By Peter Alegi | February 7th, 2011 2 Comments
When Chris De Broglio told me the sad news of Isiah Stein’s passing I knew very little about this brave Capetonian activist. All I could remember was that he was an exiled South African, a former executive committee member of SANROC, the heart and soul of the anti-apartheid sport boycott, and that his sons had played professional football in Britain.
Then Omar Badsha, an ex-activist and founder of South African History Online, wrote a strange comment to my post. He asserted that Stein was white and could not have been incarcerated on Robben Island, a prison reserved for black political activists.
Based on the skin color of the Stein footballers, I had assumed their father was black (in the Black Consciousness sense of the word). In his comment to my post, Howard Holmes, director of the Sheffield-based Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), seemed bewildered by the confusion about Stein’s racial identity. After further research, I confirmed that the Cape Town-born Stein was classified “Coloured” (mixed race) under apartheid’s racial classification system. In other words, he was definitely not white.
But had he done time in the infamous apartheid prison with Nelson Mandela in the mid-1960s? This online list of Robben Island prisoners does not have Stein’s name. I consulted memoirs of prisoners and other published sources to no avail. I turned to colleagues intimately familiar with the Robben Island/Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape, but came up empty.
To resolve the matter, I sought the help of a former political prisoner who survived twelve years on the island. He sent a swift, courteous, and unambiguous reply: “Isiah was definitely not on Robben Island during the period [between] 1964 and 1975.”
I am struck by how a simple “hamba kahle” (Go Well, Rest in Peace) post in honor of a sport and human rights activist took on a life of its own. Blogging, memory, and the craft of history combined together to shed some new light on a not-so-ordinary South African and, at the same time, revealed how the history of the liberation struggle in South Africa is far from complete and seldom free of controversy and contestation.