Robben Island

21 December 2011 --- I went to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held for decades during the Apartheid days in South Africa. It wasn't as heart wrenching as I expected it to be. Nelson Mandela insisted that the site not be a memorial to the ill treatment and suffering of the prisoners, but a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit.

Robben Island Entrance

The Dutch first came to South Africa 1652 and wrenched the land from the two peoples who were inhabiting it, the Koiy and the San. They used Robben Island as a place to isolate people such as lepers and the Irish who came to care for them. Those buildings were all demolished except the stone church and their cemetery.

Leper ChurchLeper Cemetery

Former prisoners are the guides through the maximum security prison. There were three prisons, low security for robbers and minor crimes, medium security for murderers and rapists, and maximum security for political prisoners deemed the most threatening. I am afraid I didn't catch the name of our guide, but he was in this prison from 1984 to 1989. In the second photo he was saying goodbye to the woman next to me on the bus, as old friend.

Robben Island GuideRobben Island guide

He showed us the identity cards each prisoner had. The example was Billy Nair, a Hindu, who was prisoner number 69 of 1964. The diet of prisoners was determined by their race. For example, the Coloured or Asiatic got 1oz fat, 6 oz meat, and 1 oz of jam or syrup a day, while Bantus (blacks) got 1/2 oz fat, 5 oz meat, and no jam or syrup. Most were malnourished.

Robben Island Identity CardRobben Island Diets

Each cell had a photo of a longterm detainee that occupied that cell. There was a cement paper wrapper in one locker with a description of how they confiscated that to have something to write on for their mutual education activities. In another cell was a belt made from fishing nets that washed up on the shore. The leather parts were made from old shoes. Here are some of the detainees:

Johnson MlamboMoses MasemolaSalzi Veldtman

Robben Island cement paperbelt made at Robben Island

Nelson Mandela was prinsoner number 466/69, the 466th prisoner of 1969. Using their numbers instead of their names was one of the many ways that the prison system dehumanized the detainees. They were allowed 6 letters per year in the 1960s and 6 visitors per year, and all were censored. The visitors were only allowed to speak English or Afrikans and the guides listened, or they were taped. By the 1980s the International Red Cross had intervened and things were a bit more humane: 18 letters per year and 18 visitors with no language requirements.

We saw Nelson Mandela's cell, bathroom facilities, garden, etc.

Nelson Mandela's cellNelson Mandela's showers

Nelson Mandela's toiletsNelson Mandela's garden

The prisoners were required to work in a rock quarry. They had no protective clothing, hats or sunglasses. Many of them went blind. To this day, Nelson Mandela asks that no one use flash when taking his photo. When he returned to Robben Island as President, along with many other surviving detainees. He put a couple of stones of different colours at the entrance to the rock quarry to symbollize the different colours of people who were housed there. The other detainees followed suit, so there is a mound of stones of different colours at the quarry site.

Robben Island Rock Quarry

There was an exhibition on the history of soccer at the prison. Again, the International Red Cross was helpful in getting information out from the prison and that put pressure on for more humane treatment. While it was enjoyable for the detainees, the soccer was also used for propoganda and for punishment. The teams were quite proud of belonging to the international Football Association (FIFA) even though South Africa was banned from the World Cup.

The selection of Durban as the site for the 2010 World Cup was a symbol of change for South Africa. But there are still townships that are limited to one of the three non-white categories: black, coloured, and Indian. I met a young black man on the train who was 19 and currently had a black girlfriend, but that wasn't serious because he wanted to marry a coloured girl so he could live in a coloured town.

Belonging to the African National Congress (ANC) was what landed most of the political prisoners in Robben Island. Now, 17 years after the end of Apartheid, the ANC is in control of the government. But several people of different races told me that the lowest of the low living in the townships are not much better off than they were under Apartheid.

The structure of the townships is reasonably nice houses on the inside and shacks around the outside. Our wine tour guide, Graham Bell, told us that a man who worked for his tour agency lost his home to fire, a shack in one of the townships. The man was embarrassed and didn't want anyone else to know, but asked Graham for the money to rebuild the shack. So he found out that the material to build a shack cost US$ 300.

To finish off this Robben Island essay, here is the view of Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robben Island.

View from Robben Island

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