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19 years away from home

10th DECEMBER 1982

Betty Mbatha sat in the old chair. She held the train ticket in her hand – a train ticket to Cape Town. She was excited. She was going to see her husband. She was going to see Lombard.

Lombard was in jail on Robben Island. And Betty did not see him often. They don’t allow many visits. And anyway, she did not have money for train tickets everyday!

She saw Lombard for a few hours every year. And those few hours were everything. She forgot about the children to feed. She forgot about the rent. And she forgot about going to bed alone.

When she saw him, she spoke to him on a telephone. They did not let her touch him. For 19 years she hasn’t touched him. But she loves him. She never stopped loving him.

Betty got up from the chair. She put the tickets carefully back in the drawer. Then she went back to her sewing machine – the sewing machine that kept the family alive for all these years. She worked quickly. She wanted to finish the dress for the old lady down the road.

Betty looked up. She looked at the picture of Lombard on the wall. She smiled at him. “At least you know where the next meal is coming from,” she whispered.

Betty felt good today. She always felt good a few days before she went to Cape Town. Then she heard a knock on the door:

“Hello Betty,” said a young man. Betty knew the man. He was the shopkeeper from the corner shop. “Lombard has just phoned me. He said he will come home later today.”

“Don’t talk nonsense and stop wasting my time,” shouted Betty. She closed the door. She was tired of people telling her that story. And anyway, she had a ticket for Cape Town already. She went back to her sewing machine.


Lombard Mbatha climbed out of the truck. He stretched his legs. The long trip from Cape Town was over. And Robben Island was behind him. He was thankful.

He now stood in Leeukop prison somewhere near Pretoria. He was tired. And he did not know what was going to happen.

“There’s a new law,” some people were saying. “They are letting us out early.”

“Big deal,” Lombard said to a man near him. “What’s one year early after 19 years?” And then he thought for a few minutes. “But I won’t complain if they do let us out,” he said with a smile.

And then somebody shouted, “Hey, those guys are still here. And they left the Island before us. They aren’t going to let us out early.”

Everybody kept quiet. Lombard stood still. He stood still for a long time. He stood until he heard a voice. Somebody was talking to him.

“Lombard Mbatha, here are some new clothes. Take all your belongings. You are going home. Do you want to have a bath before you go?”

Lombard felt dizzy. His legs were shaking. “No thanks,” he whispered. “I’ll bath at home.”

Lombard got into the car with the policemen. They were driving him home. They drove fast. He watched the world fly past from the window. He did not feel well. He felt hot and cold. He felt like he was on a boat – like the boat taking him to the Island all those years ago.

He remembers his anger on the boat. How can they give me 20 years for taking people to Botswana? The judge was not fair!

And in the beginning, he helped build the jail. Yes, they sent him to jail. And then he must help build it.

And after Lombard finished building, he started woodwork. He liked woodwork. But when he looked up from his workbench, he dreamed of Bloubergstrand on the mainland. When he dreamed about Bloubergstrand, he thought about home. And then he worried.

He worried about Betty. She always looked tired when she saw him. She worked so hard. And he always asked himself, “Why did they not let Betty carry on with my Undertaker’s business? Why didn’t they give her a licence?”

But when his thoughts turned away from Bloubergstrand, he forgot about the outside world. He wanted to forget. He had to forget.

A policeman’s voice woke Lombard from his thoughts. “We’re in Vereeniging,” the policeman said. “We are stopping here for a while.”

Lombard opened his eyes. He knew he was nearly home. And suddenly he had a new worry. He didn’t want to give his family a fright. He decided to phone the shop in Evaton. Then the shopkeeper could tell his family he was coming home.

They let Lombard use the phone. And soon they were driving in the car again. Then Lombard felt a bump. The car hit a pothole on the way into Evaton. Lombard Mtatha was home.


Learn and Teach.Lombard, can you please tell us about the day you got home?

Lombard: Yes, I remember the day well. My youngest daughter Nelisiwe met me at the gate. She hugged and kissed me. Then the police took me inside and shouted, “Mrs Mbatha, we have brought your husband home.”

My wife came up to me. She took my hand – for the first time in 19 years. Then she kissed me. She was calm. But I knew she was happy. Then I turned around. I looked at my two young children. They were the only children home at the time. My daughter was crying. My son went outside to cry.

We talked for half the night. And then we went to bed. Nelisiwe woke up soon afterwards. And she screamed, “Baba, are you still here?”

“I am still here. I am not going anywhere,” I answered.

Learn and Teach: What did you do for the first few days?

Lombard: I stayed at home for the first few days. Many friends came to visit me. I was happy because people did not forget me.

Learn and Teach: What will you do in the future?

Lombard: I’m not sure yet. But I would like to do woodwork. I have a woodwork certificate. But I may have problems. I’m not sure what people will say when I show them my certificate – and they see I learnt woodwork on the Island.

Learn and Teach: How has Evaton changed since you left?

Lombard: I must say the place looked funny after so long. When I left, this township Sebokeng was not next door. And another thing – when I left the young girls didn’t drink so much liquor.

But one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s my wife’s cooking. Her food was worth waiting for.

Lombard Mbatha laughed. And then we all laughed. We laughed with happiness. Mbatha was not broken. His spirit was not lost. He can still laugh.

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