Finding my grandfather, the lost prisoner of Robben Island

For years Kholosa Tshandana did not know her grandfather’s real name or story. One day, there was a special moment and a story of resilience, political determination and strength began to unfold.

When I turned 15, at the height of my curiosity, I asked my mother about my grandfather. My grandfather was always spoken about in hushed tones, there was nothing tangible about his identity. I did not even know his real name except what everyone called him: my mom and her siblings called him utatomncinci, my generation called him utatomkhulu wase gududu

The one story I knew about him was from my grandmother. After I asked her why his home was called Gududu, I was told that he had worked in Cape Town for many years and that all the building materials for his home had been purchased in Cape Town and then brought home by bus to Mthatha, eXhugxwala location. They were all marked “Good Wood”. I’m sure the name was pronounced correctly for a few months until my people got tired of it and created a new one, gududu

I followed this response with another question, and using this light moment to my advantage, asked my grandmother a follow-up question: “Why was he arrested?” In reply I was simply told to get the belt from behind the door. This was my cue to let things go because my grandmother never hit or tried to hit me and I was not getting a hiding over an old man whose name I did not even know; I let it go. 

My mother answers some of my questions

I had an interesting relationship with my mother; the older I got, the more she treated me like an adult and I loved it. She would begin her answers to my questions with phrases such as “I think you are old enough to understand this”. 

I loved these moments, I was allowed to speak my mind, we had lots of them and when I miss her, those moments shine brightest in my memory. They resonate with similar moments I have with my eight-year-old daughter now.  

It was during one of these moments when I asked her about my grandfather. I remember clearly that her first sentence was “Bhabha kodwa uyazthanda izinto” (Bhabha, you are way too curious) and with that she opened up to me. My grandfather had been arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island. He was later released under house arrest. He was my maternal grandfather’s younger brother, which meant he would be released to my maternal grandparents’ home. In my family, there were no cousins or uncles, there were brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers to everyone and so by that rule, he was my grandfather.

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He was a member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which he joined while working in Cape Town as a young man. That is all my mother knew or was willing to tell me. How long he had been imprisoned and in which years and what he was charged under, she couldn’t tell me. I believed her because it was our moment and our moments were all about honesty. I never allowed myself to forget that little bit of information which my mother shared with me. 

In December 1996, I travelled with my three siblings to Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, as we did every year. We had travelled a week ahead of my parents, I suspect because my older siblings wanted some sort of freedom from the folks and I was probably used as a pawn to incite my siblings to behave. 

The most important funeral I never attended

Sadly, before my parents could make the trip to spend Christmas with us, they received the news that utatomkhulu wase gududu had passed away. They had to stay an extra week to arrange his funeral and burial. This meant they were only reunited with us on 24 December. I was very unhappy about this, because I could only try on my new Christmas clothes once before I wore them; my tradition was that I tried them on once every day for at least a week before Christmas, which also meant they had to be washed on the eve of the big day.

My grandfather’s death left a huge gap in my mind: why would my parents choose to be away from us for another week to bury someone they did not want to speak about? 

On our return to Mthatha, a traditional cleansing ceremony was held for us because we had been absent for the funeral. A beast was slaughtered and we went through all my family’s rites for such an event. Why would these people spend so much time and money cleansing me of the death of a man whose name I did not even know? 

After the cleansing I was left with a lot of questions. I remember asking my sister about him. She remembered that he was soft spoken and kind, he always had sweets in his pockets. 

A couple of years later, I started following the PAC and studying Pan Africanism. I read anything on the movement that I could lay my hands on; at university I joined PASMA, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania; I wanted to get inside the head of this man whose name I did know; I wanted to understand him better; and solve the puzzle of my life that was always referred to in hushed tones. 

PAC solidarity out of love for my grandfather

I did not get my answers but the first time I could cast my vote in the national elections, I voted PAC because I wanted to connect with him, it was for him, he had to know that I cared. I came home for a visit from university one summer and I had a small PAC flag hidden at the bottom of my suitcase, but I never took it out. I wanted the right moment to show this flag to my mother; I was going to read her reaction to it in her facial expressions; I planned to make mental notes of everything because if she wouldn’t tell me then her body language might. 

As expected, my mother and I had one of our moments where it was just her and I, and I told her I had something to show her. I quickly opened the suitcase and showed her the flag, followed by the confession that I had voted for the PAC. No one had ever said I shouldn’t; to be honest I didn’t even think I knew what political party she was affiliated to, it wasn’t her thing. 

My confession took her aback a little, unsettled her even. I took advantage of the situation and asked “Mama kwenzeka ntoni kanye kanye” (Mama, what really happened?). She told me of the trauma the family went through during those dark years under house arrest, she told me of the abuse they received at the hands of the Security Police and she told me of how her family was shunned by the community because of elibanjwa (that convict). 

Secrets revealed

The news that he had been incarcerated on Robben Island spread like wildfire to the surrounding villages; the offence in the eyes of our people was unforgivable. I am unsure if the offence was the Island or just the fact of the imprisonment. During his incarceration, my grandfather was allowed to speak to only one person at a time; the Security Police would come and check on him any time they pleased, sometimes they would spend the entire day sitting in a kwela-kwela (the notorious police pick-up vans used during apartheid) outside our yard, saying and doing nothing, just watching our family like animals in a zoo. 

My mother told me of the days at school where her teachers would hurl abuse at her and her siblings, just because they were his nephews and nieces. At first, no one would sit with them at break-time at school, because they brought trouble and no one wanted the wrath of the security police. 

She told me of one particular incident. Because of his isolation and loneliness, my grandfather started a vegetable garden at the bottom of our yard, and there he spent most of his time. One day, because of the heat and exhaustion, he fell asleep unintentionally and when the police came for their lunch time check-in they could not find him. They searched everywhere for him; mattresses were slashed, cupboards emptied, wardrobes destroyed; to them, his disappearance meant war and that war was to be won at all costs, even by slapping my then 15-year-old mother across the face several times in an attempt to force her to reveal his whereabouts, or by caning my then 17-year-old uncle until he bled. My grandmother had to be found at all costs. Amid the chaos, my grandfather woke up from his peaceful slumber and sprang into action, running like a mad man to save his family from the clutches of apartheid. He tried to explain to them that he had fallen asleep accidentally, that he had not tried to escape. 

Mama went on to explain that she was shocked at how unafraid he was, she says he was furious at the abuse his family had endured and vowed to report the matter. She was proud, she said that he had taken charge of the situation: tall, handsome and assertive. 

I got it, I got the hushed tones, I got the trauma, I got the fear, my poor mom, my poor grandfather experienced. It was made even worse because in the African home no one ever spoke of their feelings, they were all walking around carrying the pain with no outlets. Mama had unlocked a part of my heart that had yearned for this story about this man who was a stranger to me and yet meant so much to me. I realised wherever he was I wanted him to love me … at least to like me, at least. I wanted him to know I care. 

After the moment with Mother Dearest as I used to call her, I became bolder, driven even; that moment had shaped everything about me. Why would they shun a family of such a great man? Why would they shun him? He was fighting to liberate them and the thanks he got was name calling and finger pointing.

Search for real facts bears fruit

Some years later, my daughter Mangaliso Hloma was born. A few years after that she came home from school asking why she has a boy’s name. I knew it was time to find this grandfather once and for all and be able to provide Mangaliso with an identity. To explain that she was named after Sobukwe would be followed by a “Why?” and the answer to this was my grandfather. I wanted to give her an accurate account of the type of blood that runs in her veins. 

My search began in Ginsberg, in the Eastern Cape, in August 2018 after a conversation with a colleague.

The first step was to phone my aunt uNosipho “Nomhele” Ngquva and ask for more information. I asked her to dig beyond the pain and help me help her find him. Fortunately she was with my uncle, her brother, and their memory together gave me more information than I’ve had in decades. 

His name was Zomukulungisa Ngquva, arrested in 1963 or 1964 in Cape Town’s Langa township. He was imprisoned with another Poqo member, uMgxibheni Qholomashe. No one knew how long he was imprisoned. But for now, I had a name, a year and a place.

Second, I was referred to one Luyanda Ka Msumza for directions on the next step. Ka Msumza gave me a few names including that of X (who asks to remain anonymous). X took the details I had and told me he would get back to me. I also contacted the University of the Western Cape’s Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archive and was advised to forward my grandfather’s details, which I did.

  • Name: Zamukulungisa Ngquva
  • Location: Xhugxwala location,Vidgiesville, Mthatha
  • Clan name: Rhadebe
  • Year arrested: 1963 or 1964
  • Additional information: He was arrested and sentenced with a gentleman named Mgxibheni Qholomashe.

There was silence, silence for months. Once in a while, I re-sent that email to the Robben Island archives. I have no idea how many times I searched that name on the internet and found nothing. I searched it almost every week as if a different result would suddenly emerge. But it didn’t. 

In March of 2019, I received a WhatsApp from X, who asked if I knew an Oswell Ngquva, who was sentenced to Robben Island in 1963. Instinctively, I said: “I don’t know that name but I know it’s him.” I quickly phoned my aunt Nomhele and asked her “Dabs uyamaz uOswell?”? (Aunty, do you know Oswell?). She did. He was her Tatophakathi, just as I had thought. 

Zamukulungisa was Oswell. She had forgotten about the name because no one ever used it in the family. She added that his nickname was Oseltjiee. Excited and armed this new information I went back to X and made the confirmation. 

He gave me a number of a woman to contact esqithini (in the Island). By then, I was shaking with anticipation. I dialled her number with no hesitation. It rang for what seemed like forever, but then she answered.

She told me she was on a boat to the Island and that I should send her Oswell’s names by text, and she would quickly check on the database and would call me back in 10 minutes. Those were 10 pivotal minutes for me. I left my desk and went to the ladies room. I walked around the garden. I spoke to a colleague, uSis Linda. At nine minutes, I started making my way back to the office. I hit redial on the phone and it was answered immediately. 

Yes, Oswell Ngquva was on Robben Island, he arrived in 1963. He was the 549th person to be incarcerated on Robben Island in that year. His prison number was 549/63. I had found him.

I still don’t know what he was charged with because the files are kept in the Island’s museum archives. I have not contacted them again for a copy of the file, because at this stage the charge is not important to me. What is important is the fact that I have found a confirmation that he was there.

No monuments will ever be built for Zamukulungisa, no roads will ever be named after him, not even the dirt road that runs across our village to Matyenengqina, near Mthatha. I accept that and I am fine with it. What is important to me is that I found him; he is no longer the unclaimed prisoner at Robben Island. 

I’m raising funds to take my family to the Island in September to visit his former cell. We were asked to inform the museum at least a week in advance so that they can record our story and add it to his file, and I can’t wait. I want my daughter to be there to know that the blood that rushes in her body is made of resilience, I want his sons uXolani no Bangisizwe to be there. I want to be there, I want him to know I care.

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