Seasick and swaying slightly from the rough crossing, we were hustled onto a bus the moment we set foot at the docks of the infamous Robben Island, with hardly any time to look at the series of placards explaining the former prison island’s history. Apparently we weren’t going to get a chance to explore by ourselves. Was this intentionally so to help us understand the lack of freedom experienced by the prisoners on this island?
The bus drove around the little island, stopping at various places of interest, allowing the guide to share bits of information with us. Before it became known as the place of Nelson Mandela’s 18-year incarceration, the island used to be a leper colony, and today a few hundred people reside in this living museum, declared a World Heritage site in 1999. Situated just 12 km off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, the island is well worth the visit to learn more about the country’s political past.
We stretched our legs inside the house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the PAC, was kept in solitary confinement for six years. Horrible as that must have been for him, at least he had an amazing ocean view and penguins walking past his doorstep every day. It could have been worse.
At least he wasn’t forced to do hard manual labour under the hot African sun in the limestone quarry every day. Apparently the maximum security prisoners, such as Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, spent their time here teaching each other literature, political theory and philosophy.
A quick coffee break allowed for another opportunity to get off the bus and admire the island’s rugged coastline. On clear days one can apparently see Cape Town’s Table Mountain in the distance, although we were not as lucky and had to keep ourselves entertained by taking selfies.
Suitably refreshed, the bus dropped us off at the maximum security prison, where a former inmate served as our tour guide, providing a unique and interesting perspective on what life inside this prison was like during the Apartheid era.
Can you imagine being a tour guide in your former place of internment, having to relive this experience every day of your life, for the foreseeable future? According to our guide, there are very few opportunities outside these walls for someone with a political history such as his. Food for thought indeed.
The tour culminated with a quick look into the tiny cell that was Madiba’s home for a large part of his adult life. Irrespective of what you may think of him, or of his imprisonment, there is no denying that he left this cell a better man who strove to bring the nation together. If only everyone would learn from him.
Afterwards we were all herded back to the docks from where the ferry back to Cape Town allowed us time to consider and contemplate the complicated history of our country.
Have you visited Robben Island? Would a tour to this former prison island interest you – why or why not?
For more posts in the Western Cape Whirlwind 2015 series, click here.