Robben Island

The legacy of Nelson Mandela can be found everywhere you look in South African society. Buildings and streets are named in his honor, my classes all reflect upon his impact, his picture is displayed proudly in homes, and we all joyously celebrated his birthday on 18 July. Yesterday I had the privilege to visit the place where he began to gain international recognition for his role in freeing South Africa from apartheid – Robben Island.

First and foremost, I would like to preface my thoughts on this experience by explaining that this is extremely difficult to write about. The emotions that poured out of me as I toured the island seem impossible to express. I can only hope that I convey my experience accurately.

We arrived at the V&A Waterfront at about 12:30pm and walked to the Robben Island Museum, which is located right on the harbour. A group of about 30 American students from my dorm and I boarded the 300-person ferry and began our journey to Robben Island. The boat ride took about half an hour to reach the island I spent my time looking out the window for Great White sharks, whales and seals. My first impression of the island was of surprise: it was much larger than I expected and there seemed to be quite a lot of buildings as well as a residential area (but I will explain that later).

As we departed the ship, my friends and I walked from the harbour to one of the maximum security prisons. There are actually 4 prisons located on Robben Island, but we only did a walking tour through one of them. I was taken aback by the architecture of the prison buildings. They were made of large pieces of limestone arranged together, not the typical drab cement I typically attribute to prisons. Huge fences with immense amounts of barbed wire fence surrounded the entire compound. However, the natural beauty of the landscape cannot be denied. Even though it is winter here in South Africa, green grasses, flowers and trees were growing everywhere.

In 1994, the former political prisoners who had been incarcerated in Robben Island formed a coalition to create a museum out of the island. In 1997, the museum first opened to the public. One of the most incredible things about the Robben Island Museum is that all of the tours are given by former inmates and guards. My tour of the prison was given by Benjamin, who was arrested in 1984 and convicted of High Treason. He was sentenced to 8 years in jail, but did not finish out his sentence because he was released with the last batch of political prisoners in 1991. Our group sat inside one of the larger rooms inside the prison as Benjamin spoke to us about his experiences on the island. Remarkably, he explained to us that many of the prisoners maintained good behaviour because Robben Island was one of the “better” prisons of the time and they did not want to be transferred.

But life on Robben Island was far from pleasant. Due to the inability for escape from the island, the government sent the most dangerous men in South Africa there. Only Asiatic, coloured and black men were sent to Robben Island, whites and women were sent to separate facilities. The jail also maintained apartheid practices: blacks were the lowest caste of society and given less food and privilege than the coloureds and Asiatics. All of the men were issued identification cards that they were required to carry at all times, their race was included on the card. The men worked in the limestone quarries every day from about 7 to 4 and were occasionally given free time to play football and rugby.

When the political prisoners were first sent to Robben Island, they were put in cells alongside South African convicts (rapists, murderers, etc.). But the South African government soon learned the hard way that this was a very bad idea. This is because the political prisoners were very clever and would teach the convicts about their causes and South African independence from apartheid. Then, when the convicts were released from the island they too became political activists. Because of this, the political prisoners had to be sent to a separate section of the prison where they had even more restricted lives and were not allowed to interact with other inmates. The political prisoners jailed on Robben Island were considered the biggest threats to South Africa, and were treated as such.

As Benjamin led us out of the main room and into a different part of the prison, he warned us to stay close to the group because it is very easy to get lost. My friends and I hung at the back of the group so we were able to have a quieter and more personal look at the prison. We did, in fact, lose the group only minutes after Benjamin’s warning. Those moments where we were searching around the prison to figure out where to go were actually pretty frightening. It literally felt at one point that there was no way out.

Thankfully, we found our group in the next section of the prison. We were led to a long hall with cells on either side. Inside each cell was a picture of the inmate who was jailed there and the years they served. Some cells also had stories about the men and had examples of the few items they were allowed to possess. My favorite story was about the prisoners’ constant thirst for knowledge. They were not allowed to have books, paper or pencils. The men would save pieces of the sacks that materials in the quarry came in and used them as paper. They would hide them on their person at all times, for if it was found by a guard it was burned immediately. The makeshift papers were taken to work at the quarry and laid in front of the men while they worked, and the men would teach each other. Though most were not formally trained teachers, the inmates would take the knowledge they already possessed and pass it on to someone else. In time, the inmates were able to petition the jail for stationary and pencils. The story said that the government realized the political prisoners were much cleverer than the guards and would always find a way, despite the restrictions. By the end the prisoners were also giving lessons to the guards.

Walking into the cells where these men were imprisoned for years on end was one of the worst feelings I have ever had. A lump formed in my throat when I simply walked into the prison itself, and that feeling only worsened when I was inside a cell. The lump got bigger and bigger and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt sick to my stomach as I stood there and closed the door, contemplating life in a cell the size of a tiny bathroom. The small window provided no solace, as the view was of a huge concrete wall and hooded by huge iron bars. My throat opened up slightly when I returned to the hallway, but I did not breathe properly again until I had completely left the confines of the prison.

Nelson Mandela’s cell was in yet another section of the prison, alongside the other more famous political prisoners of his time. During his time there, Mandela was able to start a garden in the small courtyard outside his section of the jail. It was there that he hid many of the pages for his later novel Long Walk to Freedom (which I am currently reading). His first transcript was found and burned, and he was forced to rewrite it. Mandela’s cell itself is maintained as it looked when he first arrived on Robben Island. There were no beds, only a blanket and small pillow on the floor. Beds were added to the prison later in 1977. They also had a small table with a plate, fork and knife as well as a small pot used as a toilet. My time at the cell was brief due to our large tour group, but the image is one I will never forget.

After exiting the prison, we were led onto a bus for a tour of the rest of the island. Our tour guide was about 27 years old and a coloured South African from Cape Town (not a former inmate). He was by far the best tour guide I have ever had, and an incredible orator. He often brought me to tears throughout the tour.

The man explained that Robben Island has served as a place of abandonment and isolation for over 350 years. Those affected by leprosy were banished to the island to die in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. We stopped at one of the grave sites for these people, although the majority of those that died on the island were buried without tombstone or proper burial. During World War II, Robben Island was used as a base to protect Cape Town in the event of an attack, which is why there is lots of infrastructure on the island. Robben Island was then utilized as a maximum security prison, inspired by Alcatraz, from 1961 until 1991.

In addition to the four prisons on Robben Island, there is a solitary cell separate that was made specifically to imprison Robert Sobukwe, the creator of the Pan Africanist Congress and a major anti-apartheid leader. Our tour guide explained that although he is not remembered as one of the most famous anti-apartheid leaders, it was his work that paved the way for Nelson Mandela and others to come after him. He believed that it was better to attack small parts of the apartheid regime and bring them down one by one, rather than attempt to bring it all down at once. While openly protesting and defying the “Black Pass” law, which required all black Africans to carry identification cards, Sobukwe (among many others) was arrested. This protest resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre, which ended in the deaths of 69 PAC supporters. He served three years in prison before he was transferred to solitary confinement on Robben Island. He was allowed no contact with other prisoners and was under constant watch by 2 guards. The guards were not allowed to speak to Sobukwe and operated under extreme suspicion, even of each other. This fear meant that the guards kept their jobs and Sobukwe was always alone. Sobukwe was seen as Public Enemy #1 by the South African government. Killing Sobukwe would have made him a martyr and letting him free would mean the continuation of his anti-apartheid actions, so the government kept him in solitary confinement, out of the public eye, until the day he died of lung cancer in 1977. His contraction of cancer led to the beginning of international attention and sanctions on South Africa and in turn allowed Sobukwe to be transferred to a hospital. No one has since occupied his cell, and that land is now used as dog kennels.

Our final stop on the tour was the limestone quarry where all of the prisoners worked while on Robben Island. The quarry later became known as “The University” because it is the place where the inmates taught each other lessons. Each of the political prisoners was a leader of a differing organization in South Africa, many of which did not cooperate with each other. They began to realize that they had nothing else to lose, and banded together. Work in the quarry was tough and caused long-term physical effects on the inmates. Dust from the limestone was inhaled and ingested, causing many lung and respiratory issues such as bronchitis and pneumonia. The intensity of the sun reflected off the stone severely damaged the tear ducts so that many former prisoners are unable to cry anymore. Nelson Mandela himself has such damage to his eyes that no one is allowed to take a photo of him using flash photography, and is also the reason why he often wears a hat. It is incredible that although the prisoners are now free, physical ailments remind them every day of Robben Island so they are never able to forget.

Only one man has ever successfully escaped from Robben Island. Professional swimmers and Olympians swim the distance from Robben Island to Cape Town in about 3 – 8 hours while wearing insulated wetsuits and accompanied by life boats. This means that any regular person wishing to escape would take more than twice the amount of time, without the wetsuit or lifeboat safeguard. The water of the Atlantic Ocean is freezing, not to mention the population of Great White Sharks. All cases (except the lone successful one) end in drowning, or life back imprisoned on Robben Island because the tide pulls you back.

Despite the extreme emotional rollercoaster I was on during my time on Robben Island, I will mention that the island itself is quite unexpectedly beautiful. It is also a penguin breeding colony and home to more than 4,000 Jackass Penguins. In addition, the view of Cape Town is exquisite. I was able to ride on one of the outside decks of the ferry ride back, and it was absolutely gorgeous. You have a clear view of all of the main mountain ranges, starting from the left – Devil’s Peak (where UCT is located), Table Mountain (the flat mountain), and the Twelve Apostles (all the way to the right). Lion’s Head Mountain (the one I climbed on my first day in Cape Town) is the peak in between Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles, and comes down to the left into what is referred to as the Lion’s Rump (or Signal Hill).

I am still in the process of digesting everything I saw and learned yesterday. The significance will only continue to grow with me as I continue reading Long Walk to Freedom and live in this country. I recommend the tour highly to all who visit Cape Town, but only if you take the time to learn about South African history, apartheid, and Robben Island before you go. It is only then that you will, as I have, begin to grasp the true importance of Robben Island.


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