Teacher, Robben Island prisoner, chair of the education committee on Robben Island, banned person, Specialist Scientist in Medical Informatics and Statistics, Head of Department of Medical Informatics, Honorary Fellow of the International Medical
Sedick Isaacs was born in 1939 and grew up in the Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape). He was the second eldest in a family of four children. His father, a businessperson in the fishing industry, died when he was six years old. His mother then took over the running of his father’s business, which ultimately went bankrupt. His mother then supplemented the family income by undertaking embroidery work.
From an early age, Isaacs was fascinated with science and was engaged in performing science experiments at home. He would spend hours in libraries learning about explosives, radio transmitters, broadcasting and other similar subjects.
A primary school teacher initially made Isaacs and his classmates aware of oppression. This continued up to high school. At the age of 13, he was involved in distributing political pamphlets and attending meetings of the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA) and the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM). After completing his education, Isaacs worked as teacher at Trafalgar High School in Cape Town. It was while teaching at the school that he met Achmad Cassiem. Isaacs with his knowledge of explosives tried to train some of his friends in the use of this. This attracted the attention of the security police who monitored their activities. Consequently, Isaacs, his friends Achmad Cassiem, Marnie Abrahams were arrested in 1964 following the testing of explosives at Strandfontein Beach, Cape Town. They were taken to Caledon Police Station. The Security Police, among them the notorious Spyker van Wyk, severely tortured and assaulted him and subjected him to sleep deprivation.
Following his appearance in the Supreme Court in Cape Town, he was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to 12 years on Robben Island. Upon arrival on the Island, he was placed in Category D (a prison ranking with very little privileges) and was Prisoner number 883/64.
In his book, Surviving in the Apartheid Prison, Isaacs describes in detail the inhuman and barbaric treatment political prisoners had to endure at the hands the prison authorities and warders on the Island, as well as the time he spent in the punishment cells for what the prison authorities considered infractions of prison rules. Isaacs was also punished by being held in solitary confinement. The almost inedible food and meagre portions contributed to the physical torture of the political prisoners.
For the first seven years, Isaacs was in Cell C1 (apart from the time when he was incarcerated in the punishment cells for “bad behaviour”). Cell C1 was a study cell where the prison lights were a little brighter than the rest of the prison. When possible, he would tutor his fellow prisoners in Mathematics. In his first month, Isaacs received a most welcome letter from his mother but his next letter came more than a year later as he had lost privileges for his “contribution” to the first hunger strike on Robben Island.
In 1965, Isaacs and the other prisoners embarked on a hunger strike, the first on the Island. The hunger strike was aimed at forcing the prison authorities to improve conditions under which political prisoners lived. Accused of having written up the reasons and trying to smuggle out the reasons for their actions to the newspapers on the mainland, for their hunger strike, Isaacs was placed in a punishment cell. This was his first of many experiences being held in the punishment cell. Although, according to the prison regulations the maximum sentence for solitary confinement was 21 days, another 11 months passed before he was released from solitary confinement.
To while away the tedium of solitary confinement, he engaged in mental mathematical problem solving and later “playing” chess with Achmad Cassiem who was also held in a cell next to him in the punishment section. However, the guards caught them and as punishment their food privileges were stopped and their supply of toilet paper withdrawn.
In the ensuing ‘trial’ held on the Island, where the he was officially ‘charged’ for writing unauthorised letters (related to the hunger strike), the prison authorities found Isaacs guilty and sentenced him to be flogged. Furthermore, his study privileges were also withdrawn.
After his release from solitary confinement, Isaacs resumed his duties as chair of the Education Committee in prison and later the chair of the First Aid Unit. He taught mathematics and physical science to his fellow inmates. Isaacs completed a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics while on the Island. When heattempted to enrol for postgraduate studies (a MSc degree), this was blocked. He was compelled to enrol for another undergraduate degree in Information Science, Mathematical Statistics and Computer Science. Upon his release, he became a Specialist Scientist in Medical Informatics and Statistics and then the Head of Department of Medical Informatics at Groote Schuur Hospital on Cape Town.
Isaacs made five attempts to escape from the Island, albeit all unsuccessful. With the assistance of Japhta Masemola, Anthony Suze, Benny Ntoele and Lizo Sitoto, he decided, with the others to manufacture a master key to be used in an escape attempt. However, the ‘escape’ was not attempted as Isaacs was found with a radio that was smuggled, in his cell. His stay was extended by nine months after he was found guilty by a magistrate who was brought in from the mainland.
Isaacs was released from Robben Island towards the end of September 1977. His family was not informed of his release. Upon his release, he was banned for seven years. He was even refused permission by the then Minister of Justice to attend the University of Cape Town (UCT) for postgraduate studies. Nevertheless, he managed to register at the UCT and was forced to meet with his lecturers, clandestinely, in the Cape Town Botanical Gardens. Due to his banning orders, it was extremely difficult to obtain employment even when vacancies were open to him.
Isaacs married Maraldea, a nursing sister in 1979. For this he had to apply to the then Minister of Justice to include his wife in the list of people he could associate with as a banned person. At one stage, he was forced to sell eggs and worked as a handyman to eke out a living.
After his banning orders expired in 1986, Isaacs was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the International Medical Informatics Association for outstanding contribution to Medical and Health Informatics. He also obtained a visa to undertake a sabbatical in Germany in 1990 where he was able to complete his PhD. He was then elected Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and a Chartered Member of the British Computer Society.
In 2010, Isaacs was elected Honorary Fellow of the International Medical Informatics Association and in 2011, he was nominated as a Companion of Demontford University in the United Kingdom. Again, in 2010 Isaacs was nominated as a Sports Icon by the Department of Arts, Culture and Recreation for his contribution to Sport on Robben Island.
Dr Sedick Isaacs passed away on 18 October 2012 in Cape Town.
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