Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid

In This Review

Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid

By Fran Lisa Buntman
Cambridge University Press, 2004
352 pp. $65.00
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Lying 18 miles off of Cape Town, Robben Island Prison was South Africa's gulag from the early 1960s until the fall of apartheid. Buntman's fascinating and highly original study investigates Robben Island's multidimensional politics over three decades, focusing mainly on the prisoner community but also examining how government attitudes and policies toward political prisoners evolved. Although rifts based on age, ethnicity, ideology, and organizational affiliation caused periodic tensions among prisoners, Buntman shows how a common spirit of resistance helped them develop habits of mutual tolerance and construct autonomous social and political structures outside the authority of their warders. Assimilation of new inmates and the release of old ones helped to spread organizational tactics and knowledge back into the wider political struggle; experience acquired through interactions with prison authorities prepared a cadre of leaders with the patience and bargaining skills necessary to negotiate an eventual settlement with the regime. Two final chapters locate South African prisoner politics within the wider fields of resistance theory and prison politics under other repressive regimes.