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Robben Island: an emotional day in South Africa

© By Ann Wallace

  It seems long ago, those days in the early seventies when I lived and worked in Cape Town without a care in the world. I was vocal in my criticism of apartheid and made some small gestures to try to improve the lot of the disadvantaged who touched my life; yet, my days were pleasant, and I remember lying in the sun on the pretty beaches at Clifton looking over the ocean towards Robben Island. To my shame, I can't remember if I ever thought very much about the inhabitants of that island prison, for so long, a place of banishment and suffering for South Africa's political dissidents. I am certain that I never imagined that one day I, too, would take the boat across Table Bay to the island, see the ominous signs and the tiny cells and walk in the lime quarry where the prisoners toiled in the blinding white heat.
     27 years after I last cast my eyes on this beautifully-situated city, I returned, much older, I hope a little wiser and certainly happy to find "a new South Africa." So much has changed, yet sadly I was to find many things had not improved. Yes, the prisoners are gone from Robben Island and the entire site is now classified as a Museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that welcomes scores of visitors daily. But out on the nearby dismal Cape Flats many people still live in the squalor they have endured for generations. So, when you visit South Africa, consider not only going to glimpse the past lives of the Robben Island prisoners but also the hard, day-to-day life of today's still-disadvantaged people. It's not your average tour, but it's interesting and moving, and you will have the opportunity to talk with many people about South Africa's problems and hopes for the future. At the end of the day, you will have a far deeper understanding of this complex land.
     Robben Island, a low-lying island, is situated at the entrance to Table Bay, 14 km. from Cape Town, reached via a half-hour ride on a modern, stable ferry. Visitors can choose various options for guided or self-guided tours. Tours of the Maximum Security Prison are conducted by ex-political prisoners who tell stories and answer questions about personal experiences while incarcerated. This is an amazing experience for the visitors and the questions come thick and fast. What did you eat? Where did you work? For how many hours a day? What about visitors ... religious services ... health and hygiene ... clothes ... news from 'outside' ... books? Could you study? Was it cold in winter? Were you housed with the criminal prisoners? Were you tortured? My group guide, Derick Basson, imprisoned for five years when he was 18, answered our questions with dignity and without exaggeration or bitterness. Many had tears in our eyes, and I thought again of my own carefree days on the beach just across the bay.
     Visitors view the reception office, the prison court, the hated censor's office, the courtyard and the cells, including the one Nelson Mandela occupied for 18 of his 27 years in prison. There are recorded 'cell stories,' archives, videos, records or prison songs and a selection of artifacts - unexceptional objects with powerful stories behind them: a belt made from fishing tackle, a belt buckle made from a discarded toilet pipe, a blanket pin, musical instruments constructed from pieces of garbage and so on.
     The Maximum Security Prison is not the only site to be seen on Robben Island. In fact the whole island bears testament to its 400 years of infamous history. Unwilling inhabitants in the past have included slaves, political and religious leaders who opposed colonialism, African leaders who resisted British expansion in South Africa, leprosy sufferers, the mentally disturbed and French Vichy prisoners of war. Then the island became the place the place of incarceration for both common criminals and political opponents of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. Other, more willing, inhabitants have included the lighthouse keeper and his family and, of course, the staff of the prison.
     These people lived in the Robben Island Village with their families and a supporting community: a governor, religious leaders, medical personnel and the teachers of the primary school. How strange it must be for some South Africans who can claim, "I grew up on Robben Island."
     The island bus tour takes visitors from the prison to see the house where Robert Sobukwe, founding president of the Pan African Congress, was confined and isolated from the other prisoners. Not far away is the Lime Quarry where the political prisoners toiled through the hot summers and chilly, wet winters. At the quarry entrance there's a small cairn. This dates from February 1995 when over 1,000 ex-political prisoners gathered together again on Robben Island. To mark the occasion, each man picked up a small rock or stone in the quarry area and placed them in a pile to stand as a simple memorial to their years of hardship and struggle.
     The new Robben Island Museum is a work in progress. By January 2002 the curators hope to have established a range of unique settings for special events as well as overnight accommodations in the Victorian Governors' House which has been converted into a guest house. I can't imagine the average tourist wishing to spend more than a day here, however. The island isn't exactly a beauty spot, although the views of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsular are spectacular on a fine day. Keen birders, however, will be interested in the 74 bird species that have been recorded here, including ostrich, oystercatchers and a penguin colony that can be viewed from the Penguin Boardwalk. The island is also home to eland, rare bontebok, springbok and European fallow deer.
     As the ferry sped back across the bay I read the visitor information booklet Welcome to Robben Island that I had been given. It closes with the words: "We trust that you will leave Robben Island with the feeling that you have shared a great learning experience with us. You have participated in a pilgrimage which, we hope, will inspire you to help make the world a better place." Yes, a visit to Robben Island is a moving and inspiring experience.
     Standard tours of Robben Island last 3½ hours and cost R150, which includes the ferry from the mainland, the Maximum Security Prison tour, the 45-minute island bus tour with a guide and time to explore the harbour precinct with its penguin boardwalk, Museum shop and cafeteria. Ferries leave hourly from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.


Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.

Photo Credits
Ann Wallace
South African Tourism

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