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Home away from home

The story of Cowley House

For a long time, relatives of political prisoners on Robben Island prison had nowhere to stay when they went to visit their loved ones. Then in 1978, the Western Province Council of Churches (WPCC) offered to put up the relatives in a big old house called Cowley House …

Number 126 Chapel Road in Woodstock, Cape Town, is the address of an old house called Cowley House. It is at this house that the families of political prisoners stay on their way to see their loved ones.

The house was built in 1898 as a home for some Anglican priests who had come out from Britain to serve the people. These priests were called the Fathers of the Order of St. John the Evangelist. But because they were living in Cowley House, they soon came to be known as the Cowley Fathers.

When the priests left South Africa in 1978, the Western Province Council of Churches (WPCC) took over the house. The WPCC opened the doors of Cowley House to the families of political prisoners.


David Viti, who used to work for the WPCC, tells the story of how Cowley House came to be. “From 1963, the government began sending thousands of political prisoners to Robben Island. The families of those in prison would come to Cape Town to visit their loved ones in jail. They came from all over the country. Some even came from as far away as Namibia,” he says.

Often the visitors had no relatives in Cape Town and so they had no place to sleep. They also had very little money. They would get off the train at Cape Town station and sleep in the waiting-rooms at the station. The next day, they would walk five kilometres to the docks to catch the prisons boat to the Island.

If they arrived late and missed the boat, then they missed the visiting time and the whole trip was a waste. This is because prison visits are only at a certain time, in the morning or in the afternoon.

When they came back from the Island, there was still the problem of a place to stay. Sometimes they would sleep in the waiting-rooms. It was very dangerous and anything could happen to these people — but this did not stop them from going to visit their fathers, sons and brothers.

This all changed in 1974, when David joined the WPCC.


One of the first things that David did was to offer his own home to relatives of prisoners on Robben Island. “Every weekend, about four or five people came to sleep at my house,” he says. “It is a small house, with one bedroom, a kitchen and a verandah which I turned into a diningroom.

“I had a car which I used for transporting them to and from the station and the docks. Sometimes I would take them to see the sea. By the way,” David laughs, “you know people from Johannesburg like the sea because they don’t have one in the Transvaal!”

As time went on, there were more and more visitors. David could not fit them all in his house. So he asked two friends, Mr. Stasi and Mr. Mshudulu, if they would help. “They agreed. But some people insisted on staying at my house because they were used to it. As a result, some had to sleep under the table because there was no other space.

“In 1978 the late Mrs. Moira Henderson was the chair-person of the Dependant’s Conference, an organisation that helps the families of political prisoners with subsistence grants. She asked the Anglican Church if they could let us use Cowley House. By this time, the Cowley Fathers had already returned to England. The church gave us the house that same year.”

Even after they left South Africa, the Cowley Fathers continued to give support, and still do. The house is funded by donors and some foreign embassies. Relatives who can afford to give donations also contribute to the running of the house.

Since 1982 political prisoners have also been sent to Pollsmoor, Victor Verster or Helderstroom prison. Some of the relatives of these prisoners also pass through Cowley House.


Gladys Tengani is the housekeeper of Cowley House. Together with the staff of nine people, she looks after more than fifty people at a time.

Gladys welcomes all the visitors with a warm smile and makes sure that everybody gets a good meal, blankets and a peaceful night’s sleep in one of the 12 rooms in the house. There are two big rooms where as many as ten people can sleep. Learn and Teach spoke to Gladys in the big kitchen at the house.

“The opening of Cowley House went a long way towards making visits to the prisons much easier,” says Gladys. “For the first time, families of political prisoners could get together and talk about their struggles and problems.

“In this way they could encourage and support each other. Family members soon realise that they are not alone in their hours of darkness.”

Gladys showed us around the rest of the house. In the evenings, guests gather in the sitting room to watch TV and chat and relax. On sunny days, they meet in the shade of the lovely courtyard. And for those guests who want to pray, there is a chapel next to the main house where religious services are held regularly.

Gladys works closely with the staff of the WPCC. The staff meet visitors at the railway station and the bus-terminus and take them to Cowley House. If visitors are going to Pollsmoor, they are taken to the bus stop and collected on their return. When it is time for the visitors to return home, they are given a lift to the station or the buses.


Gladys remembers all the people who have passed through Cowley House. But there is one event that will forever stay in her mind — the wedding of Irene and ANC leader Wilton Mkwayi in October 1987.

“The wedding ceremony was held at Pollsmoor Prison,” says Gladys. “Afterwards, we held a big party here. Of course, Wilton could not be there — but it was.a great party all the same.” Wilton was released with six other ANC leaders in October 1989 after serving 26 years in prison.

Sadly, Irene did not live long enough to share the joys of married life — she passed away in December 1988.

This was not the only wedding to be celebrated at Cowley House. Adolphina Banda also held her wedding party at the house after she married Zebulon at Pollsmoor prison. Zebulon is on Robben Island where he is serving 12 years for ANC activities. And last year, another party was held to celebrate the marriage of John and Sylvia Thabo. John, who is on Robben Island, is serving a twenty year sentence for ANC activities.

Gladys has met the wives and children of many South African political prisoners. She has words of praise for the courage and dignity of these families. She has also met some of the released prisoners who have stayed at Cowley House on their way home. “Now I am looking forward to meeting all the others,” she says. “And I want them to know that when they come out, there will always be a place for them here.”

The opening of Cowley House did much to help the families of political prisoners. We are sure that it also gives those inside the prison cells much comfort to know that their loved ones are safe and well-cared for in the big, old house.

NEW WORDS docks — the part of the harbour where ships are loaded and unloaded subsistence grants — a small amount of money just enough to live on


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