Robben Island

Cape Town Travel Blog

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On board the large boat that takes you over to the island

Of the touristy things, the most memorable by far include Robben Island and the Boulder Beach penguin colony.  Robben Island of course is the prison where Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners spent far too much of their lives while the apartheid government struggled to stay in power.  The standard tour takes you on a 20 minute boat ride out to the island, and then puts you in a bus with a tour guide who very likely was a former prisoner himself.  The bus tour takes you around and gives a general history of the island, of which the prison is just a single part.  Among other things, the island was used a leper colony and a refilling station for boats that were working their way around the cape to or from the Orient.  You see the limestone quarries where the prisoners mined limestone that would never ever be used for anything.

  You see the homes that the prison guards used to live in and the churches where they took their families on Sundays.  Now that the island is a museum, those homes are lived in by the people that work there, including the tour guides and other employees.      

     After the bus tour we were brought in to the prison itself, and we met up with a different tour guide.  Our new guide had also once been a political prisoner here.  He referred to himself as a “rank and file” member of the opposition, meaning that he wasn’t shaping the anti-apartheid policy or making any decisions, but was actively participating in the protests and activities.  He was more somber than the previous guide, telling us what prison life was like, the ways in which he was tortured by the guards, and how the prisoners used to pass messages back and forth to each other inside of a tennis ball that they “accidentally” hit in to the other yard.

  At one point during the tour, some dude passed by our guide and smiled and stopped to shake his hand.  They had a brief but jovial conversation that I couldn’t understand and then the guy went about his business.  The guide explained to us that the guy who had just come by used to be one of the guards, and is now also employed on the island.  They are friends now.  It was incredible to me that these guys would get along so well, but the guide explained that while some of the guards were cruel people, some of them were just doing their job, and while doing so grew to feel very sympathetic for the prisoners.  Because of this, the guard staff was changed every 3 years and the prisoners would have to repeat the process of convincing the new staff that they weren’t godless communist animals bent on taking over the government and killing all the white people.
  I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been.      

     The cell blocks and individual cells are all open now, and in each cell there is a picture hanging of the prisoner who lived there, and a short biography.  It’s pretty powerful to walk around and see the faces and read about these people, and to think that this wasn’t happening some long long time ago, it was happening in my lifetime, and these people are still alive.  This goes back to one of the things I find most exciting about South Africa; the strong, pervasive feeling that its history is being written right now, coupled with a great optimism that things can still change significantly for the better – a point I’ll come back to later.

  The cell that housed Nelson Mandela is closed off, but you can see through the bars that it was a barren cell just like all the others.  Finally we are led to the yard where after extreme international pressure, Mandela was eventually allowed to grow and cultivate a garden.  There are plaques and photos here memorializing the importance of this yard to the man who would become the nation’s president.  If you come to Cape Town, you really have to go on this tour or you’ll miss out on an extremely significant portion of South Africa’s history.

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On board the large boat that takes…
On board the large boat that take…
Cape Town
photo by: v10