Tiny Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town has an area of just 5.07 km2 but holds enough history and tragedy for an Island 100 times that size.
Its name comes from the Dutch word ‘Robbeineiland’ meaning “Seal Island” because of all the seals the Dutch found there way back in the 1600’s. For such a tiny place in a giant ocean, Robben Island has become one of the most well known islands in the world as a result of its notorious past as a prison for convicted criminals and political prisoners. While Nelson Mandela is without a doubt the most famous of these, hundreds of others men spent years of their lives within its walls, imprisoned for crimes occasionally real but often concocted by the former apartheid government. In addition, Robben Island was used as a leper colony and as an animal quarantine station in the late 1800’s.
The ferry to Robben Island leaves from a dock at the V & A Waterfront and takes about 30-40 minutes. Our full boat of tourists becomes subdued as we dock and step onto the shore of this place most of us have only read about. We’re greeted by a giant wall mural with the phrase ”Freedom Cannot Be Manacled”. With these words are three separate sets of photos depicting Nelson Mandela’s journey through the prison: “Repression”, “Release” and “Resurrection”. It’s only the start of our visit but I’m already feeling emotional.
Entering the prison grounds requires us to pass through a gate and under an arch with the words “We serve with pride” in bold letters. To me they seem as ironic as the words “Arbeit macht frei” (“work makes us free”) on the gates at Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.
Once through the gates we’re split into small groups and led to our guide. Former inmates conduct tours through the prison blocks. Our guide is Tom Moses. A soft-spoken man, Tom recounts how he was sent to Robben Island in 1976 at the age of 19 for a variety of contrived offences including terrorism, insurrection, anti-nationalist crimes and opposing apartheid. Most of these charges were related to his attempt to leave South Africa without having the necessary travel documents. By today’s standards few, if any, were serious enough to warrant his incarceration on Robben Island. In fact, many of the prisoners sent here were charged with “made up” crimes simply as a way to try and silence backlash against the apartheid regime.
Tom served nine of his 12-year sentence on Robben Island. Throughout our tour Tom describes the daily life, punishments and the living conditions of the black prisoners on Robben Island – as they were all black or “coloured” (aka East Indian or mixed race background). “White” political prisoners, on the other hand, were held separately in either the prison we visited in Johannesburg or another one in Pretoria. One cell block is particularly moving as each of the cells has been set up to recount the story of one of its former occupants. The story is told with photographs accompanied by an audio description created by the occupant. As we move from cell to cell listening to the stories I’m also aware of the sound of classical music playing over the general prison loud speakers. I ask Tom about the music and he explains that the prison guards decided what music would be played and when. The music was often classical or traditional jazz. Although this may seem like a small thing, to me it personified how powerless the prisoners were over anything at all in their lives – including when and what kind of music they listened to.
The most amazing thing about Tom Moses was that he shared his story with us freely and with compassion. There was no bitterness or anger in his voice, in spite of the inhumane treatment he and others had received on Robben Island. As we stopped in front of Nelson Mandela’s former cell – still exactly the way it was on the day he left – Tom explained about the cold floor, the thin blankets, the poor food, and the toilet bucket (on the left in the photo) that was emptied only once a day.
The prisoners had “outside exercise” each day. Thirty minutes to stand in the outdoors and “relax” furtively trying to plan non-violent actions to assist in the battle against apartheid. Behind the bush in the corner of the courtyard is where Nelson Mandela hid the manuscript to his memoir “A Long Walk to Freedom”. Tom spoke to us of how difficult it was for the political prisoners to hear Mandela saying that they had to forgive their jailers. He admitted to us that, try as he might, he initially did have issues with anger when he was first released: It was not easy to find employment and many of the prisoners felt displaced from their previous lives. Marriages had been ended, children were grown, lives were lost. Tom was not alone in his anger.
The opportunity for Tom and other former inmates to return to Robben Island as guides has given them the strength to face and deal with many of the ghosts of their past. Tom is passionate when he says that he has now truly forgiven not only his captors but the system of inequality that facilitated their behaviour. He says that he knew he would never be free until he was able to forgive with both his heart and his soul. For the sake of his country. For the sake of himself.
Following our tour of the various cell blocks with Tom Moses we board a bus for a drive around the rest of the island. Before we depart Tom tells us that we’ll be going to visit the stone quarry where black prisoners were made to work day in and day out. He tells us that he still can’t talk about the atrocities that happened during those hours. Nor has he been back to the quarry since, except for one time: There was a ceremony held for political prisoners at the quarry after the prison was closed. Tom lets us know that we will see a large pile of stones at the bottom of the quarry (to the left in the photo). Each stone was laid by a former political inmate. Visitors can no longer wander into the quarry to help ensure that the pile of stones remains un-altered. Yet, even just standing on the edge of the quarry, I’m amazed at how deep and wide the hole is. And to think that it was dug entirely by hand … by men.
Our bus tour continues around the island. We pass a series of well constructed kennels, home to former guard dogs that lived and were treated far better than any of the prisoners. We also pass the graveyard for the lepers who died on Robben Island as well as a small mosque, Moturu Kramat, built to commemorate Prince Madura one of Cape Town’s first imams. He was exiled to Robben Island in the mid-1740/s and died here in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage to the shrine before leaving the island.
We stop at a small canteen by the shore with one of the best views of Table Mountain to be found. How ironic that such a beautiful view can be found at such a notorious place.
Before I came to South Africa I knew very little about apartheid. It was an incredibly moving experience to have been on Robben Island and to have had the chance to discuss that period of time with someone who’d been imprisoned there for almost a decade. Tom Moses, who’d experienced it all first-hand made everything about apartheid more real for me and I’m grateful to have met him and to have had the chance to visit Robben Island.