After living in Cape Town for almost seven years, Sporty and I finally got around to visiting Robben Island, the Mother City’s second most popular tourist attraction.
Now a national and world heritage site, the 518-hectare rocky outcrop in Table Bay served as a convenient dumping ground for nearly 400 years to colonial and apartheid rulers looking to rid the mainland of political troublemakers and other social outcasts.
These included slaves, political and religious leaders who opposed Dutch colonialism in East Asia, indigenous leaders who resisted British expansion in South Africa, leprosy sufferers, mentally ill patients, prisoners of war and political opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia (previously South-West Africa).
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, spent 18 years on Robben Island.
Madiba, as he is affectionately known, finally walked free in February 1990, 27 years after he was first incarcerated for sabotage (and other charges). Four years later South Africa took to the polls for the first time as a free and democratic nation.
Sporty and I knew hardly any of this prior to our trip. We knew that Robben Island had been a prison and we knew our former president had spent a large portion of his life there, but when it came to the history of the place even we were shocked by how little we knew.
I can’t speak for Sporty, but if I’m completely honest about it, I wasn’t all that interested either. I’m a lazy history student it’s true, but I guess it was also easier to stick my head in the sand rather than familiarize myself with our country’s less-than-stellar past.
We soon discovered that we were in for much more than just a boat ride, which, ironically, turned out to be the least exciting part of the trip. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable — the ferry was suitably comfortable, boasted the obligatory hole in the wall, a tuck shop and limited open-air seating on top for the ‘Labrador’ passengers.
On arrival we were split into two groups and herded off in separate directions. First stop for us was a tour of the prison buildings led by former inmate, Sipho Msmoni, whose deep voice and unique storytelling ability soon had us all hanging on his every word.
Though behind bars and forced to endure untold horrors, we learnt that the prisoners kept their eye on the end goal, using every available opportunity to educate and better themselves in all areas of their lives: academically, politically and even culturally.
Those deemed high risk or particularly influential were isolated in small, single cells, while the remainder of the men were crammed into communal quarters. Space was limited but this didn’t stop them from pursuing their extra-mural activities.
The bathroom was reserved for practicing cultural pursuits such as choral singing, dancing and poetry recitals, which they then performed for the rest of the prisoners during lunch.
During the day prisoners worked outdoors and it was everyone’s responsibility to steal newspapers whenever the opportunity arose and smuggle them back into the cells. This was just one of many ways they kept abreast with political news on the mainland.
Bit by bit, Sipho revealed to us what life was like for those incarcerated on Robben Island. He encouraged questions but most of us were too stunned by what we’d heard to think of anything coherent to ask.
One piece of information in particular stood out for Sporty and I.
A board on the wall displayed two daily menus, one for coloreds and Asians (Indian, Chinese etc.) inmates and one for black (bantu) inmates. Among other things the black prisoners received less meat and sugar and no jam or syrup at all.
It was only in the late seventies, after inmates united in protest that this bizarre practice finally ended. Out of everything we learnt, that stuck with me more than anything else.
Even in prison, apartheid remained a strong dividing force.
Emotions ran high that day and tears welled up on more than one occasion. We didn’t say much as we followed Sipho from one cell block to another, down bleak passages and into cramped confines with nothing more than a tiny barred window to serve as reminder that the outside world still existed.
Back outside buses waited to take us on a brief but informative tour of the island itself. I thanked Sipho for sharing his story, observing, “I’ll bet you never imagined that one day you’d be a tour guide here.”
“No,” he said with a wry smile, “I certainly did not.”
It just goes to show; no matter the circumstances we can never be entirely certain of the direction our lives will ultimately take.
Driving around the island we learnt that although the men and women lepers were forced to live apart they still managed to meet up on occasion. If healthy, babies born from these illicit affairs were sent back to the mainland and adopted. Most of them never got to meet their real parents.
We learnt that the Blue Quarry, where prisoners toiled for 13 years, was known as ‘the university’. It is also said to be where South Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’ constitution first took shape.
Jacob Zuma is just one of many to have benefited from the ‘each one, teach one’ philosophy held by the inmates. After arriving at Robben Island an illiterate, this man is now the president of South Africa.
Granted he has his quirks and not everyone respects him, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that his education took flight in a place meant for anything but.
Guards at the quarry were under strict “shoot to kill” orders, though this measure was far from necessary as the men were determined not to die as prisoners and so had no interest whatsoever in trying to escape.
We weren’t nearly as chatty on the way back, preferring instead to sit quietly with our thoughts. It’s a lot to take in anyway, but as a white South African it’s particularly humbling.
On the bright side, it’s especially gratifying to see how far we’ve come. Yes we have our issues, but regardless, we’re making progress and at the end of the day that’s all that really matters.
A few random facts about Robben Island:
- There’s a guesthouse on the island, although it’s reserved for state dignitaries and famous people only. Bill Clinton and Oprah have both stayed there.
- Alpha 2, a radio station during World War II, now serves as a snack shop for hungry tourists.
- For a mere R50 you can get married or renew your vows at the Garrison church.
This timeline of Robben Island, which dates from 1400-1999, offers a brief overview of its history.
At the end of the tour our guide thanked us for visiting Robben Island.
“You have made a difference,” she said.
At the time I wondered if we really had, but looking back I’m inclined to believe we did. Not because we contributed to the island’s tourism industry, but because we made an effort to inform ourselves.
Once you know something you know it — you can’t go back to the way it was.
It might be uncomfortable, but when you recognize that knowledge leads to understanding you quickly realize that ignorance isn’t the bliss you once thought it was.
Where in Cape Town should Ang and Sporty venture off to next? Share your picks in the comments section below.