Robben Island – “We’re all on this journey together”

We knew from the outset that one of our Cape Town ‘must-sees’ would be Robben Island so we purchased our tickets before we even left the U.S.

Despite being walking distance from our accommodations at the V&A Waterfront to the Nelson Mandela Gateway, if our guide, Ian, hadn’t shown up when he did, we would have missed the boat – we were so late getting ready!

Seeing Cape Town on our first morning, bathed in the sparkling golden sunlight, was breathtaking. But shortly after leaving our temporary apartment, we were at the ferry terminal.

Getting on the ferry

The ferry was full of people of all ages, sizes, sex and nationalities but we found seats together just as it pushed off.

On the ferry

After leaving the terminal, a video explaining the history of Robben Island and the apartheid system began playing on the ferry’s television. It was a poignant reminder of why we were making the journey and as tears welled in my eyes, I tried hard to swallow the lump in my throat. The video ended just before we arrived at our destination.

A small, desolate island about 30 minutes by ferry from Cape Town, Robben Island is a harsh environment where South Africa’s undesireds were banished. It has been a colony for lepers, a prison for convicts and for those whose political views were at odds with the government’s. Since the 1800s, only one man, Autshumao, has ever escaped.

Robben Island map

Although it has served as a place of internment for so many, its most famous prisoner was Nelson Mandela.

Robben Island is so inextricably tied to Mandela, we tend to forget that other prisoners were interned there, among them Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, former ANC activist, Walter Sisulu, and Robert Subukwe, founder of the Pan African Congress, a breakaway organization of the African National Congress. Subukwe was considered so dangerous to the apartheid regime that he was kept in solitary confinement in a separate building away from the rest of the population. He was forbidden from being in contact with the others but devised a simple set of hand signals that became his only means of communication.

Tour buses

We climbed aboard one of the many buses that awaited the ferry for a tour of the island.

Robben Island entrance

Our young guide, whose grandfather had been imprisoned on the Island, spiced his prepared script with funny, personal anecdotes, including one where he would be getting married at this beautiful church on Valentine’s Day – only he just didn’t have a fiancée yet! (I felt so badly for him, I volunteered to be his bride.)

Robben Island church

His stories made us chuckle and lightened the weight of the message he was delivering – a good thing as a few of the older South African women aboard were sobbing quietly.

Derick Basson, a slight man, maybe 40 or 50 years old, with a gentle voice that bore not a hint of bitterness, led us through the tour of the prison. He explained daily life on Robben Island, how, for example, black prisoners were allowed a diet that was heavy on carbohydrates, light on protein while the Indian and Colored prisoners were given more protein. Even behind bars, apartheid circumscribed black lives.

Prisoners, including Mandela, worked outside, even during the winter months.

Listening to Derick explain life on Robben Island, I was surprised that he could have found the strength to return to the place that is a symbol of so much pain. I had to ask but as soon as I did, I knew: it was partly therapeutic and partly to make sure their stories were told.

Prisoners on Robben Island were housed in small cells in several one-story buildings. Each cell looked no more than 7′ or 8’ square with bars at the gate and two small windows. Mandela’s had a table and pail. A roll of blankets marked the spot on the floor where he slept.

Mandela’s cell
Cold ground was his bed

As Bob Marley sang in Duppy Conqueror, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have expected that these bars could have controlled a man whose spirit was so larger than life.

But seeing the cell reduced us to tears.

The bars that tried to control him

We stayed such a long time staring, crying, holding our hearts, whispering among ourselves and taking photos that Derick came to find us — the ferry was getting ready to leave.

When he approached, I reached for his hand and began to thank him but instead of words coming out, I began sobbing uncontrollably, overtaken by the emotion of the day. The sobs wracked my body so deeply, it was as if I had tapped into the deep reservoir of collective black pain – I knew I wasn’t crying just for me. Derick began apologizing – he thought he had me cry – and asked if he could give me a hug. I explained through my sobs that it wasn’t his fault, I was crying for his suffering and the pain all the others had endured.

Overcome by emotion

The ferry horn brought us back to reality.  I composed myself and we began running towards the boat -we were among a small group that was the last to board.

As I sat down, I felt drained by the emotions of the day. All I wanted to do was sleep – we all did. But when we told Ian, he suggested – no, insisted – that we visit Table Mountain. It was such a spectacular day, he said, it would be best to not to put off seeing the mountain as there was no guarantee the weather would be the same another day.

We agreed and headed to Table Mountain.

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5 comments on “Robben Island – “We’re all on this journey together”

  1. Like you say people tend to focus on Nelson Mandela, but there were other prisoners both there and in other places. My awareness of apartheid was triggered by Peter Gabriel and his song about Stephen Bantu Biko.

    I actually saw Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium in London, pretty soon after his release, at a concert they held in his name. When he came onto the stage at the end of the concert, all the crowd (about 80K) stood up and gave him a standing ovation that lasted nearly 15 minutes. It was an unforgettable evening.

  2. Pingback: Nelson Mandela – An International Tribute for a Free South Africa | myrockdatediary
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