Robben Island

There are lots of things you’d like to see when visiting Cape Town, others that are a must-see, but just the odd one or two that are practically compulsory and one of those is Robben Island.

I don’t intend writing in detail about the place. Enough has been said about the prison island, about the way it was used by the authorities in a futile to hold back the inevitable tide of change in the country and about the remarkable Nelson Mandela who somehow managed to retain his wisdom and humanity even after 18 years spent on the island.

I will confine myself to my experience of the visit and my own photos taken there.

The guides to the prison and prison life are all former inmates. Ours was called Jama. He was a 19 year old high school student when he was arrested in 1977 for his part in organising a demonstration against apartheid. For that he spent five years of his young life on Robben Island.

He was a thoughtful and gentle guide who answered the most thoughtless questions with dignity and humour, such as: “How long did it take to bring you to the island?”

“Well…” a pause and a smile, “we weren’t given wristwatches and we inside the boat, but I would guess around 45 minutes.”

It felt a great privilege to be shown around by him and I only wish I had had more time to speak to him about why he chose to be a guide and how he felt about the new South Africa. I did find out that he’s a Manchester United fan though!

Throughout the tour, he didn’t refer to Nelson Mandela; it was Mr Mandela’s cell, and Mr Mandela’s garden, and the like. This in contrast with the younger guide on the tour bus who was far more familiar when talking about the great man.

But he was no less knowledgeable and one of his descriptions in particular struck me. It concerned Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan African Congress and leader of the protest against the Pass Law in 1960 that lead to the Sharpeville Massacre. He got his own law passed to keep him in solitary confinement on Robben Island even after his term of imprisonment had ended.

That, of course, is the history of “Seal Island” for the last 300 years — a place to imprison those who preach against the orthodoxy of the state.

I’ll say no more and let my photos do the talking.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

2 comments… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 24th February 2011

    Some super photos – evidencing a very special day trip. Last year I read a book about the development of organised football on Robben Island. Did you see the quarry where men broke their backs for apartheid’s preservation?

  • Mr Parrot 24th February 2011

    There were some old photos on display, propaganda pics taken to demonstrate the humane treatment. We also saw the quarry where the prisoners chipped away at limestone in the searing heat for no other useful than punishment. Many have since suffered eyes problems because of the dust, including Mr Mandela.


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