largely young men, of all colours, Indian, African, white, Coloured, were the core, one might even call them pioneers, of the sabotage that occurred during this period, and which changed the nature of resistance.
Laloo was at the centre of this activity. By his actions, he was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was an active saboteur. For his pains, he was brutally tortured, detained for months without trial, then, after trial, sentenced to and served 18 years in prison on Robben Island.
His life makes for easy periodisation. As conditions relaxed a touch in later years on the Island, the prisoners were allowed to watch films, eventually of their own choice. The first he and Kathy Kathrada remember seeing was the coming-of-age movie, Heidi, and later, more grimly the depictions of the Nazi death camps called The Holocaust. Kathy chose to order for viewing the prison action drama, The Great Escape and, not surprisingly, the political drama about the Dreyfus affair entitled J’Accuse. Like these film genres, Laloo's story divides naturally into four periods: the years leading up to his young manhood; the years of activism; the prison time; and the return to political drama and retirement.
Laloo was born into a respectable and marginally prosperous Indian family living in a multiracial section of the suburb of Fordsburg. He was the second child and second son, so there was somewhat less pressure on him, though he was expected to achieve at school. Teenage rebellion drew him into a casual lifestyle and into the dangerous orbit of the most notorious gangster in Johannesburg. What conditions – of parental guidance, friendships, circumstance and chance – turned him away from a life of potential extortion and criminality to that of a dedicated revolutionary? What inner depths and strength enabled him to survive a sudden brutal assault or the long, slow years of harsh imprisonment? And what were the principles which made him shun the riches he might have acquired after liberation? These are intriguing questions. Wise decisions, experiences and marriage are part of the answer.
What too, in the long run, were his achievements, individual and collective?
Introduction by Professor Tim Couzens