Cape Town Travel Blog› entry 36 of 42 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.