The line for the ferry to Robben Island snakes back and forth to fill up nearly an entire room and then continues up a ramp, across the lobby, and out the door. Along the walls are large boards that chronicle the history of apartheid and the struggle against it. They talk about how black people were moved from their homes to designated townships and denied citizenship. They show images of people marching against ‘pass laws’ and the armed response that left dozens dead in the streets. There are pictures of Mandela at the time of his arrest and stories of the student uprisings of the 1970s. Above all of this is a quote about Robben Island itself. An ex-prisoner calls that this place should not be remembered as a place of pain and brutality but rather as a symbol of “the triumph of the human spirit over adversity suffering and injustice.”
Heading to Robben Island, Cape Town grows smaller but it never fully disappears. According to Nugugi Wa Thiong’o this ever present reminder of the people they were struggling for helped prisoners resist the island’s attempts to rob them of their spirit.
Perhaps the most powerful story we heard on the island was when we stopped in front of this stone quarry. The leaders of the anti-apartheid movement (like Nelson Mandela) were kept apart from the other prisoners and made to work here. During their labor they were not allowed to speak but once a day they were allowed to sit together for lunch. The leaders of the resistance huddled together in the small cave on the left and talked about what they could do to improve conditions at the prison. They also spoke about what a democratic South Africa could look like. Years later, these same people would find themselves in the halls of power in South Africa. The contrast between these images, the same people with the same ideas, delivered from bondage to power, left a strong impression on me.
After driving around the island, our bus guide left us with someone different to take us through the prison itself. All of the guides for the prison are ex-prisoners and his constant use of ‘we’ to describe the living conditions underlined this fact in a powerful way.
We learned how the prisoners who were sent in the 70s were more radical than those who came before them, like Mandela. They refused to do hard labor and were tortured for their insubordination. The torture eventually got the attention of international organizations and resulted in some improved conditions. The mats prisoners were made to sleep on were replaced by cots. Hard labor was suspended.
We walked through the prison fairly quickly. We saw where Mandela hid the pages of his autobiography as he wrote them. The big photo moment, of course, is his cell. I was also just as interested in the cell next to Mandela’s where a former professor of mine, Dennis Brutus, was imprisoned for 18 months.
Dennis Brutus’ Cell
There really isn’t much to see at the prison itself. The stories are much more powerful. The most surprising story we heard is a modern one. There’s a still active church on Robben Island where, every Valentine’s Day, a series of couple line up to get married. The weddings and festivities are broadcast live on television. The island morphs into a place of joy where new memories are born to balance the others. But the most impressive sight, by far, isn’t even on the island. It’s the image of Cape Town across the bay.
Til next time,