Day 18  of  The A to Z  Blogging Challenge

R is for Robben Island

Scanned this emblem of Robbin Island from my newsletter
Scanned this emblem of Robbin Island from the newsletter I sent home after my visit

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.

Robben Island - surrounded by sharks and inhospitable currents.Impossible to escape alive
Robben Island – Shark-infested water and inhospitable currents. Impossible to escape alive

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.

Mandela's tiny cell
Mandela’s tiny cell

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.

Many went blind from the labor in the quarry.
Many went blind from the white rock, glare during the long hours of work in the quarry.

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.

Robben Island Logo

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.

The buildings on Robben Island were surrounded with barbed wire.
The buildings on Robben Island were surrounded with barbed wire.

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.

R is for Robben Island
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4 thoughts on “R is for Robben Island

  • April 27, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Wow Amy. This was quite the tale. I have felt that, to an extent, touring a jail in Ottawa. Of course it wasn’t like this, but I tried my best to imagine the lives, real human suffering that may have gone on where I was standing, and hoped I showed the proper respect.
    Such isolation and horror. Sounds like quite the experience, being on an island like that, surrounded by such harsh nature and the stories of such horrible human against human action.
    Thank you for sharing this very personal thing with me and other readers.

  • April 27, 2015 at 7:33 am

    It must be so fascinating to get a tour from an ex inmate. My first thought was your un answered question. Why would he want to do that to himself? Maybe it’s to stop history from getting distorted and repeating.

  • April 27, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    You’re welcome, Kerry.
    How is it that you went to Ottawa to see that prison? My younger brother preaches in our county prison each week, or most weeks, anyway.
    As I said, travel enables us to be educated about a lot of different circumstances.And we have to share how seeing such places changes us.
    I learned even more about Mandela through his book, A Long journey, or something along those lines. It was a long and incredible read. I want to see the movie, which I heard was great as well.
    Thank you for reading and your comment.

  • April 27, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Rhonda!
    Glad to find your comment this morning!
    Maybe you are right. Who knows? I had heard that some of the ex=prisoners had a difficult time re=adapting to life in the transition of post-apartheid South Africa so they chose to return to Robben Island when the State was looking for tour guides. That might be a rumor or it might be true. In 1996, Mandela and several other political prisoners returned to Robben Island in an emotional reunion, which was taped. I have that video somewhere and really need to look for it.
    Thank you for reading my post and taking time to comment.

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