December 13, 2016
If I were planning only a week in Cape Town, I would have visited Robben Island much sooner. After my first year in Cape Town had passed, I was glad that at last I could set foot on the island that Nelson Mandela made famous. What can this island show to a visitor from a different nation?
First, it is worth noting that Robben Island is one of only eight World Heritage Sites in all of South Africa, and it is one of only two in the Western Cape (the other is the Cape Floral Region, extending into the Eastern Cape). Its history has reflected the many resources the island can provide, ranging from port to post office to hospital to military outpost and to prison. An excellent timeline showing its uses throughout history was produced by the Robben Island Museum. Its name derives from the Dutch for “seal island.” One of the last creatures a visitor is likely to see when boarding the boat for the island, in fact, is a seal. A colony of seals occupies an area near the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.
The ride to the island does not take long, only about 35 minutes on one of the modern, fast ferries. My friends and I stayed below deck since I don’t deal well with direct summer sunlight. The crew were pretty efficient in ensuring that the passengers knew about life vests and about having too many people on the bow or stern viewing areas. In no time at all, we pulled abreast of the island. The island covers an area just over five square kilometers, and its shoreline is dotted with low structures around the old medium-security prison where the guards (and now the museum docents) live. The crossing to the island may have been short for us, but winter storms can make it quite perilous. In the past children moving between the island and mainland for school frequently missed days of classes because the ferries could not run.
Once we left the boat, we all boarded buses to get our tour of the island. I would suggest that you open a separate tab in your browser to view a free map of the island from Slingsby Maps. In driving southeast along the coast road, we soon passed a sizeable, crumbling cemetery. Our guide explained that in 1845, a leper colony near Caledon was moved en masse to Robben Island. The Moravian missionaries who had cared for the ill moved with the 70 people in their care. Many mentally ill patients were also shipped to the island. Today, the only building standing from that period is the beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd, designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker but built by the community living on the island.
Our introduction to the island’s significance in Apartheid history began as we arrived at the Robert Sobukwe complex. I first learned his name in driving to the University of the Western Cape; the institution is on the well-traveled Robert Sobukwe Road (the M10 highway). He was a graduate of Fort Hare University and completed Honours at U-Wits, becoming a compelling intellectual in favor of the Defiance Campaign. He is remembered for founding the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1958 as a breakaway group from the African National Congress. At the age of 35, he was put in prison because of his resistance to the pass laws. The Apartheid government then passed a law with a clause making it possible for them to incarcerate him in prison indefinitely without reference to a particular crime. Mr. Sobukwe was kept in isolation from human conversation for almost all of the remaining years of his life, six of which took place at Robben Island. As the tour guide explained the harshness of his detention, I heard a series of little gasps from the bus passengers around me.
The limestone quarry is a site that appeared in the movie “Long Walk To Freedom” because of its significance in the life of Nelson Mandela. As a prisoner, he was forced to toil here for thirteen years. The point was to keep prisoners busy since the limestone was not particularly useful. The other quarry on the island, however, produced blue stones from which many of the buildings were constructed (including the prison and the church). In practice, the limestone quarry became a place of education, where prisoners read and conversed. The harsh lighting, however, took a toll on Nelson Mandela’s vision.
Our visit to the maximum security prison started with a reminder that the island had served as a prison much further back in history. The Moturu Kramat remembers the life of Sayed Adurohman Moturu (d. 1754), one of the first imams in Cape Town. He was exiled to Robben Island for the last fourteen years of his life. The Kramat remains an important point of pilgrimage for the Muslim community.
Being inside the maximum security prison was unsettling. We were led into a long narrow room, with a bunk bed at one end. Our host explained that he had been a prisoner in the maximum security prison from 1983 to 1990. He had been incarcerated for sabotage and other crimes associated with his work in the armed resistance to Apartheid. The room we were in had once housed around 50 prisoners. He showed a menu for people from the Indian or Cape Coloured populations and another for the black prisoners, demonstrating that the government had ensured the black prisoners were fed worse than others (and he had personal knowledge, since he had served as part of the kitchen crew during his prison term).
I found myself distracted by this man’s history. He had acknowledged that he had taken up arms against the government of his country. How could a person change from insurgent to museum docent in one lifetime? He related that he had been terrified of public speaking when he was invited to become a guide to the museum (he had been unemployed at the time). At his first tour, he had frozen with stage fright until some of the elderly people on the tour had begun asking questions. Ten years later, he knew just how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. I admired his skill.
In the last phase of the tour, we moved to the wing for high-level political prisoners. We gathered in what had been a tennis court lined with blue stone walls. On just the other side of the wall, a line of small cells had held leading figures of the ANC as well as other resistance organizations. The cell itself is unremarkable, other than being smaller than what many of us would consider a bathroom of acceptable size. How could a place like this have been the training ground of the future leaders of South Africa?
Robben Island discharged its final prisoner from the maximum security prison in 1991. In 1994, its most famous former prisoner was elected president of South Africa. By 1996, no prisoners remained on the island, and in the following year the Museum was opened. In 1999, the Island was named a World Heritage Site. Two decades after the prisons were emptied, this American could stroll around, trying to make sense of it all. For my part, I think I will need to keep contemplating this remarkable place in which I find myself if I ever hope to understand it!