By Zubeida Jaffer
Ashley Forbes was 24 years old when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. He stayed in a single cell in B Section with Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim who was then serving a second period of imprisonment. He had served 15 years from 1964 and then kidnapped from Swaziland in 1986 and sentenced to a further 20 years.
The two men were both ANC operatives. Ashley was part of the newer groups that had launched military offenses against the apartheid state. Ebrahim was a senior Umkhonto we Sizwe leader based in Swaziland.
On the evening of 1 July, 2017 in Johannesburg, Ashley took to the stage at the birthday celebrations of the quiet 80 year-old revolutionary, who has remained largely behind the scenes. There were several speakers – Kgalema Motlanthe, Zweli Mkhezi and others – but Ashley was the youngest comrade who told of the relationship between the two.
His anecdotes illustrated well the generational tensions that have repeatedly threaded through our past and into our present.
When Ashley arrived at Robben Island to serve a 15- year sentence in mid-1980, he could not understand why Ebrahim and other prisoners were not embarking on radical actions on Robben Island. For him, they were too relaxed while activists were doing battle outside.
“You must have patience, comrade,” Ebrahim told him. ” There are processes underway. Madiba is in Pollsmoor Prison and it is just a matter of time that people will come out,” he said.
But Ashley did not have patience. The first opportunity when people got together, he put up his hand and proposed a hunger strike. He wanted this to force open the doors of the prison.
In the first week of the hunger strike, people started falling over and were sent to the hospital section. The second week, they were critical and were sent to the mainland hospital. “Hunger strikes are filled with terror,” he said.
A second hunger strike followed. “By the third hunger strike, I had learnt patience,” he said. “When we got together and the guys spoke about hunger strikes, I would say – ‘you guys should have patience… Govan Mbeki has been released. Just be patient – there are processes underway,” he said, drawing a wave of laughter from the gathered guests.
Besides patience, he thanked Ebrahim for teaching him to be cultured. When he got to Robben Island, he was eating everything and anything. He used to hear Ebrahim say – ‘this fellow, he has no culture.” He could not understand what Ebrahim meant. He then explained to him that he had to learn to drink tea. Tea cleanses your blood and calms you down, said Ebrahim. And so he taught him to always share tea with the old-timers when he wanted to have a talk with them.
He also noticed that Ebi remained inside the prison on Sunday mornings when everyone was allowed to go outside. He went to look for him and found him watching Indian/Bollywood movies on television. In the eighties conditions were less harsh compared to the 60s when prisoners were stripped naked every day, beaten and given very little food.
He started joining Ebrahim who translated the language so that he could follow the story.
The young Ashley joined his leader and so the two of them would brew their tea and relax together as they watched movies or had intense political discussions. His wife Portia later said he continued his relationship with tea-drinking to this day.
Video highlights Ebrahim Ebrahim’s 80th birthday