Vol. 14 No. 6 (June 2004), pp.398-401

ROBBEN ISLAND AND PRISONER RESISTANCE TO APARTHEID, by Fran Lisa Buntman.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 358pp. Cloth $65.00. £45.00. ISBN: 0-521-80993-2. Paper $23.00. £16.99.  ISBN: 0-521-00782-8.

Reviewed by James L. Gibson, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis. jgibson@wustl.edu

Perhaps few prisons in the world are as well known as Robben Island in South Africa. Made infamous by its most beloved inmate, Nelson Mandela, the prison is located just a few kilometers from one of the most beautiful cities in the world. As all good tourists know, Robben Island has become one of the most important symbols of the long struggle against the hated apartheid system.

But Robben Island is of far more than symbolic importance, and it is Fran Buntman’s goal to make us understand that. As Buntman’s exhaustive history of the (modern-day) inmates of Robben Island tells us, the prison served as a “university of resistance,” a training school for the opponents of apartheid. Though Robben Island is only part of the overall story of the struggle, understanding what transpired on the island from roughly 1960 to 1990 is a crucial component of any understanding of the resistance movement itself.

Buntman’s objectives in this book are to demonstrate that the political prisoners on Robben Island played a vital role in shaping the resistance movement during the struggle over apartheid. Rather than being removed from the struggle by imprisonment, the “Islanders” were centrally involved in shaping the contours of the resistance movements. The inmates on the island transformed themselves and the anti-apartheid struggle in part by escalating their resistance to the authorities beyond the base need for survival—e.g., the struggle over access to education while in the prison—to active engagement in the effort to destroy apartheid.

She tells this tale in ten chapters, most of which focus on various aspects of the South African resistance movement and life among the inmates at Robben Island. Important themes are discussed in some detail, as in her consideration of the ideological divisions among different groups and her quite interesting explication of inter-generational conflict among the prisoners (e.g., the prisoners of Mandela’s generation versus the “children of ‘76” — those imprisoned as a result of the Soweto uprising). But Buntman also analyzes the influence of the Robben Island inmates on the larger resistance movement, both as a symbol of resistance to ordinary people and as a source of foot soldiers as some inmates were released from imprisonment. The last two chapters of the book attempt to place the issues in larger perspective. Chapter 9 examines the Robben Island findings in light of established theories of power and resistance; Chapter 10 compares the South African case with other important political prisoner resistance movements throughout the world. [*399]             

Special mention should be made of the methodology employed in this study. Her research is based largely on in-person interviews (“oral testimony”) with a veritable who’s who of the anti-apartheid struggle. This is one of the most densely documented books you are ever likely to see. The appendices to the book provide the details of the research, in exquisite detail (e.g., capsule biographies of the people Buntman interviewed). The bibliography is extensive, the index excellent, and the sheer breadth of effort represented by the material in this book is breathtaking. Research of this genre is very difficult to do well. And it is perhaps one thing to conduct such extensive fieldwork for a research project; but quite another to do so with such intricate details on sources of every conceivable bit of information. For those considering research based on qualitative methods using in-person interviews and archival sources, there is no finer exemplar than this book.

Buntman’s principal argument is that Robben Island became a “University of Struggle” and that by doing so, the Island and its inmates became i) powerful and ii) an exogenous force shaping the struggle over apartheid. Rather than emasculating the leaders of the struggle, the South African state contributed to its own demise by concentrating the anti-apartheid leaders on Robben Island and by its various acts of commission and omission against the inmates. And unlike political prisoners in some parts of the world, the Islanders succeeded in their struggle to overthrow apartheid.        

This story is told overwhelmingly from the point-of-view of the inmates, and the consequent density of facts and information is enlightening in many respects. For instance, the conflict between the ANC members and the Black Consciousness Movement is examined in some detail. Some topics receive less attention than I would have liked, as in the decision of Mandela and the ANC to engage in violent resistance and what many consider to be terrorism. Perhaps one reason for this is that the book is so prison-centered, and many important policy decisions were made in the resistance movement outside the prison walls. Nonetheless, since the story of the struggle has been told by many others, Buntman’s unique and powerful contribution is to fill in the Robben Island side of the anti-apartheid struggle.           

If one were to try to balance this review by complaining just a bit about the book, one might mention that, even for a student of South African politics, Buntman gives us perhaps too much detailed information—e.g., for all but the most serious students, the efforts of the various organizations to recruit new members. If not careful, the reader can lose sight of the forest, for this is one of the most densely packed set of trees one of likely to find. Perhaps the chapter on theory (which I found difficult to digest and apply to the analysis of the preceding 200 pages) ought to have been presented in the beginning of the book, rather than at the end (although this may have discouraged some readers primarily interested in learning more about the inmates on Robben Island).     

At a more substantive level, some important issues pertaining to the struggle are not particularly well addressed in the book. For instance: [*400] 

1. Apartheid was not nearly as repressive as some forms of communism, as Buntman well documents. The author continually points to actions by the authorities that undermine the defense of apartheid. More repressive actions—e.g., denying visitors and thereby limiting communication between prisoners and the outside world—could have been quite effective. Why did the authorities feel constrained in their actions? The apartheid state was surely aware of the importance and influence of Robben Island and its inhabitants. Why was the South African state not more ruthless against the prisoners, especially as it saw the importance of the Island and the inmates grow over the course of the struggle? Buntman’s primary answer to these questions is that South Africa cared dearly about its international reputation (a conclusion she documents well), but that verdict simply shifts the question one step earlier in the causal chain: Why were South Africans so desirous of assuaging international public opinion?

2. Perhaps one answer to this puzzle has to do with South African commitments to the rule of law. As Buntman often illustrates, even the prison authorities were bound to some degree by the rule of law, and, for example, both this book and Mandela’s autobiography refer time and time again to hearings that were held on various prisoner complaints. I am not certain I know my own mind entirely on this issue, but white South African political culture perhaps exposes its European roots with its preference for proper procedure (even if in the pursuit of repressive objectives). One reason why the state was not more brutal against the resistance movement was that the eyes of the world were often focused on South Africa—and, in the case of Robben Island, especially the eyes of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But another part of the picture surely has something to do with the unwillingness of the state to engage in the brutality of, for example, the Soviet Gulag. Buntman’s analysis is incomplete when it comes to exposing the motives of the state.                           

3. The extraordinary value of this book lies in the detail with which Buntman documents the activities taking place at Robben Island. At the same time, however, there are ways in which the devotion to detail results in inattention to the larger issues at stake. For instance, Buntman is quite careful in documenting various meetings between Mandela and the government during the late 1980s, and such documentation is of value in trying to understand how and why the government felt so weakened and vulnerable that it would un-ban its political enemies in the stunning move in 1990 for which de Klerk received a Nobel Peace Prize. But what is missing from her accounts of these meetings is the precise nature of the substantive discussions and negotiations. Just what was the government agreeing to in these talks? What were the issues dividing the parties? Did the government anticipate power-sharing during these negotiations? To one immensely interested in the micro-politics of the un-banning, Buntman’s analysis is invaluable, but some will surely prefer more discussion of issues and perhaps less of people and events.

4. In light of allegations made since the publication of her book, the question of the extent to which liberation people [*401] were engaged as apartheid spies receives surprisingly little attention. The South African state is said to have survived as long as it did, in part, due to its extensive networks of spies and informers. The struggle in South Africa was continuously confronted with this problem; little mention is made of how the Islanders may have been affected by askaris and turncoats.                    

5. Of course, the South African struggle is one that succeeded, and one wonders to what degree that success shapes this story. Reconstructing events so long after they took place is a risky endeavor, to which Buntman is intensely sensitive. But, as with all historical accounts, one cannot help but suspect that some of the accounts of what happened at Robben Island are self-serving and tainted by the glory in which Robben Island today basks.                

But this nit-picking aside, Buntman’s book is a must-read for all those considering themselves students of the struggle against apartheid and for those with an interest in resistance in general. The acid test of the quality of any book is that it stimulates the reader to think hard about the arguments made and to ask additional questions about the issues raised. There is no doubt that Buntman succeeds mightily in this score. This is a superb book, both substantively and methodologically, and it deserves a readership far beyond those with a substantive interest in South African politics.


Copyright 2004 by the author, James L. Gibson.