Robben Island gig televised live on a ‘wing and a prayer’

Trybe, one of the music acts that featured in the live TV production broadcast from Robben Island on June 16, 1999. | Supplied

Trybe, one of the music acts that featured in the live TV production broadcast from Robben Island on June 16, 1999. | Supplied

Published Jun 15, 2024


Durban — Millions of viewers across the country watched a “seamless” hour-long Youth Day celebration live from Robben Island on June 16, 1999.

But, 25 years later, those involved behind the scenes said it was hardly a shoo-in and was achieved through meticulous planning, preparation and prayer.

Doctor Eubulus Timothy wrote, produced and directed “Bridging the Gap” for, which in 1999 became the first live broadcast from the former jailhouse island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated.

When Timothy, currently Durban-based, was given “carte blanche” by the TV station that had emerged the previous year to deliver June 16 celebration content, he conjured “something different” with help from friends.

He wanted to link the significance of June 16, 1976 – the day students from Soweto protested against Afrikaans becoming a compulsory school language – and Robben Island prison.

Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old pupil among the protesters, was shot dead when police attempted to block a march to Orlando Stadium.

The protests spread across the country and after 10 days of rioting more than 170 people had been killed, with over 1 000 injured and many arrested.

To symbolise the two events, two youth from each of the nine provinces were taken to the Hector Pieterson memorial site where his sister described the 1976 events.

This was followed by a day-long train trip to Cape Town, a boat ride onto the island for a two-day stay, which culminated with the TV broadcast that went off without any breaks in transmission.

In accepting the low-budget assignment, Timothy told he wanted “to do something different, broadcast live from Robben Island”.

Dr Eubulus Timothy spearheaded the live TV broadcast from Robben Island ‒ regarded as impossible to do ‒ on June 16, 1999. | Supplied

He was practising as a dentist in Cape Town and was the chairperson of the Cape Film Commission.

While the island authorities were amenable to his idea, digital infrastructure and content delivery company Sentech baulked at Timothy’s suggestion.

“Sentech told me it was impossible to do.”

Timothy said the wind, rough seas and winter were viewed as broadcast hindrances.

Fortunately for Timothy, two technically-inclined youngsters from Johannesburg heard about his plan and said they could recalibrate old M-Net decoders to bounce signal from the island to Signal Hill and back to’s final control studio at their Longkloof headquarters in Cape Town.

Through discussions with the National Youth Commission, it was arranged that youth from across the country, who had never ventured out of their home province, be brought to Soweto to be schooled on the uprising.

“The youth were wowed by the experience,” said Timothy.

The youngsters received more history and life lessons in workshops conducted during the train ride.

Timothy’s friend at Transnet arranged a “Blue train” with dining and sleeper coaches that carried 128 passengers, including the production crew and performers.

Isaac Diloro and his group Trybe were on board. Their Mandela-inspired pop hit at the time, Diba Diba, was their ticket.

More sound, video and production experts joined Timothy and others for the island gig.

Because the show was going to be live with music, interviews and video clips of youngsters in Soweto, on the train and the island, in case of any breaks in transmission, a rehearsal was filmed and a tape was supposed to be carried back to’s HQ.

It was planned that when the last of the guests who would be in the audience arrived, a production crew member would have the tape sent back to He missed the last available boat.

“Every member of’s executive was in their final control room, on tenterhooks, because we went live with no back-up. I prayed that day. It was blind faith that everything would work fine, and it did.

“We brought singing, dancing and celebration to a place best known for suffering.”

Some of the crew responsible for the live production from Robben Island. | Supplied

Timothy said “Bridging the Gap” was an appropriate name for the production because they were able to connect the historical happenings in Soweto to Robben Island.

Nazmeh Schroder was the production’s logistics manager.

“It was the first time we microwaved a link from Robben Island to the studio, it had never been done before,” said Schroder, who recalled it as an outstanding moment.”

Isaac Diloro, who was the lead singer of Trybe, said the Robben Island broadcast was “groundbreaking”.

“When I was told it was going to be a live broadcast, I said, ‘Ja, whatever ...’

“I never dreamt about something like this before. In those days, sport or some breaking news event were shown live, not an entertainment event, they were always pre-recorded.”

Diloro said it was an “incredible feeling” being a part of the show, and it raised their profile as a music group a few notches.

Independent on Saturday