Robben Island – A humbling experience

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere.”
There couldn’t be a more powerful explanation for freedom. And that comes from the man who became an epitome of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the leader recognized by the world as the first black president of South Africa, followed by the abolition of Apartheid has left his mark all over the country. One such location is Robben Island. There are four trips each day to the island starting from the Victoria and Albert Waterfront Nelson Mandela Gateway. Pick one and if you are lucky you can visit this intriguing place.
Robben Island, inhabited since the early 1400s by the Khoi Khoi tribe, has since it’s discovery been special to South Africa. Once believed to be a part of the South African mainland, it is believed that the island is actually a whole mountain with the rest of it under the ocean. It has since been used as a location for banishment for whoever had control over the country. The Dutch used it for their prisoners, the British for theirs, and The National Party for anti-apartheid  revolutionaries during their rule.
The island has therefore been a prison and a place for isolation, banishment, and exile for offenders and political prisoners for nearly 400 years. Located about 7 km to the west of Cape Town, Robben Island earned its name from a colony of seals that was found abundantly around the island. This approximately 5.07 square kilometer island saw the release of its last group of prisoners in 1996 and has since been converted into a museum that is an experience worth having.
It was a brilliantly sunny day with a perfect blue sky when we landed on the island. How ironic that on a day like today, we were on our way to visit and walk through perhaps one of the most gruesome, unhappy, and difficult part of the history of this nation. All visitors to the island follow the same route every prisoner was made to take as they were brought in to serve their sentence, through the Murray’s Bay Harbour. We followed the same route and walked down to the Maximum Security Prison area through the visitor’s area. The prison tour guides are all ex-prisoners from the Robben Island prison, for whom talking about the difficult life they have lived under sentence at this very location, is probably a way out of the massive shadow the experience must have cast of their entire lifetime. Here we met a man who had also served his sentence on this very island as a prisoner during the anti-apartheid time.
Itumeleng Makwela, arrested and charged for high treason and sabotage in 1983 was sentenced to the Robben Island prison for 7 years. He was a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) called “Umkhonto we Sizwe” founded by Nelson Mandela, which in English stands for “Spear of the Nation” and was arrested at the Botswana-South Africa border bringing in arms. After being moved through numerous prisons and being subject to inhuman torture, Mr. Makwela broke down and revealed names of places where more guns were hidden. He spent his first two years in the E block with 49 other inmates in a hall fit for a maximum of 35. His last 5 years were spent as a cook in the kitchen block cooking the same food every day, even when he himself along with other inmates participated in a hunger strike for better living conditions within the prison. He told us how prisoners scooped open tennis balls that they were sometimes allowed to play with and put notes inside them and toss them to the next prison area.

His years in prison had left him a bitter man, as every word he spoke about how prisoners were treated would hit you at the very center of your heart. His stories about how during a time, not too long ago, being black, in an African country was a crime, brought quite a few of us sitting there to tears. It is not about the words so much as it was the meaning…how the powerful always take away the basic rights from the powerless.

Mr. Makwela took us through various sections of the prison explaining how each one was a picture of exploitation and torture. He shared that the inmates were provided with just a mat to sleep on the floor and a blanket to keep themselves warm even when the temperature dropped to 5 degrees Celsius resulting to most of them suffering from pneumonia and tuberculosis. Food was provided to prisoners based on their race and skin colour and they were not allowed any visitor for 6 months and were subject to monitoring and being allowed to speak only in Afrikaans or English for only 30 minutes when they had somebody over from home for a visit. Any other native language would mean the visit being terminated instantly. Prisoners were allowed 1 letter every 6 months, which would be monitored, censored, and edited with disputed sections blacked out. For prisoners, the most brutal punishment would be denying them the right to learn and he proudly shared how in spite of the hardship, many continued taking extension courses while at Robben Island.
Prisoners housed in various sections were treated differently, based on their race, colour and offense and each was issued an identity card that they needed to carry wherever they went. Political prisoners like Nelson Mandela (1964-1982), Walter Sisulu (1964-1989), Billy Nair (1964-1984, he is the prisoner whose card is used as an exhibit during the tour), Seth Mazibuko (1976-1983, he is the only prisoner arrested under the age of 18, and kept in solitary confinement), Jacob Zuma (1963-1973), Ahmed Kathrada (1964-1989), Mac Maharaj (1964-1976, he is believed to have smuggled the transcript for Mr. Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” out of Robben Island when he was released) just to name a few, have spent years in the Robben Island prison mostly during the Apartheid reign. Mr. Makwela then took us to the B Section and from the prisoners’ ground showed us the third window that belonged to the cell where Mr. Mandela had spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. The 7 feet by 9 feet cell had a mat, a blanket, a small table with a plate and a cup, and a bucket for defecation. And Mr. Mandela was not alone! This whole section comprising solitary cells was home to 90 of the most sought-after political offenders. He also remembered how the inmates were cleaned up and fed better when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) came for visits to inspect prison conditions.
Saying our goodbyes to Mr. Makwa, we boarded a bus that was to take us around the island. As we moved on, the first thing that caught our attention was a vast cemetery area. The guide on the bus informed us that this was the leper cemetery. Apparently, Robben Island was not just used as a prison but also as a place for banishment and confinement. Lepers, in any society, are quarantined and starting from 1845 the island became a confinement destination for lepers. They were not allowed to return to normal life since leprosy was believed to be contagious and most died on the island itself. A few blocks ahead the guide stopped the bus to tell us a unique story.
To our left was a cluster of a small building and the signboard read Robert Sobukwe House. He also told us that bang opposite the said house was where the kennel was, that housed ferocious dogs, who incidentally also held offices, and that too higher than their controllers. But let us come back to Mr. Sobukwe. 
Professor Robert Sobukwe founded the Pan Africanist Congress after leaving ANC. The Pass Laws, in action since the 1800s to allow control over the movement of the slaves by the masters, had seen several protests over the years. A literal instrument of the Apartheid regime, the passes were meant to be carried around by all black, coloured and Asian people to justify their presence in certain parts of the city or towns. This implied that if found to be present somewhere where they are not allowed to be, they would be detained, arrested, or punished. On 21st March 1960, PAC members led by Mr. Sobukwe walked around Sharpeville urging people to leave their passes at home and surrender themselves as a form of non-violent protest against the pass system. During the march, Sobukwe was arrested. As the march continued toward the Sharpeville police station, the police opened fire on a crowd of several thousand protesters, killing 69 and wounding over 180. The incident is known in history as the Sharpeville Massacre. Robert Sobukwe was arrested on charges of inciting a massacre and was imprisoned for 3 years and on his release in 1963, he was banished to Robben Island for solitary confinement not as a prisoner but in a solitary two-room house far from the prison compound. Sobukwe was detained under the “Sobukwe Clause” which was specially written into the Suppression of Communities Act of 1950 and amended in 1963, that empowered the courts of South Africa to renew a prisoner’s confinement based on their will. The only way he could communicate with other prisoners was through gestures showing solidarity as they passed his house every day on their way to the quarry.
Life at Robben Island was far from an easy one, no matter who the prisoner and what the charges. Irrespective of their political status, all high profile political prisoners were subject to the same gruel, torture, and hardship. Soon we came to the historic limestone quarry. In 1963, political prisoners from the general section and later Leadership sections prisoners from the B section were all made to work at this quarry. Most of the limestone excavated from here was used to resurface roads on the island. Verbally and physically harassed by several white prison wardens, the Rivonia Trial prisoners including the likes of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, Jacob Zuma, Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj and others spent their days breaking rocks into gravel.


The South African sun was merciless in summers and the quarry was bright and dusty that permanently damaged Mr. Mandela’s eyes. The pile of stones called the Isisivane at the entrance to quarry was created by ex-political prisoners led by Mr. Mandela during their reunion on the island in 1995, commemorating the daily life and hard work of the prisoners at the Robben Island. But it was also here, in the dark and dusty recess in the quarry that made political, literary and philosophical discussions a possibility and this is often termed as the first parliament of a democratic South Africa.

We also passed a few churches, a Muslim Kramat built in the honour of Sheikh Madura, a lone lighthouse that still warns ships of the most unforgiving and treacherous coast around the island, and stopped to have coffee at Alpha One, that at one point of time used to be a water pumping station. This portion of the island also has a beautiful frame that holds a view of the city of Cape Town and the grand Table Mountain. With beautiful flora and fauna all across the island and penguins, seals, tortoises, gulls, and bushbucks roaming freely on the island, it is indeed a beautiful place as of today.
It is strange how so many animals could roam freely across the island for so many centuries while humans managed to imprison and torture other humans ever since the island has been inhabited. Such is the nature of the homo sapiens. Robben Island is a living testimony of man’s struggle towards what is rightfully theirs, no matter how steep the path and not too many had made it alive when they tried to escape from this hell. The visit left me shaken as I walked back to the harbour to catch my return ferry and get out of this haunted island back to the comforts of a busy and alive city.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s