Mandela Visiting his prison on Robben Island

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Van Rensburg - Mandela's Prison Warden
Nelson Mandela while serving a prison sentence at Robben Island had a prison warden van Rensburg. Mandela gives the following description. p 377 "A vicious martinet. His name was Van Rensburg. His reputation preceded him, for his name was a byword among prisoners for brutality".

"Van Rensburg was a big, clumsy, brutish fellow who did not speak but shouted. During his first day on the we noticed he had a small swastika tattooed on his wrist. But he did not need this offensive symbol to prove his cruelty. His job was to make our lives as wretched as possible and he pursued that goal with great enthusiasm. Each day over the next few months, Van Rensburg would charge one of us for subordination or malingering. ... "Van Rensburg was vindictive in large ways and small. When our lunch arrived at the quarry and we would sit down to eat - we now had a small wooden table - Van Rensburg would inevitably choose that moment to urinate next to the food".

"van Rensburg became the butt of many jokes. Among ourselves we called him ' suitcase'". It was customary that the prisoners would carry the wardens lunch box and then they would receive a sandwich as a reward. But they refused to carry his lunch bag. When Van Rensburg heard them referring to him as 'suitcase', he asked why and on explanation, he responded, "No my nickname is 'dik nek'"

Van Rensburg expressed himself with difficulty in English. Like he would say to the prisoners, "You talk to much, but you work to few".

Warrant Officer van Rensburg is described as "one of the more vicious warders. He was brought to Robben Island from Brandvlei." One day he picked on Mandela and Fikile Bam, he wanted to see them after work in the quarry. He accussed them of "te lui om te werk", to lazy to work. Complaining that the pile of stones that they had broken were to small. They waited and appealed to the higher officer which vindicated them. Higher than Hope, p 266, 267

September 1966 after Verwoerd's assassination, Van Rensburg and he had been flown to the island on twenty-four hours' notice. His reputation preceded him, for his name was a byword among prisoners for brutality.

From that point on, Suitcase seemed to hold a special grudge against me. One day, while he was supervising us at the quarry, I was working next to Fikile Bam. We were off by ourselves, on the far side of the quarry. We worked diligently, but since we were both studying law at the time, we were discussing what we had read the night before. At the end of the day, Van Rensburg stood in front of us and said, "Fikile Bam and Nelson Mandela, I want to see you in front of the head of prison."

We were brought before the lieutenant, who was the head of pris- on, and Van Rensburg announced, "These men did not work the whole day. I'm charging them for defying orders." The lieutenant asked if we had anything to say. "Lieutenant," I responded, "we dispute the charge. We have been working and, in fact, we have evidence that we have been working, and it is essential to our defense." The lieutenant scoffed at this. "All you men work in the same area," he said. "How is it possible to have evidence?" I explained that Fiks and I had been working apart from the others and that we could show exactly how much work we had done. Suitcase naively confirmed that we had been off by ourselves, and the lieutenant agreed to have a look. We drove back to the quarry.

Once there, Fiks and I walked to the area where we had been working. I pointed to the considerable pile of rocks and lime that we had built up and said, "There, that is what we have done today." Suitcase had never even bothered to examine our work and was rattled by the quantity of it. "No," he said to the lieutenant, "that is the result of a week's work." The lieutenant was skeptical. "All right, then," he said to Suitcase, "show me the small pile that Mandela and Bam put together today." Suitcase had no reply, and the lieutenant did something I have rarely seen a superior officer do: he chastised his subordinate in the presence of prisoners. "You are telling lies," he said, and dismissed the charges on the spot.
Helen Suzman came to visit Robben Island early in 1967.

I told her of the harshness of the warders, and mentioned Van Rensburg in particular. I pointed out that he had a swastika tattooed on his forearm. Helen reacted like a lawyer. "Well, Mr. Mandela," she said, "we must not take that too far because we don't know when it was made. Perhaps, for example, his parents had it tattooed on him?" I assured her that was not the case.

Normally, I would not complain about an individual warder. One learns in prison that it is better to fight for general principles than to battle each individual case. However callous a warder may be, he is usually just carrying out prison policy. But Van Rensburg was in a class by himself, and we believed that if he were gone, it would make a disproportionate difference for all of us.

Mrs. Suzman listened attentively, jotting down what I said in a small notebook, and promised to take these matters up with the minister of justice. She then made an inspection of our cells, and talked a bit with some of the other men. It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.

Van Rensburg was exceedingly nervous during Mrs. Suzman's visit. According to Kathy, while Mrs. Suzman and I were talking, Van Rensburg apologized for all his past actions. But his contrition did not last long, for the next day he informed us he was reinstating all the charges against us. We later learned that Mrs. Suzman had taken up our case in Parliament, and within a few weeks of her visit, Suitcase was transferred off the island.

Nelson Mandela & Walter Sisulu
in Prison on Robben Island

N Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (1966)
Fatima Meer, Higher than Hope: The authorized biography of Nelson Mandela


Nelson Mandela also had some other contact with van Rensburg's

Van Rensburg - Mandela's Afrikaans lecturer
Afrikaans-speaking people countrywide, who could perhaps have been worried about possible marginalisation in the new political dispensation, were flattered and astounded. It also ensured the poem would live on in memory.

It wasn't just a rabbit that Mandela pulled out of a hat when he quoted the poem, Die Kind. His love and respect for Afrikaans is something he has cherished for a long time.

"I remember well how B A J van Rensburg, lecturer in Afrikaans methodology at Free State University's education faculty, said Madiba had been one of her students when she lectured at Unisa.

"And was he a good student?," I asked.

The good woman gave an embarrassed smile and said: "He didn't always perform so well, but he always tried his best."

Van Rensburg - Commander of band for Mandela's 85th Birthday
Nelson Mandela awoke on his 85th birthday on Friday to a military band playing a specially composed march to mark the big event for the beloved former president and world's most famous ex-political prisoner.

The 35-member band comprised of brass instruments and Scottish bagpipes played the tune shortly after Mandela, smiling broadly, emerged from his Johannesburg home alongside his wife Grace Machel.

"This is the first time the 'Mandela March' is being played," lieutenant-general Rinus van Rensburg, the band's commander said.

"It is dedicated to the former president for what he has meant to us. He is the father of the nation," he told AFP.

Genl-maj Johannes Frederik van Rensburg - Top Secret Report on release of Mandela
He was the head of strategies in the secretariat of the State Security Council- In March 1986 he presented the Top Secret Report on "The Possible Release of Mandela".
The committee, comprised of the directors-general of the departments of Justice, Foreign Affairs, National Intelligence and the Commissioners of the SA Police and the Correctional Services as well as the Secretary of the State Security Council, investigated the matter. The committee’s report on the matter follows:

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