The knitting revolutionaries

375573_10150767483469623_121289517_nIt’s a delicious image: the fingers that had once constructed and placed bombs, knitting jumpers and cardigans for their loved ones from prison.

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.


When I sit in this corner of my stoep and read or knit, I can crane my head and spot Robben Island between the high rise buildings of downtown Cape Town.

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 book's cover features a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting.

The book’s cover features a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting.

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

Posted under: Indiscriminate Devotion

Tagged as: , , , , ,

About KarinSchimke



  • How super to see this Karin – so much look fwd to reading more.! I also totally loved, even the idea of, the island-style knitting. The two former prisoners I spoke to today Ngwenya and Buthelezi were disarmingly humble – keep us posted ref ‘Not now….” (great title) nx

  • So interesting! I’ll have to read this book. I interviewed former political prisoners on Green Island, Taiwan, which bears many similarities to Robben Island. The Green Island prisoners created many amazing artifacts, from sea shell paintings to violins, but I did not hear of anyone knitting! People are incredible.