South Africa is currently a country politically divided, with its president, Jacob Zuma, currently in the midst of a corruption battle. However, South Africa has had its fair share of division and segregation over the years. One of the most visible examples of this is a place called Robben Island, an island with a circumference of just 12 kilometres but hundreds of stories of hardship.
|Robben Island prison|
You’ve probably heard of this island before. It’s where Nelson Mandela, the globally-known figure who became the first black President of South Africa, spent 18 years of his life, refusing to negotiate with the South African leaders as he didn’t want his freedom to come at the price of recognising the racist government as acceptable.
|Mandela's cell from the outside|
|Visitors aren't allowed in Mandela's cell anymore because some|
bright spark stole the spoon he used for 18 years
Yet this was not just a prison for one man. Up to 1500 prisoners were based on this island, situated 11km north of Cape Town, at its peak capacity. It also has significance which reaches beyond those 18 years spent here by Mandela.
|The boat leaves from the V&A Waterfront|
The island has had other uses, ranging from protection of Cape Town during World War 2 (as shown by the battery below, which needed 11 men to operate it) to isolating those suffering from leprosy at the turn of the 20th century. Foreshadowing what was to come sixty years later, lepers were segregated according to gender and race.
|The gun battery|
Its main use has generally been as a prison. Since the 14th century, in fact. The Dutch were keen on holding political leaders from conquered lands as far away as the East Indies on the island. It became owned by the British when their empire took permanent control of the Cape Town area in 1814.
|Entrance to Robben Island|
More recently and infamously, it was used to house ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ political prisoners and hardened criminals. Women and white people associated with these crimes were kept elsewhere due the segregationist policies of apartheid. The first jobs of those housed here was, with a sickening similarity to other concentration camps, to build their own maximum security chambers.
|One of the many 'sections' prisoners were divided into|
The first political prisoners were taken in in 1962, with Mandela admitted in 1964 due to his supposed attempt to overthrow the state through his work with the ANC. His number – 466/64 – reflects that he was the 466th prisoner taken in on Robben Island during 1964.
|A photo of Mandela in his cell|
As I’ve mentioned, this place is more than Mandela. Many others who became important and famous politicians in South Africa – including their current leader, Mr Zuma himself – spent time incarcerated on Robben Island.
Those whose ‘crimes’ were smaller were placed in group cells. These housed up to 30 in a large room until 1978, when the government allowed the incarcerated to have bunk beds. The occupancy then increased to 50 per room.
|An example of a cell pre-1978...|
Many of the more politically active prisoners were isolated in individual cells and made to dig limestone on Robben Island, initially for the island’s roads but then ultimately as a punishment. All got permanent eye damage and many eventually suffered from lung cancer.
|The limestone quarry on Robben Island|
When he returned in 1995, five years after becoming a free man, Mandela put a rock in the quarry. Since then, every former inmate who’s returned has added a rock, leading to the small pile of stones visible at the entrance of the quarry.
|The pile of stones is at the entrance to the quarry|
Rather than focus on the negatives of apartheid, the tour you are obliged to undertake by going to Robben Island focuses on the positive stories that come out of it. I’m not convinced this conveys the horror of what so many had to submit to in order to protect their cause. Only the unscripted responses from the guides give you an insight into the difficulties the prisoners must have faced, for example having to shower with sea water every day and the fact that the youngest detainee was just 13 years old.
|Our guide showing us how food rations were|
decided by race
Those guides know so much about the happenings on Robben Island because they were there in previous times. Our guide was Jama, who would have previously been known as 951/77. He served five years of his twenties on Robben Island for organising protests in his high school. Their presence and emotion when speaking off script are a much better indicator of this scar of South Africa’s past.
|Jama explaining how food was cooked and delivered|
Of course, people and counties must be given the opportunity to prove and redeem themselves. Following a change of policy initiated by FW de Klerk, the last political prisoners were released in 1991 and all criminals had been removed from Robben Island by 1996. Spending time there clearly impacted all of those imprisoned; Mandela described Robben Island as a university from what the political activists learnt from each other.
|The words of a man reflecting on his time on Robben Island|
It’s quite bizarre that this outpost is now a money-spinner for Cape Town, with thousands visiting a site where many died or lost a significant chunk of their lives with justification. I guess it’s better described as a memorial rather than a tourist attraction. It gives visitors a better understanding of an atrocity which plunged South Africa into relative isolation for decades and ruined thousands of lives.
In many ways, Robben Island is a metaphor for apartheid: separated, divided and isolated from the rest. In what is still a relatively young democracy, South Africa has a permanent reminder of its nasty past just over 10 kilometres from Cape Town. Jacob Zuma spent 10 years of his life on Robben Island. It would be worth him remembering the principles behind those sacrifices, which certainly didn’t involve swimming pools and cronyism. I can’t imagine he learnt that whilst digging limestone on Robben Island.
|Political activism is still alive in post-apartheid South Africa|
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