Cablegate Chronicles: The ANC's Graduate School

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How South Africa's leaders trained themselves for leadership at Robben Island.

FROM: PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA
TO: STATE DEPARTMENT
DATE: MAY 8, 2009
CLASSIFICATION: UNCLASSIFIED
SEE FULL CABLE

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Life in the Struggle
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¶10. (SBU) As an underground member of the banned ANC and the SACP, young Jacob Zuma was urged to go into exile, gain military training, and join the fight against apartheid. In June 1963, the 21 year old Zuma was arrested with 45 other young comrades in Zeerust, in the Transvaal (now North West Province), as they were walking to Botswana into self-imposed exile. He was detained for ninety days, then tried and sentenced to ten years in prison for "conspiracy to overthrow the government." Zuma spent the next ten years incarcerated with many other political prisoners, including the senior ANC leadership in prison such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, among other political prisoners at the infamous Robben Island. While in Robben Island, in what had become the ANC's graduate school, they discussed the U.S. civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the African independence movement, and the global ideological contest of the Cold War.

¶11. (SBU) Zuma rarely discusses this period of his life in public, nor did his biography speak frankly about that experience, his relationships, and what he learned. He does say that many important people there engaged in serious political debates and disagreements, but he failed to say who they were or what they argued about. The only insight he provided says he held many responsible positions within ANC structures at Robben Island, he was a mentor for students, and at the end was Chairman of the Political Committee. In the culture of the revolutionary anti-apartheid movements, his presence at Robben Island during Mandela's first decade there is the best possible "struggle credential" he could possibly have acquired to rise in the movement. Released from prison at the age of 32 in 1974, Zuma immediately re-engaged the struggle with the ANC Natal underground.


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