Usually, when one brings up Robben Island you think of the Rivonia trial and quickly forget the many heroes remembering only one, Nelson Mandela.
However, there are a number of South African heroes, dead and alive, who served the nation well by risking their own lives for the freedom of black people during apartheid.
Gaby Thono Magomola, an astute businessman born in a mining town on the West Rand, is one of those greats.
In light of the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations, we are shining the light on struggle heroes you do not hear of daily.
Growing up Gaby was academically inclined, but as a young man growing up in apartheid he dropped out of school and joined the anti-apartheid struggle.
His political awakening landed him on Robben Island in December 1963.
“My father, who thought I was an innocent school-going boy, was shocked out of his wits when he heard the evidence brought against us in the Magistrate’s Court and Regional Court in Johannesburg.
“He stood up and repeatedly said ‘Not Thono, my son’,” said Gaby.
Gaby was sentenced to Robben Island where he would serve his six-year sentence.
“The following year, the Rivonia trial group joined us.
“I was prisoner 837-63 and among 17 prisoners suffering from tuberculosis.
“We were kept in the old leprosy hospital away from the other prisoners.
“I think it was within the wisdom of the prison officials to not let them (the Rivonia trial group) mix with the other prisoners in the other section.
“Perhaps they thought they would cause riots,” Gaby joked.
“I remember teaching Nelson and Ahmed Kathrada how to use the wheelbarrow,” he added.
Soon the Rivonia trial group was moved to a different section.
Gaby would have no contact with Madiba until they were both released.
During his time in prison Gaby occasionally played the trumpet which many enjoyed.
He bid farewell to the deceased by playing sombre tunes and happy ones when people were released.
His passion for music and politics was no match for his talent for finance, and realising this Gaby traded in his political career for that of finance.
In prison, Gaby completed his matric and bachelor of commerce degree through the University of South Africa (Unisa).
“I remember being called into the warden’s office to explain how I had obtained three distinctions while his colleagues who were studying the same course had not attained as much success as I had,” said Gaby.
After his release, Gaby was banished to Polokwane for two years.
Gaby who now owns Summer Place Boutique Hotel in Germiston is no stranger to the city.
After his banishment was lifted, he worked at a petrol station in Germiston as a clerk while renting a room in Katlehong and kept a clean record.
And it’s here in this city where he courted his wife, Nana Magomola, whom he’s been with for 47 years.
“In 1976, I won a Fulbright scholarship to study towards a master’s degree in business administration at Ball State University in Indiana,” said Gaby.
Gaby and his family moved to the USA and returned to South Africa in 1982.
By this time Gaby was a respected banker, who fought for economic empowerment and affirmative action in SA.
“I remember Tokyo Sexwale telling me that they would ask themselves if I was the little boy they had all met on Robben Island.
“A few days after Nelson was released, my wife and I were one of the first people to see him.
“He invited us to the Carlton Hotel and we reminisced about our time on Robben Island.
“Over time we became close and I always told him I aspired to become a businessman and he respected that.
“He made my wife a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital.
“We later went back to Robben Island together to recapture our time there.
“It was a horror story because none of us had been back there since we had been released,” said Gaby.
“I had the privilege of meeting Nelson as a youngster and we should all make a big deal out of celebrating his life,” said Gaby.
Gaby, the former politician, musician and now businessman, launched his memoir, Robben Island to Wall Street in 2010.
In the book, he lucidly documents his formative years in a critical era in South Africa, his adult life and breaking ground in the world of finance.
Gaby, who has now tasked himself with changing the current status of tourism in Ekurhuleni, believes there is a richness to the city that needs to be seen by the world.