“While we will not forget the brutalities of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil; a triumph of the wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness; a triumph of the new South Africa over the old.” - Ahmed Kathrada, former prisoner on Robben Island
One of the more popular attractions in Cape Town is the Robben Island Museum and tour — and I just did it. As it says on the website, it’s a constant reminder of the price of freedom. When talking with a few South Africans over the weekend, they told me it was a must-do while here (funny — they told me they haven’t even done it yet!). While waiting to board the ferry, I met a lovely woman from Vancouver, Canada, named Susan, who became my tour buddy for the 3.5-hour tour.
There are 3 tours a day — 9AM, 11AM and 1PM — all beginning with a 25-minute ferry ride across Table Bay to Robben Island. For only R220 (about $30US), you can visit one of South Africa’s most historic and controversial places. In fact, Robben Island has just been named a World Heritage site. An Island once controlled by the Dutch, Robben means “seal” in Dutch named after all of the seals that surround the island. While it will take you about 2-hours to walk around the entire island, its is just over 3 miles miles long and not even 2 miles wide. An island that has been inhabited by cannibals, lepers and criminals for years, it is now a site devoted to the controversial Robben Island prison educating the public about its history. While former South African President Nelson Mandela maybe its most well-known political prisoner, there were a number of occupants. For instance, Robert Sobukwe, co-founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (a splinter group of the African National Congress) in the 1960′s, was banished to the island to live in a house alone. Because of his outspoken opposition and activities to South Africa’s political policies, he was sentenced to the island for 3-years. But, he then became a “detainee”; in fact, a law was passed that kept him there indefinitely. History tells that he was very different than his prisoner counterparts on the island:
On 21 March 1960, the PAC led a nationwide protest against the hated Pass Law which require black people to carry a pass book at all times. Sobukwe led a march to the local police station at Orlando, Soweto in order to openly defy the laws. He was joined on route by a few followers and, after presenting his pass to a police officer, he purposely made himself guilty under the terms of the Pass Law for being present in a region/area other than that allowed in his papers. In a similar protest the same day inSharpeville, police opened fire on a crowd of PAC supporters, killing 69 in the Sharpeville Massacre.
Following Sobukwe’s arrest, he was charged and convicted of incitement, and sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his sentence, he was interned on Robben Island. The new General Law Amendment Act was passed, allowing his imprisonment to be renewed annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. This procedure became known as the “Sobukwe clause” and went on for a further three years. Sobukwe was the only person imprisoned under this clause.
Not allowed to have any contact with anyone on the island, Mr. Sobukwe simply kneeled down and raised his hand while sand fell through his fingers as a way to wave to other prisoners who walked by his house; he said the prisoners on the island represented the sons of the soil of South Africa [note: there is currently an exhibition at the waterfront commemorating the 40th anniversary of his release from Robben Island and contributions toward the struggle for democracy #ineedtogo]. Sadly, he died at the age of 54 under house arrest on mainland South Africa in the mid 1970′s; they say he was slowly poised to death.
Nelson Mandela’s cell
While it is recommended that you purchase your ticket a day in advance, there were people who bought their ticket on-site right before the tour began. [tip: again, purchase your ticket online to avoid the lines; with ticket in hand, you can proceed directly to the ferry boarding]. After the ferry ride, you board a bus for a tour of the island that includes the prison, town, work quarries and the tip of the island that provides you with a magnificent view of Table Mountain and Cape Town across the bay. While the island once boasted 3000 people at one point in its rich history, it now only inhabits about 120 people who work for the government, museum/prison and other establishments. I could go on for days about many historical points from the tour, which began with a tour guide. After the bus portion of the tour, you disembark at the maximum security prison for a tour with an ex-political prisoner. I could listen to his personal stories for days as they were very interesting and illuminating about South Africa’s history. Our tour guide was sentenced to Robben Island’s prison in 1977 at the young age of 19 after being convicted of attending a political meeting at his university. After 6 grueling years in D section (the lowest of the 4 sections and classifications with the least amount of privileges), he was released; yet, he returned years later to tell his stories and experiences at the prison to people like me who were simply too young to remember and have only memories from history class.
We learned much about South Africa’s history from its colonization to apartheid from this very brave man. Did you know:
- Robben Island has been a prison since its discovery by the Dutch in the mid-17th century
- Current President Jacob Zuma was also a political prisoner on the island
- The Cannibals fed on the African Penguins causing them to become exterminated completely on the island by 1800; they are now very populous ranging in the millions as the third largest specie
- Many boats (and a bus) have crashed into the island’s shallow waters, Whale Rock, including a bus that dropped into the water while being flown in by air for a fundraiser with Hillary Clinton, Kofi Anan and Nelson Mandela
- When the first political prisoners arrived in the early 1960′s, the black warders were replaced by whites because they were too sympathetic of the black prisoners
- Only coloured, meaning black, brown and Indian, males were kept as prisoners on the island while white male and white and black female prisoners were kept in a jail elsewhere in South Africa
After the tour through the island and the prison, you can’t help think of the parallels between this dark time in South Africa’s history and our own in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement. While our ex-political prisoner told us they did not retaliate against the Whites during and after their imprisonment (not to sink as low as their oppressors), you can’t help but be reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr’s own philosophy of civil disobedience throughout the 1960′s.
It was a very interesting, historic and impressive experience. It’s absolutely a must-do.