The ferry leaves for Robben Island from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A (Victoria & Albert) waterfront in Cape Town. There is always a chance the ferry will not operate if the seas to Robben Island, seven kilometres from Cape Town, are choppy. It happened to us, the ticket was automatically valid for the next day.
Robben Island- Dutch for “Seal Island” was first discovered by the Portuguese sailor Bartholomew Diaz when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope in that eternal search for a sea route to the rich's of the east. Initially it was used as a refuelling port for passing ships. It is a dry island where only the hardiest of scrub grass and stunted trees survive. When the Dutch arrived in 1650's, they saw the potential for making the island into a prison for unwanted citizens, hardcore criminals, mentally deranged and people with leprosy. As the Dutch Empire grew into the Far East and Indonesia, difficult political prisoners would be shipped to Robben Island, far away from their countries, so that their presence, a rallying point for civil unrest, is forgotten. The British when they established power in Cape Town saw the benefit of carrying on with this island prison. It's with imprisonments of leading African National Congress (ANC), objectors against the Apartheid Government, prisoners like Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and many more that Robben Island hit the news.
When you disembark at Robben Island a photograph of arriving prisoners confronts you. It is not difficult to imagine yourself as one of the newly arrived prisoners, lined up and “welcomed” to Robben Island (Never to leave) by guards in uniforms, cap, shirt, shorts, long socks, shoes all in white with vicious guard dogs. The slogan on top of the gate of the prison reads “Welcome. We serve with pride.” As a visitor (not a prisoner) you will board a bus for a trip around the Island. You will have an ex-prisoner for a guide. Our guide Mr. Baruti Uthmaani (name changed) spent many years as a prisoner in Robben Island. When the Democratic Republic of South Africa was established all prisoners were freed and the island converted to a museum. It's now a world heritage site. But for Mr. Uthmaani It was a problem. He could not get employment after his release. So when he was offered the job of a guide on Robben Island it was with great hesitancy that he accepted it. “How can I manage all the horrible memories I associate with this place?”
On the island
The bus takes you from one landmark to the other on the island. There were the administrative offices, the hospital, the school, the church, the houses where the prison officials lived and “the limestone pit”. The pit was where the prisoners broke stones throughout the day open to the weather, beaten for the slightest slackness. Our guide spoke at length about how the prisoner's used the toilet which was just a small cave formed by a rock overhang. He called it the “university”. It was here that prisoners would in small clusters hold “classes”. This was the sharing of knowledge and skills from one prisoner to the other. Each one taught what he knew to the others. It is said that prisoners went in illiterate but came out literate able to read and write. Here the white guards would not follow not just because of the smell but the laws of segregation prevented them from doing so. For a comfort break and some refreshments we were taken to the South East tip of the island. The view from here was stunning. Cape Town, dominated by Table Mountain, across the cold, blue ocean was bathed in sunlight. The distance across seemed so near, easily swimmable. Many did try, the records show only one succeeded. The ocean surrounding Robben Island is washed by cold, strong currents coming from the Antarctica Ocean, patrolled by sharks. For the prisoners it must have been heart wrenching; everyday on their way to the pit to see Cape Town (where family lived) just across the water, so near yet so far.
Our next stop was the Barracks where the prisoners were locked for the night. The beds were bunks, one on top of the other, like a children's dormitory, each with one threadbare blanket. There were thirty such beds in a room. We had a new guide (another ex-prisoner) who explained the routine they followed including lights out at ten. Sixty men shared one bathroom with only cold water (bitter in winters) which they had to keep clean. For “difficult” prisoners it was solitary confinement. The food was best described by Nelson Mandela in his book “Long walk to freedom” “The food was called balanced by the authorities between the unpalatable and the inedible”. It consisted of porridge made of maize or corn, “coffee” which was burned corn, lunch coarse kernels of corn, dinner corn porridge with a carrot or cabbage “we had to search for it” and meat “usually gristle”. The coloured/Indian prisoners got a better diet (jam and bread, rice) than the Bantu.
The list of the prisoners includes many Indian names. Finally in 1990-91 the apartheid government took the decision to release Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners of Robben Island. In September 1996 President Nelson Mandela announced that Robben Island, where he had spent eighteen years as a prisoner, would become a National Monument. One word best describes the spirit of Robben Island. Reconciliation. The Apartheid government had to reconcile with the reality that white supremacy had to end and was going forward and that the prisoner and his guard would now be equal in the eyes of law, the prisoners had to reconcile with their past (as one visitor said they were “saboteurs” for the government) forgiving their tormentors, indeed live in peace with them, the guides had to reconcile with the ghosts that haunt them and go back to work where they must have faced the most brutal assault on their body and soul.
In the words of Dr. Ahmad Kathrada a leader who was also a prisoner; “We will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben island to be a monument to our hardship and suffering, we want it to be the triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil; a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”
Keywords: Robben Island prisoners