A trip to Robben Island

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November 1, 2010 – It was not a ferry as they called it but a boat that took us from the waterfront at Cape Town to Robben Island, the place infamous for hosting a political prisoner by the name of Nelson Mandela, among others.

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It was a large boat bearing 145 passengers who either sat or stood watching out for seals, dolphins or whale sharks on the rough waters.

After a half hour cruise, we slowed down into a man made harbour lined with literally hundreds of birds, whose imprints dotted the jetty in the form of hundreds of white spots.

We passed a dramatic looking black and white picture which I couldn’t scrutinize because we had to get on to the tour bus.

And as the ride began it didn’t take long for me to feel the significance of this journey back in time.

The memories are heavy.  The tour guide’s delicate words paint a harsh picture of the life that was well known to the political prisoners who lived there for decades.

There were 33 prisoners in solitary confinement, she said. These were usually leaders of political parties made to pay for the crime of being intelligent enough to resist the apartheid regime. Cape Town and by proxy Robben Island, are known to witness all the seasons in one day.

But that did not stop the system from letting Mandela and his cronies, clad in shorts and barefoot to dig the entire day at the lime quarry on the island for 13 years. Their only shelter at their place of work was a cave, where they would eat, relieve themselves and occasionally share knowledge with one another.

In the distance, they could see Cape Town emerge from the blue blue ocean, a magnificent sight – and perhaps that is what gave them hope.

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Hope beyond the death around them. Hope beyond the lepers who were banished to the very same island to live the last of their days. Their graves still lie at the island.

Ken, an ex-political prisoner was taking us round that day. He had no problem reliving the pain he experienced for 11 years, after being charged with high treason. But not even his jokes could mask the anguish.

“For a man to eat, he needs money. And for a man to make money he must work,” he explains  when asked why he was conducting the tours.

They shot his pregnant girlfriend you see. In the mouth; after a demonstration by students against teaching in Afrikaans in schools, turned chaotic. Ken then trained to engage in militant resistance, but got caught one day after a mission gone bad. 

The political prisoners were not allowed to mix with the regular criminals. But it was hard to ignore the gang mentality present around them, where the only way to get in was to take another inmates life.

Though the white and Asian prisoners were allowed to wear shoes and trousers, that did not bother the black prisoners much, because they all had only four blankets at night, and five in winter.

According to Billy Nair, an ex-prisoner, that did little to keep out the ice cold.

“They made sure that the roof was put on immediately while the walls were still wet to maintain fridge cold conditions… Our bodies actually dried the walls. It took a long time but our heat, our body heat dried out those walls,” he says in a note on the wall of his former cell.

The prisoners would be whipped and ill-treated, but those are stories we have read and heard.

Ken was on the last boat to freedom after the prison was closed down and all the political prisoners were set free. He has almost left everything behind. He gets angry when white South Africans on tours of the island accuse him of lying, but he has moved on, and nearly all is forgiven. Nearly all.

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“I will never forgive the security personnel. The ones who catch you and torture you to try and get information out of you. They did terrible things to us. Those are the only ones I cannot forgive.”

He has a slight limp and looks like he suffers from arthritis, but I didn’t get to ask him why.

There are more than 100 people living on the island, mainly those who care for it, and their families. There is a school there with a 90% pass-rate and a 24-hour medical facility to cater for those living there.

The far side of the island has a number of ship-wrecks and rare bird species can be spotted. Tourists are kept on the bus around the island just in case they want to take a piece of the history home with them. For these a curio shop with all kinds of Robben Island merchandise has been put up.

 

 

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