From Robben Island: Palestinian Political Prisoners

Where better to launch an international campaign for the release of all Palestinian political prisoners than on Robben Island?


This windswept island south of Cape Town persistently reminds me of immense cruelty, injustice and oppression… but also of perseverance, of an undying dream of freedom, of the ability of human beings to stand tall in the most horrendous circumstances.


Before sentencing him, the judge in South Africa’s Rivonia Trail (1963 – 1964) asked the man who would become the new South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela, whether he wanted to plead guilty.  Mandela answered: “It is not I who should plead guilty, but the government of this country.”  Mandela and seven others (and in the subsequent years, hundreds more) were found guilty and banned for life to Robben Island.

In reading Mandela’s epic autobiography I was deeply touched by his and his fellow prisoners’ continued struggle against apartheid within prison. Their life on the island was to them yet another terrain to advocate against discrimination. It was not only the story, but especially the tone that inspired me and made me realise how much I have to learn about courage, tolerance, persistence and forgiveness.

I had this same feeling on Sunday 27 October 2013 when the wife of Marwan Barghouti read a letter he wrote to us from prison….


Our boat left the Cape Town harbour early that morning for Robben Island.


We were on our way to the launch of the international Campaign for the Freedom of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian Political Prisoners.


The guests included representatives from NGOs, human rights organisations, trade unions, political parties, former South African anti-apartheid activists and 13 Palestinian dignitaries.


Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada, one of Mandela’s closest friends and comrades, was one of eight ANC members convicted and banned to Robben Island for life during the Rivonia Trail.


Now, half a century later, the 84-year-old Kathrada launched the campaign for the iconic freedom fighter, Marwan Barghouti (54), commonly dubbed “Palestine’s Mandela”.


Mrs Fadwa Barghouthi, the wife of Marwan Barghouthi read a moving letter from her husband addressed to us, the audience at the launch, in which he appealed for non-violent resistance.


Marwan Barghouti is one of the first (and most popular) Palestinian Members of Parliament arrested and imprisoned by Israel. He was abducted in 2002 by the Israeli army and thereafter tried, convicted and sentenced to five life sentences.

At his trial in 2002, Barghouti refused to participate in its proceedings maintaining that his abduction and the Israeli trial were illegal and illegitimate. In 2011 the international Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that his abduction, arrest and transfer to Israeli territory was in violation of international law.


The IPU, together with other international human rights organisations, have subsequently called for his immediate release.


One day, Barghouti and all Palestinians will be free.


May that day arrive soon.


It is possible…

It is possible at least sometimes…

It is possible especially now

To ride a horse

Inside a prison cell

And run away…

It is possible for prison walls

To disappear,

For the cell to become a distant land

Without frontiers:

What did you do with the walls?

I gave them back to the rocks.

And what did you do with the


I turned it into a saddle.

And your chain?

I turned it into a pencil.

The prison guard got angry.

He put an end to the dialogue.

He said he didn’t care for poetry,

And bolted the door of my cell.

He came back to see me

In the morning.

He shouted at me:

Where did all this water come from?

I brought it from the Nile.

And the trees?

From the orchards of Damascus.

And the music?

From my heartbeat.

The prison guard got mad.

He put an end to my dialogue.

He said he didn’t like my poetry,

And bolted the door of my cell.

But he returned in the evening:

Where did this moon come from?

From the nights of Baghdad.

And the wine?

From the vineyards of Algiers.

And this freedom?

From the chain you tied me with

last night.

The prison guard grew so sad…

He begged me to give him back

His freedom.

“Prison cell”, by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)


As with the “Free Mandela” campaign, this international campaign is not about the release of one man.


Barghouti is one of over 5 000 Palestinian political prisoners who remain incarcerated in Israeli jails, many of them children. Almost every Palestinian family has been affected by the political imprisonment of a relative.

  • Roughly 40% of Palestinian men (over 750 000 Palestinians) have been imprisoned by Israel at one point in time.
  • About 100 000 Palestinians have been held by Israel in “administrative detention” (the equivalent of Apartheid South Africa’s “Detention without trial”).
  • In the last 11 years alone, more than 7500 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli prisons and detention facilities (including being held in solitary confinement). Such practices are considered illegal under international law.




Mandela: Intertwined lives

mandela 2

“Peace, freedom and democracy for all South Africans!” proclaimed Nelson Mandela on his release from prison in 1990, also declaring himself as  “a servant to all in South Africa”. Today we are a nation in mourning.

After being condemned and locked away for 27 years as a political prisoner, Mandela received the Nobel Prize for Peace (1993) and became the first president of the new, democratic South Africa (1994).


Mandela became the one who inspired diverse people to reconcile – those who struggled against apartheid, those like me who did nothing to end the injustices of oppression and even those who thought that inequality and racial separation were the best for all.

He showed us what it looks like when you grant others what you want for yourself.


He availed himself to be Tata (“Father”) to all of us.  He served us through his humility, his warmth, his wisdom and his openness, and when with children he used to look as if he has never lost the unbounded joy of an unscarred child.

Madiba made me feel safe and cared for even though I was one of those who, for most of the time, did nothing to end the injust apartheid system. He, and many others who struggled against apartheid, fostered a climate in which I could face and acknowledge my guilt of inaction and therefore of complicity in maintaining an oppressive system.

mandela 3

I mourn the passing of this beloved man. My heart is with his family and loved ones. My heart is with all comrades who struggled with him against oppression.

And yet…

…I also lament the ongoing pain, suffering, corruption, neglect, greed and other injustices in my country. I cry out for my land! I ache to see a dream in mud! Should we already mourn the loss of Mandela’s legacy? Where is our servanthood?

“Who have we become?” Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu recently asked passionately. “Who have we become?”



Who do we want to be in the here and now?

The life of Madiba should be remembered through our attitudes and our actions.


We are still here. It is our responsibility to shape the texture of every breath and every step.

I rejoice that I am not free from my memory of maintaining the oppression of others as I do not want to be free from it. I want to remember where I come from and how for many years I did not know how to feel fully human.  Now I shall continue to breathe and walk. My life is intertwined with all.

apartheid palestine


Marwan Barghouti



December 6, 2013.


Today the people of South Africa and the world, stop in their tracks to recognize the sad departure from his illustrious earthly life, of Nelson Mandela. The South African Council of Churches extends a special pastoral embrace to the Mandela family at this time. We are very much saddened by the news of the death of our Nations first President: A man of vision, courage and zeal for the liberation of humankind. He has lived a selfless life so that we may all enjoy freedom and the fullness of life, just as our Lord had purposed. Today we are a respected nation because of his tireless fighting spirit to free us from oppression, exploitation and sexism, and for this we thank God.


In his words Mandela said, “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished”. On the night of his sad departure, that flame of his goodness was held up by the grace of God, that it may remain to inspire and influence present and future generations to strive always to live for the common good, after the manner of Jesus Christ who said I have come that you may have life to the fullest.


Thus Nelson Mandela will not have died, but would have transitioned to a perpetual beacon of light for the democratic order that he led as the first democratic president of the Republic of South Africa.


We call on the nation to pay respect our former president deserves even at his death, by praying for his soul, his family and the nation. We call on the churches and all people of faith, to focus their worship services and prayers this weekend not only to mourn Mandela but also to celebrate his achievements and thank God for his life and example. The Mandelas are members of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and therefore we appeal to all denomination to support the leadership of the Methodist Church in all ministrations.


Today a special meeting of Church leaders and representatives of various denomination will be held at Khotso House, the Headquarters  of the SACC.   


For further information and enquiries, please call the President of the SACC at 0828931378

Issued by the South African Council of Churches, Khotso House, Johannesburg