I visited Robben Island some years ago when I was on duty travel to Cape Town. We took a boat to and from the Island. I had seasickness on the journey back and could not enjoy the Cape Town skyline.
Welcome to Robben Island!
I learnt quite a few things during my visit, some depressing and some quite encouraging.
- There were both political and civilian prisoners but were housed in separate buildings.
- Robben Island was previously a colony for leprosy patients and later converted to a prison.
- The Island did not initially have trees, so shrubs and trees were planted to give shade to the patients. Even now, though the Island looked quite bare as the trees are not only a short species but far and few.
- There are a lot of ostriches on the Island, fenced off of course. It was my first time to see the birds and could not believe how big and fast they are on their feet. One of them ran alongside our safari van for a distance and it was an interesting sight.
- Guards’ families lived on the Island and had ‘normal’ lives like everyone else everywhere. I had thought that the families lived on the mainland while the guards lived on the island.
- We passed by the a limestone quarry on the Island where prisoners used to work. Many of them, including Nelson Mandela, had their eyesight impaired because of the glare from the stone.
This is the Administration block of Robben Island – I had expected something more imposing considering the notoriety of the prison.
7. Inmates were allowed to study various subjects, including law, which I found interesting. I know inmates in many countries can study, but I expected that since most of the prisoners here were political ones then they would be punished some more by being denied education.
8. Some guards were helpful by warning inmates that there would be inspections and helping them hide banned materials. Apparently some of the guards were so helpful that they became fast secret friends with the inmates. The guards, however, had to give the appearance of treating their inmate friends harshly in the presence of other guards so that they did not raise any suspicions.
9. Guards used to cross out texts in inmates’ incoming and outgoing letters to give wrong or confusing information. Talk of mind games….
Mandela’s cell – it was not as small as I expected. I was also surprised that inmates’ doors had bars instead of solid material and directly opposite other inmates’ doors. This thus allowed for face-to-face communication, though it was forbidden.
10. Some former white guards continued working on the Island after the end of apartheid, but as tour guides.
11. Some former inmates also work as tour guides alongside the white ex-guards. My tour guide is black and was in Robben Island prison for more than twenty years with Nelson Mandela.
12. My guide informed us that former inmates bear no grudge against white ex-guards as they were just doing their jobs during apartheid. He said more importantly, the inmates’ objective, namely independence, was achieved so there was no need to be angry. The ex-guards had been afraid of retaliation at first, but the ex-inmates assured them that they did not hold anything against them and had not been fighting against them, per se. Some were now good friends in spite of the abuse that had been meted out during prison days.
13. We were informed that former inmates look at Mandela not as better than them but just as a symbol of the struggle and they do not mind that he was the most well known ex-inmate. The guide in fact, said having a ‘symbol’ give the struggle a human face and so received more sympathy and support.
My visit to Robben Island was quite interesting and enlightening. I know of some South African colleagues whose fathers were also on Robben Island and wanted to visit the place. A Rwandan colleague on the other hand refused to visit Robben Island because it reminded her of her father was killed during the genocide. She said she had had enough bad things happening because of politics and so she did not want to have anything to do with the Island.
I really have no idea why I thought taking a photo in the ablution block was a good idea, but anyway, here is it.