R is for Robben Island
Robben Island is an island in Table Bay, 6.9 km west of Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for Seal Island. The island is oval and about 3.3. km long from forth to south and just over a mile km wide. It is surrounded by inhospitable, rough waters and has been used since the 17th century to house political prisoners.
During South Africa’s apartheid government, Robben Island became internationally famous for holding Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner and Nobel Laureate prize winner, as well as other political prisoners.
Mandela, who served 18 of the 27 years behind bars on this island, was freed in 1990. In 1991, the rest of the political prisoners were released.
In 1994, Nelson was elected to be the first president in democratic elections in South Africa. During the time it was used to house political prisoners, it served as a maximum security prison and inmates were treated harshly, even inhumanely, by cruel guards who dispensed discriminatory and arbitrary punishments. It was a desolate island used to “break” prisoners of their will. Over 3,000 black prisoners were held there during apartheid. The prison was finally closed down in 1996. In 1999, it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
It serves as a living museum now, with tours given by ex-inmates.
I set out by ferry, alone, from Cape Town to tour Robben Island. It turned out to be much more emotional than I imagined. It was difficult to hear the stories about the heroes that survived the prisons. My black South African friend told me she is not ready to see that prison yet. The wounds of experiencing apartheid are still too deep and seeing the suffering of those sent to Robben Island would be too great.
We were told it was the worst prison in the world and prisoners were told when they arrived on the island they would never get off. The island was a symbol of banishment designed to brutalize prisoners who dared fight for their freedom against the state.
Sitting in benches in the common yard, I couldn’t imagine why the tour guide, an ex-inmate, would choose to stay in that place and re-live memories every day for strangers. Perhaps the burden of communicating the truth must have been greater than wanting to forget. The guide spoke in a very soft voice and more than once, almost broke down, and my heart constricted.
My tour group was silent and no one asked any questions, even after he begged us to. Because we didn’t, did he think we were like the regime, cold and indifferent?
I had no idea what to ask. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked why the prisoner chose to stay on and work as a tour guide and relive that abuse every single time he retold the story. But I didn’t have the courage to speak up. His choice seemed so private.
We saw the showers and definite blood stains on the wall where I imagined the inmate slumped over and holding on so he wouldn’t fall. We also saw Mandela’s tiny cell and everyone snapped photos. I almost felt that in doing so, it was disrespectful to Mandela’s suffering in that tiny space.
The guide spoke of others who had survived but not once of those who didn’t. The barbed wire that surrounded every building and the limestone quarry where the prisoners were forced to beat large boulders into bricks were strong remnants of past suffering.
The Robben Island Museum logo is very symbolic. Views from the maximum security prison are barred. As former prisoners show tourists around, they mention this curiosity: all the windows looking out to the mountains or sky are barricaded.
The Robben Island imagery is made up of bars that form a human figure,
arms aloft celebrating freedom. Just behind these figures is the patch of
blue that kept hope alive.
The island itself is barren and windswept and has no pretensions.
It was a difficult journey for me to embark although I was just someone from the outside looking in.I’m very glad I took the time to learn about the island and more about Mandela. As my South African friend said, even after apartheid, the wounds still run deep. As I toured South Africa, more than ten years after the apartheid government ceased to exist, I witnessed a country in slow transition. The changes I saw were minimal. I had a black tour guide, and he was often refused admittance to showing me various attractions. It was sobering. I heard stories and read about the struggle from posters and educational billboards around the country, visited townships, heard about abject poverty and discrimination during the apartheid era, and felt great indignation.
I’ll never forget the tour to Robben Island. As a world traveler, I have discovered there are some places that are uplifting and some places that are still around to remind us of past injustice. I think it is necessary that these places exist today to show us man’s inhumanity to man in hopes to create a better future.
Mandela set the example when he chose to forgive the past.
Yes, hope always exists like that patch of blue.