In a book called The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island there’s a chapter on knitting. The knitting “coach” was JJ Maake, who had learnt to knit from a woman who had given him – an MK cadre in exile from South Africa in Swaziland – sanctuary and protection in her home.
He couldn’t leave the house during the day for fear of being reported to the police, so his host, always under pressure to fill her knitting orders, taught him to knit to keep him busy. When he was arrested in the early eighties and sent to Robben Island, he put in requests – looked at askance by prison authorities – for wool and needles.
When he finally convinced them he wasn’t planning to knit a bridge to Cape Town – and was prepared to settle for plastic rather than metal needles – they granted his request. His unusual activity caught a lot of other prisoners’ imaginations and soon he started an informal knitting school.
“It was sort of a fashion, ja, [the whole] island at that time was knitting,” Maake is quoted in the book as saying.
He only spent a year on Robben Island, but was later sent there again. By this time, things had relaxed somewhat and in the evenings prisoners would visit one another’s cells: “Sometimes there would be four or five of us sitting there knitting.”
The only prisoner who came close to out-knitting the prolific Maake, was the “hardcore” bomber Gordon Webster, from Durban, but knitting had many other fans amongst the political prisoners of Robben Island.
The book provides pictures of some of the knitted creations. They gave me goosebumps.
I like knitting too. It’s one of those activities that puts you in flow keeps your mind active but relaxed, and passes the time…at the end of which – almost surprisingly – you have a new thing. It seems like a perfect activity for someone who has had their liberty denied them.
I like that there are ex-freedom fighters who knitted: it chips away at knitting’s slightly naff image.
The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island – Banter, Pastimes and Boyish Tricks
Fred Khumalo, Paddy Harper and Gugu Kunene
Published by Makana Investment Corporation