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Visit to Robben Island

Visit to Robben Island

Hello friends. Long time, no talk. Lots has happened since my last post.

First of all, my body is very sore as I am writing this as on this past weekend, I completed the “three peaks challenge,” in which I climbed the three “main” mountains here in Cape Town (Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head) in one day. It took about eleven hours and was very physically taxing but definitely worth it!

Since I last wrote – notably – I went on visit to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, along with many other political prisoners during apartheid), went shark cage diving, and travelled to Johannesburg. I have much to tell you about interesting guest speakers we’ve had in our classes, people we’ve met, our trip to Johannesburg and other activities but in this entry, I’d like to focus on our visit to Robben Island.

Visiting Robben Island is a valuable and informative experience that everyone should partake in if they go to South Africa. As I mentioned, it is where Mandela was for the majority of his imprisonment, and a imprisoned many political prisoners during apartheid, like Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan-African Congress (PAC), a prominent breakaway movement from Mandela’s party, the African Nationalist Congress (ANC). The experience of visiting the island is very unique. All of the tour guides are former prisoners of the island, meaning that they’ve chosen to stay on the place filled with horrible memories and which serves of a constant reminder of a system that once oppressed them so violently. It is incredible that they are willing and able to do this, and makes the visitors’ experience much more valuable and impactful. We first took a boat out to the island – we’ve been meant to go a couple of time before this, but trips often get canceled because the boats can’t sail due to bad weather, wind, et cetera. Once we got to the island, we waited to take a bus to enter the prison, where we met our tour guide.

Our tour guide told us that he was imprisoned for acts of terrorism and sabotage, but did not tell us the specifics. He then explained to us the categorization process that was used to classify the prisoners. People were either White, Indian, Coloured, or Black. He talked about the difference in food that was given to different groups of people, but he also said that even though people were given different food they all shared it together whenever possible. He told to us that the room we were in was a general population block that housed roughly fifty prisoners. The room would have been extremely packed had fifty bunk beds and fifty men been in there. We left the room and walked through the prison to an open area outside. There were pictures showing what it looked like during the apartheid era, including staged propaganda pictures of the prisoners that were circulated to make it look like they were treated humanely, which was not the case. Here, our tour guide told us about the many political prisoners who had gone missing during their time on Robben Island and how their bodies had just been found in 2013 in a graveyard in Bellville (in Cape Town) that was strictly reserved for white people only. This was very shocking and showed us how the effects of apartheid are still very much alive today.

Next, we went back inside the prison into a block of individual cells. This is where we got to see Mandela’s cell (pictured). You can see how small it was, with only a cot, table, and trash can. It was obviously very powerful to see how small the cells were, that these people had to live in for so long, but honestly, I think that regardless of how much you learn about life in the prison, it’s ultimately impossible to internalize their experience being there.

Mandela’s cell.
Mandela’s cell.

We then left the prison and got onto another bus to see around the island. One very interesting thing that we got to see was the quarry where they worked. In the quarry, there was a cave (pictured). The prisoners would regularly eat lunch and converse in that cave because the sun’s heat was too unbearable. Our tour guide detailed how important the conversations in the cave were by telling us how it was the only spot that they could speak freely without any fear of being recorded secretly. This is pretty cool as it was where the first meetings of the new government met, even before they left prison.

Cave.

In the lime quarry, there was a pile of rocks that were neatly stacked near the cave (pictured below). Our tour guide explained to us how it was created in 1995 after Apartheid had ended and Mandela was president. Mandela and all the political prisoners that were still alive had gone back to Robben Island to celebrate their freedom and remember all the injustices of the past. Mandela had laid the first rock down and the rest of the former prisoners followed, creating this pile of rocks of all different colors, shapes, and sizes. The pile symbolized the diversity of the country and the coming together of all the people within Robben Island as well as the greater South Africa. This symbolic act showed the forgiveness that was in the hearts of these people who had been so unjustly and inhumanly treated.

Throughout our visit, a few of us kept having this conversation about how these men were able to come back to Robben Island, a place that had been such a painful part of their lives, to work as tour guides. Every day they were forced to relive a moment in their lives that I am sure they wanted to forget. Someone actually asked our second tour guide if it was more therapeutic or traumatic for him to come back to the island. He said that it was definitely more traumatic for him because every day he was forced to relive his worst experiences. The tour guides were given no therapy or counseling when they were asked to come back and that has not changed over the years. It’s amazing that they still willingingly come back everyday and tell their experience to visitors. Obviously this cannot be the case always as many of the former prisoners are older and as time goes on, there will have to be new tour guides, so I feel privileged that I was able to get this experience.

I’ll be back soon with more about our trip to Johannesburg and more fun, educational, and interesting things! See you soon. x

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