Robben Island

Last week, I went to Robben Island.  Yes, the island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of his imprisonment.  But, so did many other political prisoners.  And I was able to meet some of them.

First, I would like to say that I can’t even fathom spending 18 years in prison.  I’m 21 years old, and 18 years is so much time. (Well, 18 years is probably a lot of time for everyone.) And what’s worse is that for many of the people that were imprisoned on Robben Island were in the middle of something important when they were arrested.  Some were fighting for social justice.  Some were political leaders.  And when they were taken to the island, they were left powerless.

So, when I disembarked onto Robben Island (from the ferry), the first thing I saw were these blue boards that described the history of Robben Island.


Then, we got on a bus that drove us to some places around the island (which is about 13 km in circumference), and there was a man that told us things about the island and the prison.  Here are some things that I could remember:

  • The prison was built by its own political prisoners.  Every weekday, prisoners were assigned a different task around the island, and they would go to work for 8-9 hours a day.
    • Tasks included removing lime from limestone, which is a hazard to one’s health.  (I’m not even sure if this is possible – anyone know chemistry?) The people in charge knew it was hazardous to health, but the prisoners were forced to do it anyway.
  • There is a symbolic pile of rocks right in front of the limestone fields.  They didn’t allow us to go near it.  The story is after Robben Island was shut down in 1994, Nelson Mandela invited the former-prisoners to return a year later for a reunion.  Mandela set one rock down, and every other former-prisoner stacked theirs on top.
  • There was one man named Robert Sobukwe, who was imprisoned on Robben Island in solitary confinement.  Considered to by a highly radical member of the ANC, pro-apartheid officials were really scared of him at the time.  He lived in a separate area on the Island where he had no contact with other prisoners.
    The General Law Amendment Act No 37 of 1963. otherwise known as the Sobukwe Clause, allowed him to be detained an additional six years in prison (his original sentence was 3 years).
    Eventually, Sokubwe was diagnosed with cancer, and he was allowed to move to Kimberley to live with his family under house arrest.  Or, was he placed under house arrest, and then was diagnosed with cancer?  Different people will tell you different things.
  • Robben Island was also used as a place to keep the lepers.  There is a leper graveyard.
  • “Dogs were taught to be racist,” the tour guide said.  There were only blacks, coloureds, and Indians imprisoned on Robben Island during apartheid.  The majority were blacks.
  • Robben Island is not only home to a prison.  The Historic Village is where the prison guards and the doctors of the lepers used to live.  Now, about 200 people live in Historic Village, who are mostly all employed by the prison (part of the tourism industry).  Our tour guide, lives on the main land, and must commute to Robben Island every day.
  • Robben Island was prepared for use during WWII.  It was prepared as a line of defense, but the war was never brought to southern Africa.

After we got off the bus, we were taken into the “Maximum Security Prison”, where we met Vusumsi Mcongo, an ex-prisoner.  Vusumsi was imprisoned on the island from 1978-1990. He gave us a tour around the Maximum Security Prison (MSP), and described what a typical day was like.

There was separate menu for blacks (otherwise known as “bantus”) vs. Asians/Coloureds.  If you were black, the conditions were worse.  In general, prisoners would wake up in the early morning, get cleaned up, queue for breakfast, go to work, come back, eat dinner, sleep, and start all over again.  On the weekends, for some prisoners, there were chances for recreational activity — there’s a football (soccer) field on the island.  The MSP is divided up into sections, probably because each section was completed at different times.  There are bars on all the rooms and minimal necessities (must have been extremely cold in the winter).  High walls divided each section so prisoners could not communicate with each other. Section C is known as the punishment section of MSP, where Vusumsi stayed for 7 months. We were also able to see Mandela’s cell.

I could tell that Vusumsi still didn’t really share his entire story.  One of my friends tried to ask him personal questions, but it seemed like either, they couldn’t understand each other, or he didn’t want to share.  I don’t know what it would be like to live in such a place in such a time as apartheid.  I feel, after some years, the experience of living in a prison is normalized.  If not, you wouldn’t survive.  It must also help to have people who are in the same conditions as you, who potentially believe in the same things you do.  (Reminds me of the “The Count of Monte Cristo”.)

I don’t know how I feel about my experience on Robben Island.  I am so thankful that I could go, but I could never really understand what happened there.  I think it’s very unique that this prison was for political prisoners (and yes, some convicted criminals), because the crime is not about violence but beliefs.  One of things that Vusumsi encouraged us to do is to tell people.  About the island.  About what we learned.  About anything related.  Tell people to visit.  I highly encourage everyone, at any point of your life, to try to visit this place (I know that this may be impossible for many).  Listen to their stories.  There is so much history here that I can’t justify, so I haven’t written out everything I learned.  Plus, there’s so much history here that I couldn’t get to hear myself (con of going with a big group of people).

In general, I think it’s really hard to grasp what happened on Robben Island for so many years.  Especially if you don’t know anything about apartheid, and I don’t really know as much as I would like to.  I am truly humbled by this experience, and I hope to return before I leave.

I added another book to my book list: “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela.

Over and out.

PS. I have been thinking about how ex-prisoners feel about Mandela’s fame.  It is no doubt that Mandela contributed a lot to the progress of South Africa.  Everyone (exaggerating for a point) knows who Mandela is — movies were made about him, books were written, memorials around the world (including one at Berkeley) sprang up in honor of him.  But, he was not alone.  I wonder how these ex-prisoners feel about Mandela getting a highly disproportionate amount of fame, even though they were a part of the fight as well.

PPS.  Mandela is not the only post-apartheid South African president who was imprisoned on Robben Island.  Jacob Zuma (current president) and Kgalema Motlanthe were imprisoned there too.

PPPS. I am feeling a little hesitant to post these pictures because I feel like they are deeply personal and of a place of suffering.  I confess, I took very touristy photos while I was on the island (because it’s still beautiful — it’s not dreary like Azkaban), and I am reflecting on whether or not it was appropriate that I should have.  This is an area of personal conflict.

PPPPS. I apologize for making a reference to Harry Potter.

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