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Documentary to Show Life of Robben Island Prison Singers - 2002-01-30

Robben Island in South Africa was the site of a notorious prison for political dissidents during the country's apartheid era. Now three former Robben Island prisoners and their songs will be the subject of a documentary produced by a Chicago-based filmmaker. The Robben Island Singers have traveled to Chicago to promote the project and celebrate Black History Month.

The Robben Island Singers are three men in their 40's who have known each other since they were youngsters living near Durban, South Africa. Muntu Nxumalo, Thembinkosi Sithole and Grant Shezi joined the military arm of the then-banned African National Congress in the 1970's, and were soon imprisoned by the country's white government.

Mr. Nxumalo says many of the prisoners passed their time on Robben Island by singing. "Songs are mixed. We used to sing them in prison. Some of the songs we composed ourselves. Some of the songs are from our childhood. They tell the story of our struggle: from non-violence to violence up to the transformation," he says.

Another of the singers, Thembinkosi Sithole, remembers his jailers as hateful people opposed to the ANC members' struggle. Torture at the prison was both physical and mental.

"They killed some of us, they imprisoned some of us, they poisoned some of us. One never knows the reason your enemy lets you live or why it decides you are the one who is supposed to die," he says.

Last year, Chicago filmmaker Jeff Spitz was in South Africa to present a documentary he had made about Native Americans to an international public television conference. At the urging of South African broadcasting officials, he visited the Robben Island museum, met several former political prisoners who now work there, and purchased a Robben Island Singers' CD. He says he wants to use the three singers' to help keep alive what he calls the spirit of their struggle.

"And that struggle is in the blood. It continues to motivate people to try to make a better country for themselves. It should motivate Americans to reflect on our own commitments, our own freedoms, our own desire to have a better society," he says.

Mr. Spitz has brought the singers to the United States, where they will perform and tell their stories at museums, schools, and other places. Thembinkosi Sithole sees himself and his colleagues as spokesmen for the new South Africa and, he hopes, a source of encouragement to people imprisoned elsewhere.

"Ordinary, everyday people like ourselves, struggled and risked their lives to make sure we are free. If we could do it, any oppressed people can do it. The miracle that we were able to negotiate with a powerful enemy and resolve our problems means any people in conflict situations are capable of doing it, too," he says.

The Robben Island Singers' first Chicago stop was at a community center in the city's Bronzeville neighborhood. For decades, it was the center of commerce, entertainment and activism for blacks in Chicago. Civil rights activist and retired college professor Timuel Black remembers helping to organize fundraising events in Chicago for the African National Congress during the 1950's. He says while the leaders of civil rights struggles get most of the attention, the Robben Island Singers are an example of the role played by countless ordinary people in making a difference.

"We give credit, of course, to the Martin Luther Kings and the Nelson Mandellas because they articulate the feelings and the spirit of ordinary people who want an extraordinary change," he says.

The men say this song from their prison years is a call for war, a call to unite for the future of the country and to fight those who try to repress the freedom movement.

Mr. Sithole says he works for a South African investment company today, but tells his children that South Africa's struggle is not finished.

"I tell them that the struggle they need to fight now is an economic struggle. Go to school, learn, and take care of our country because we did not learn much [in school] because we had to make sure that we reached this stage," he says.

The Durban Island Singers' visit to the United States will be filmed for inclusion in the documentary about the men. Jeff Spitz says he hopes the film will be finished in about a year.