South Africa Travel

Robben Island: beyond the bars

This week marked what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 99th birthday; a walkthrough of Robben Island visualises a raw narrative of apartheid South Africa’s political prisoners

We often read and revisit the harrowing accounts of racial segregation and unthinkable oppression in South Africa during between 1948 and 1991. There’s nothing more confronting than walking the same pathways the apartheid resistance did upon the greying gravel of Robben Island.

Leaving the bay of Cape Town to behold the wonders of Robben Island was almost like leaving a comfort zone. With the media’s exposés about the horrors of political prisons, there was something far more eerie and foreboding regarding the dilapidated island. Years of Southern African education propelled me into finally visiting one of the world’s most profound heritage sites.

As we neared, the waves of the crisp Atlantic rocked the boat as if to engulf us. I looked behind us, seeing the cheerful skyline of Cape Town and Table Mountain fade into blue. Minutes later the squawks of seagulls and the brushing of dolphins against the boat ceased and in the horizon, we saw an island manifest: Robben Island aka Seal Island.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, “Journeying to Robben Island was like going to another country. Its isolation made it not simply another prison, but a world of its own.” Having spent 18 of his 27 prison years at Robben Island, it is suitable to liken Robben Island to another dimension.

Robben Island: beyond the bars

Our tour group was met by an old local man. As he described the ground rules of the tour, he added, “I was a prisoner myself here, imprisoned for more than twenty years because I resisted apartheid.” It was at that moment when I realised that so much of these people’s lives had been spent here that coming back and making a living was one of their few options.

In a 30 degree day, the heat glared off the concrete grounds and rose up walls so high that it was clear; when the prison was in operation, no one could leave and no one could enter.

We clambered into an ancient bus, one of which was used to transport prisoners and visitors around the five square-kilometre island. The bus creaked into gear and we drove past a wire-fence caging in rows of buildings with corrugated iron roofs. The bus stopped and the guide pointed, “This is where they housed some prisoners. Due to overcrowding and whenever they thought you were behaving badly they would put you in those water tanks,” which were attached to the buildings; sensory-depriving, as if being on an island prison wasn’t enough.

Robben Island: beyond the bars

As the buses rumbled along the dirt roads, we braked several times to make way for wandering antelope such as Eland and Hartebeest. The guide told us a story about the Clintons’ visits to Robben Island; Hillary, who avoided the buses as much as she could. The First Lady at the time had organised her own transport to be brought to the island. The ironic part was that said transport broke down and Hillary was then forced to use the buses she had tried so hard to avoid.

We stopped next to a limestone quarry; the stark whiteness against the blue sky gave it a ghostliness. Our guide pointed to our left, indicating a pile of stones. The cairn had remained untouched since its placement at that very spot in 1995. Mandela had placed the first stone there upon returning to the island post-apartheid. Many of the 1300 other former political prisoners placed stones there too, as a silent commemoration of their own history.

Robben Island: beyond the bars

Upon walking into the prison, a sign in the entryway read Ons dien met trots — Afrikaans for ‘We serve with pride,’ resonating chords of irony. Considering Afrikaans was perceived by blacks as a dominating language, aiming to wipe out native languages such as Zulu, Tswana and Xhosa. Seeing the sign there maintained the sombre mood. We entered a room with wiry bunk beds, and the walls were posted with yellowing pages from notebooks kept by the prisoners, some delineating particularly harsh days in the confines, others more nostalgic with drawings of families.

We continued along the dark passageway to the holding cells, most being open with recording boxes mounted on the wall. Some had glass cases with diaries and personal effects of the occupant. Each cell was an intimate portal into what these people’s lives used to be and how they were drastically changed by the threat of government and white supremacy: families being ripped apart, businesses being overthrown and violence so nightmarish, many were left disabled or dead.

Robben Island: beyond the bars

Eventually I walked into Mandela’s former cell, 46664. The tiny space was damp and cold, its only comfort a couple of small rugs on the floor. Lacking a toilet, the only hint that it was meant for people was a barred and foggy window, with no clear view.

Walking out of the prison, the sun beat down on us — a warm feeling that was probably rarely enjoyed by those kept here. The whole group was silent, as if speaking would interrupt the solemn mood. Upon leaving, I glanced over my shoulder. What was at first a frankly terrifying site of human history, had now changed to a symbol of growth and human resilience.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 4:15:09 PM |

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