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Island music

Political prisoners on Robben Island try hard to make their long and difficult stay in prison easier. They discuss the struggle, study and play games. Some are great music lovers and have even formed music groups. Sipho Madondo was a member of three such groups…

Earlier this year, on 10 March, a tall and handsome young ANC comrade walked through the gates of Robben Island prison — “hopefully for the last time, never to return to this place”. In one hand was a small bundle of his belongings. In the other hand was a shiny silver saxophone.

For the first time in more than twelve years this MK soldier, Sipho Aaron Madondo, was a free man. He had been in prison since 1978.

When Sipho went into jail, he was already a guitar lover. By the time he came out, Sipho had found another love — the saxophone. “Meet my good friend,” he says to us, giving his sax a wet kiss. “This beauty kept me going through many of those long years.”

We are at Sipho’s home in Mofolo, Soweto. “Give us a song, com!” we ask. Sipho picks up his sax and blows. Out comes the music of one of the most beautiful jazz songs ever — “Summertime”. We sit back and relax, listening to the cool sounds.

When it’s over, someone jokes: “Wasn’t it William Shakespeare who said “If music be the food of love, play on’? So, come on Sipho. Give us another one!”


Sipho Madondo was born 32 years ago in Soweto. As a young boy, he already had a deep love for music. He listened to it all the time, and soon got his first musical “instrument” — a guitar made from a five-litre paraffin can! When he was 16, Sipho took his paraffin can and looked for a group to join. He found a band in White City called “The Things” — and played a real guitar for the first time.

“The Things” used to play at ‘gigs’ and parties in Mofolo and White City. “Once we were even invited to play for a lot of people outside Soweto in a township near Vanderbijl Park in the Vaal. For a shy youngster like me, that was very exciting! I loved every minute of it.”

Sipho’s parents were not so happy though. They worried that their son was giving too much time to music and not enough to school work. “My father even threatened me that if I did not stop playing, I would have to leave home and support myself. But I could not stop. I loved music too much.”


Then came June 1976 and Sipho’s life changed. “In 1976 I was still playing with “The Things” and I was in standard eight at Hlengiwe Junior Secondary School in Soweto. Just before and after June 16, I helped to organise the protests against Afrikaans in our schools. I was elected to represent my school on the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC). This left me little time to practise music.

“I also decided at that time to join the ANC and become a freedom fighter in MK. Many youths I knew had the same idea. But we did not know where to go or who to contact. In the end, we decided to go to Botswana.

“On 11 October six of us left Johannesburg by train. We travelled to Mafikeng where we crossed a high border fence into Botswana. We handed ourselves over to the Botswana police in Gaborone and told them that we wanted to join the ANC. Within minutes the ANC people had arrived. We told them that we wanted to become freedom fighters.

“We were taken to Francistown and then by aeroplane to Zambia. We stayed in Lusaka for a few days and then went to Tanzania. Finally, in November, we were sent to Angola to be trained in politics, sabotage and the use of weapons.

“Later, I was one of about 30 comrades who were sent to Teterow, East Germany, for more training. We stayed there for six months. When we came back I was dying to return home to fight,” says Sipho.

In all those years, Sipho did not get a chance to play music. There were no instruments. “You must remember that this was a military camp and we led the life of soldiers at war,” he tells us.


Sipho came back to South Africa in 1977 together with comrade Toto Skhosana from Alexandra. Their mission was to train other ANC members how to use guns and explosives in Pongola, Northern Natal.

Then, a terrible thing happened. “One day we were sitting in a grass hut when the police suddenly arrived. I was standing near the door. They ordered me to come out. I quickly ran for my Scorpion machine gun and rushed out shooting at them at the same time. I ran out of bullets while we were fighting and I gave myself up.

“In the meantime Toto was fighting from inside the hut. The police set the house on fire and called on him to come out. Toto refused. Instead, he took his own life. That was a very sad day for me,” continues Sipho, with sorrow in his eyes.

Sipho was arrested and in February 1978, he was charged with leaving the country illegally, undergoing military training with the aim of overthrowing the government, and for furthering the aims of the ANC.

He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment — six of which ran at the same time with the other twelve. He left for Robben Island in June.


“When I arrived on the Island, soccer was the main form of entertainment. But at night we used to listen to music from speakers in the cells. We had a nice collection of records which the prisoners bought. We even had some of the latest songs!

“Some people were interested in playing music, as well. Among them were comrades Thembinkosi Sithole from Kwa-Mashu, and Bafana Sithole from Soweto. These comrades encouraged me to play music again,” Sipho tells us.

Those prisoners who had a bit of money, or who had sponsors, bought themselves musical instruments like guitars, saxophones and flutes. In their free time they played all kinds of music: jazz, classical, reggae, ballads, pop music and love songs. There was also a lot of music with political messages and there were many songs dedicated to the heroes of the struggle.

“From time to time some of these comrades came together and played a song or two. I enjoyed listening to them and my memories went back to the days when I played for “The Things”.

“I started going to their practice sessions — and it was not long before I was strumming on a borrowed guitar. So once again I was playing music.”


Over time, the musicians on the Island began to meet more often to practise. Other comrades would come to listen. They liked what they heard and they encouraged the players.

At last, it was time for a live show. Sipho’s first performance was in December 1978 during the “Summer Games”, a big sports event held at the end of each year. The other comrades enjoyed the music so much that they asked all the groups to play again at the New Year party.

At the time, none of the groups had names. That was soon to change. The bands found names that suited the kind of music they played. For example, there was the “Jazz Forum”, “Nomadic Jazz”, “Roots”, “Collective Sounds”, “Reggae Group” and “King Force”. Each group played a different kind of music.

Sipho joined three groups — “Roots”, a group that played African music, and “Collective Sounds”, which played jazz and mbaqanga. He also joined a band called the “Kitchen Ensemble”, so- called because all its members worked in the prison kitchen! At the time, Sipho was working as a cook. “But my music was a lot better than my cooking!” he tells us.

At first, Sipho played bass guitar in the groups. Then in 1985 he bought a soprano saxophone — the same one he played for us at his home.


It was not long before music became one of the main activities on the Island.

The musicians began to think that a music association should be formed. Up till 1988, music was not part of the General Recreation Committee — a committee that looked after entertainment on the Island.

As soon as the Robben Island Music Association was formed, it looked for ways of developing music on the Island. “We needed more instruments,” says Sipho, “so one of our first jobs was to contact people and organisations outside prison and ask them to buy us these instruments.

“Kagiso Trust was very helpful. They bought us three guitars, two amplifiers and speakers, a set of electric drums and four sets of conga drums.”

The Association was also worried about prisoners who were released from the Island. “Some of them stopped playing after they were released because they could not find groups to perform with once they were out of prison. Group members sometimes live far from each other and have problems organising practice sessions. We felt that we needed to encourage each other to continue playing inside and outside prison.”


There was a knock at the door and Sipho went to answer. It was Ronnie Mabena, another musician from Robben Island. Ronnie was sent to the Island for ANC activities in 1985 and was released this year.

In prison, Ronnie played drums and was also the lead vocalist of the “Kitchen Ensemble”. He was also a member of “Roots” and “Collective Sounds”. At the moment, Ronnie is one of the people who is trying to build the Robben Island Music Association outside prison.

Ronnie told us that the Association has links with the Cultural Desk of the Mass Democratic Movement, the Joint Enrichment Project, and other cultural groupings. They also work with the ANC Department of Arts and Culture.

In May, members of the Association attended a conference of cultural workers. They talked about forming a cultural organisation with many different groupings.

“Our aim is to establish the Robben Island Music Association as a cultural organisation. We want to play at cultural events, political rallies, festivals, concerts, and so on. We also hope that in the coming months, when the exiles return, we will play for them at welcome rallies”, Ronnie concluded.

As we left Mofolo for our offices in Johannesburg we asked Sipho and Ronnie to let us know when they and their comrades play at a rally. We sure don’t want to miss it!

Let the Robben Island musicians play on… and on!

NEW WORDS sponsor — a person or organisation that pays for you to do something, for example, to study ballads — love songs that tell a story


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