Cecyl Esau was born on 30 September 1955 in Worcester, Cape Province (now Western Cape Province), the youngest of four children.

His father was a veteran of the Second World War and that experience had a profound influence on Esau's life. Esau's father's interest in politics was sparked by what he had observed in various African countries. He was the first person who had kindled an interest in politics in Esau. His father would buy English language newspapers regularly and read to his children. They would also have regular discussions about current affairs and subsequently, Esau became an avid listener to current affairs on the radio whilst still at primary school. When he was in Standard Five (now grade seven) he started to listen to broadcasts on shortwave radio and this became one of his hobbies.

During the first elections for the Coloured Representative Council (CRC) in 1969, Esau's father canvassed for the Labour Party candidate on the platform, ‘A vote for Labour is a vote against Apartheid’. When pamphleteering his father would take him along. At that time Esau did not grasp everything but found the activities, like going to political meetings, very stimulating. It was only about three years later when he and some friends started a discussion group at high school, which concentrated mainly on political affairs, that he developed a keener interest in politics. At about the same time Esau joined the Labour Youth Organisation. The following year, 1973, Esau was elected the branch secretary of the Labour Youth Organisation. One of the activities during that year, which broadened Esau's political outlook, was his involvement with students from the UWC (University of the Western Cape) who had staged a walk-off from campus. Esau assisted them in collecting signatures and attended numerous mass meetings in Worcester and the surrounding towns to demand their unconditional reinstatement. The response they received from the people and their perceptions of the political situation in the country made a lasting impression on Esau. It was clear to Esau that the vast majority of the people were vehemently opposed to the apartheid system, but had yet to realise how to fight that system.

During Esau's final year at school, 1974, he met John Marinus Ferus, commonly called Hennie. [1] At that time Ferus was still a banned person. During the sixties, Ferus was an active member of the Congress Movement and served a couple of years on Robben Island for offences against the state. Ferus commanded widespread support in Worcester and surrounding areas for his uncompromising stand against apartheid which caused untold suffering. Also, Ferus kept the flame of the Congress Movement alive.

One important truism Ferus taught Esau was that there are many things one wants to do but cannot do, and one often fails to do the things which one can. In short, what this meant to Esau was however lofty and inspiring dreams may be one should at all times be pragmatic in tackling the problems of the day. Furthermore, Ferus' shining example as a people’s leader who was always at the forefront in confronting injustice despite continued police harassment, made a lasting impression on Esau. Ferus also awakened Esau's interest in the political history of Worcester and surrounding towns.

In 1974 Esau matriculated at Esselen Park High School in Worcester and obtained a university exemption. The following year Esau registered as a B.A. (Law) student at the University of the Western Cape. He participated wholeheartedly in various student organisations and was eventually elected the General Secretary of the Student Representative Council (SRC) in 1977. [2] Despite expulsion in 1977 (for a year) and lengthy spells in detention that scuppered his LLB studies, Cecyl recruited many students to the ANC until he was imprisoned in 1986.

During the national student uprising in 1976, Esau became aware that the students from the oppressed community, being more critical, had an important role to play in making other layers of our society more aware of the injustices in the land and the need to transform society into one free from apartheid and exploitation. It was also during the momentous events of 1976 that Esau was detained for the first time. He was held for four-and-a-half months in preventative detention. [3] During this time he reflected a lot on the nature of South African society and the injustice of detention without trial. As a law student at the time, Esau was profoundly disturbed by the fact that a person’s freedom could be curtailed without even having committed a crime.

In 1980 Esau again spent five-and-a-half months in preventative detention. [4] The insensitivity of the state was forcefully demonstrated when the mother of a fellow detainee died but was denied the opportunity to pay his last respects to her.

However, the most brutal, cruel fact which stuck in Esau's mind was in relation to 1976 and 1980 was the brutal killing of unarmed, defenceless children, women and students. It dawned upon Esau that the South African state was based on violence and was being maintained by it. Towards the end of 1985, Esau was detained at Victor Verster Prison for about thirty days in terms of the Emergency Regulations. On one occasion he exchanged some harsh words with a warder for which he was subsequently charged with crimen injuria and common assault.

Esau spent a lot of time during the years reading and studying about liberation struggles, particularly in Vietnam, Southern Africa and Latin America. What fascinated him about the people of those countries was their determination to be free from exploitation and oppression and their ultimate triumph over a seemingly invincible enemy. Another fact about those countries was the brutal repression by the regimes and their unwillingness to negotiate with the representative of the people. It was abundantly clear to Esau that no ruling class will ever willingly relinquish power. But perhaps, this was most eloquently stated by Ian Smith, the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia when he said ‘majority rule, not in a thousand years, over my dead body’. Ironically he was to witness the birth of Zimbabwe and participated until recently in Parliament together with his enemies.

During 1981 Esau decided to work for a community work agency called The Churches’ Urban Planning Commission (CUPC). [5] He began working more systematically in organising people into civic associations and youth groups in Worcester. It was clear to Esau after the traumatic experiences of 1976 and 1980 that the oppressed people needed to be organised and mobilised around bread and butter issues and to address the national political situation as a united people.

In 1983 Esau became a founder member of the Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO) whose aim was to harness the tremendous resourcefulness and courage of youth to conduct struggle at all levels.

The launch of the United Democratic Front on 20 August 1983 in opposition to the tri-cameral system, community councils and forced removals raised Esau's expectations about fundamental changes in our society. In short, his rejection of the tri-cameral system was based on the following:

1. It was undemocratic in that the vast majority of our population in S.A. was excluded and coupled with that, it perpetuated the policy of divide and rule.

2. The constitution of the tri-cameral parliament made it clear that the ultimate legislative power was still in the hands of the National Party despite the trappings of ‘power-sharing’.

3. Ostensibly it set out to do away with apartheid but the constitution is shackled to race.

During 1983-4 Esau worked as a rural organiser for the UDF in the greater part of the Cape Province. His main tasks were to initiate contact in various towns for the UDF, to establish organising committees, and to set up regional structures. The support from the UDF in the rural areas was tremendous. The people grasped the difference between the former anti-apartheid stand of the Labour Party, which became a junior partner to PW Botha in the tri-cameral parliament, and the united, non-racial and democratic South Africa for which the UDF was struggling. The vast majority of the people did in no unmistakable terms declare their utter rejection of the apartheid state on 20 August 1984, Election Day. Unfortunately, Esau could not witness the defiant stand the people took in the face of large-scale intimidation by the state and the clamour from those who urged them to submit to white supremacy, because he and a friend were arrested two days before polling day in Esau's hometown of Worcester on a spurious charge of putting up posters without the necessary authority. [6] Esau and his friend were eventually found not guilty. The intransigence of the government to heed the democratic voice of the people plunged Esau into the depths of despair. Esau eventually resigned as a rural organiser of the UDF and experienced immense political frustration.

Esau discovered that quite a number of his colleagues in the Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO) were going through the same frustrations. Initially, they would raise the issue when they bumped into one another. Later, however, they decided to formalise the process and rigorously evaluated what was to be done about the seemingly granite wall of apartheid and exploitation. For example, they read extensively about the struggles of their people since the day the white settlers arrived at the southernmost point of Africa. [7] They also complimented this with theoretical matters like the nature of their society and struggle, and intense debates about strategies to apply in order to bring about fundamental changes in their country.

Esau, like many of his colleagues in the discussion group, was faced with a dilemma: it was clear that legal, peaceful resistance to apartheid had come to a dead end. On the other hand, the ruling class could only maintain the status quo because it had the monopoly of firepower.

His group was further encouraged by the words of one of the most celebrated of South African poets, N.P. van Wyk Louw, in his Lojale Verset (states): ‘Dis nie ʼn skande as ʼn rebellie misluk nie, maar dis ʼn skande as een geslag sonder rebellie verbygaan’. [8]

Esau, together with his colleagues in their discussion group, decided to answer the call of the African National Congress (ANC), ‘Every patriot a combatant, every combatant a patriot’. Esau's decision then, to assist the ANC, was grounded in a profound sense of patriotism and the profound desire to get rid of the apartheid system and exploitation.

Esau’s activism saw him travel the province and organising demonstrations during the 1970s and 1980s. He joined the ranks of the United Democratic Front, the African National Congress and worked alongside fellow Worcester born anti-apartheid activist Johnny Issel, who he considers his mentor.

Esau's activism would come to a halt when he was arrested in 1986 for his political activities. He was sentenced to 12 years and sent to Robben Island. During his imprisonment, his father passed away. He was denied a chance to attend his father’s funeral. His father’s death began to take its toll on him when he received photographs of the funeral. He realised that he would never share any experiences with his father again.

In 1987, at the UWC, the old male and female hostels built in the 1960s and 1970s were renamed Cassinga and Cecil Esau.

During a visit to Drakenstein Correctional Centre, then called Victor Verster Prison in 1989 he had the honour of meeting Nelson Mandela.

Esau was released from prison in 1991. After his release, he took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He still considers himself an activist but in a different way. His activism today goes hand in hand with his work and research for the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

On 17 March 2021,Esau died of natural causes at his home in Table View, Cape Town. He survived by five children, a sister June Esau, granddaughter and two brothers Alexander and Jacob Esau. 

Today he works on democracy and human rights projects at a non-governmental organisation, one of which is the annual Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture at UWC.

Side Notes

In the court records his name is spelt Cecil instead of how it appears on his birth certificate as Cecyl. He had used the former spelling until Grade Seven and only changed it when he obtained his birth certificate on which his name was spelt Cecyl. He has used this ever since.

Esau delivered a statement from the dock after being convicted in terms of section 54(1) of the Internal Security Act of 1982. He was accused number 11 in S v L.B. Ngqungwana and 14 others. The accused were Lizo Bright Ngqungwana, Theophilus Mute Mzukwa, Joseph Ngoma, Sazi Veldtman, Douglas Myamya, Joseph Susele Mkhulwa, Anderson Zingisile Ncivata, Nozulu Mabengeza, Quentin Michels, Reed Izwelethu Macozoma, Norman Siseko Macanda, Cyril Ntabeni, Themba Tshibika and Neville van der Rheede.


[1] This date is incorrect. The meeting took place in 1972 and Diane Ferus, a cousin of Hennie, arranged the meeting with about ten members of their political discussion group. They included Roger Schroeder, Martin Arries, Clarence Johnson and Kroneberg.

[2] In 1975 Esau joined Litsoc (Literary Society) led by Andries Walter Oliphant, the Association of Christian Students (ACS) and the Law Students’ Society. In 1980 Esau was elected Vice-Chairperson of the Historic (History Society) under the leadership of Isaac Metembo.

[3] Some of Esau's fellow detainees were Johnny Issel, Professor Ismail Mohamed, James Matthews, Peter Jones, Julius Landingwe, Alpheus Ndude, Mike Mulligan, Leonardo Appies (SRC President 1976), Pieter Gelderbloem (SRC Treasurer), Tony da Silva (SRC General Secretary), Allan Liebenberg (South African Students’Organisations, SASO) Ismail Moss (SASO), Henry Abrahams (SASO), Henry Ferreira (SASO), Ruben Hare (SASO), Trevor Mopp (SASO), Duncan Roy Whittaker (SASO), Jonas Bosch, Ruben Hudson, Dr Louis van der Poel, and Fred Hufkie Vice-Chairperson of the Eastern Cape Rugby Union and Principal of Spandau High School, Graaff-Reinet.

[4] Some of Esau's fellow detainees were Isaac Metembo Histosoc Chairperson and Ebrahim Patel Histosoc executive member and leading member of the Committee of 81. Other members of the Committee of 81 were Zunaid Dharsey, Patrick Rickettes, Riedewaan Adams and Ridewaan Craayenstein. 

[5] The Churches’ Urban Planning Commission (CUPC) was based in Hanover Park on the Cape Flats. At the time it was led by Des Adendorff. Other staff members were Ann Tomlinson (Ntebe), Nabs Wessels, Johnny Issel, Alan Roberts, Bertha Kerchoff and Nomathemba Mfeketo.

[6] Esau was arrested with Peter Orian.

[7] There is no Middle Road by Joe Slovo, Time Longer than Rope by Eddie Roux, the occasional Sechaba – a journal of the then banned African National Congress, etc.

[8] It is not a shame if a rebellion fails, however, it is a shame if a generation passes without rebelling.


ESAU, Cecyl. Memories of a political prisoner on Robben Island, 1987-1991. Kronos [online]. 2008, vol.34, n.1 [cited 2020-11-04], pp.41-65. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-019020… [Accessed 04 November 2020]

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