18 November 2006

Robben Island

There's more to South Africa than just beautiful nature, good food, and good wine. South Africa has a turbulent historical past that includes colonization and racial persecution, rebellion and resistance. However, the policy of the day is reconcilliation and hope. One of the best ways to learn about South Africa's dark past and potential for a bright future is by taking the Robben Island tour...

Robben Island is the location of the infamous prison for political prisoners during South Africa's apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress is probably the most famous former resident. It's a half hour (I think it was) by boat to get there...

When we got there, we were greeted by Yasein Mohamed, once secretary for the Pan-African Congress in the Western Cape and a former political prisoner: He was our guide for the first part of the tour. He talked about the history of Robben Island - it has always been an on-and-off prison island. From the 1800s to 1932, the island served as a leper colony where people of all colors were sent if they had leprosy or any other "unknown" disease (unknown diseases = leprosy). Non-white male anti-apartheid political prisoners, i.e. black and colored political activists were sent to Robben Island starting around 1960 with Pan-African Congress founder Robert Sobukwe, once considered the most dangerous man in South Africa. White male political activists and all female activists were imprisoned on the mainland. The international boycotts against South Africa started after the sending of political prisoners to Robben Island...

Conditions for the prisoners were beyond harsh, and the blacks were treated worst of all. For example, you can see the different diets for blacks and coloreds. Furthermore, prisoners were forced to work at a quarry, without any sunglasses to protect their eyes from the glare from the white limestone... and all this was only "busywork"!! There was no demand for the limestone from the quarry at all! A lot of prisoners became blind or permanently vision-impaired because of this. Nelson Mandela included; ever notice his shades? You are not allowed to take flash pictures of him either (or something along those lines).

Certain prisoners were segregated from other prisoners, as to avoid "bad influence." However, it was relatively easy for prisoners to communicate with one another. For example, tennis balls would be cut open and messages stuffed into the tennis balls, and these tennis balls would be hit over walls separating cell blocks. The wardens dismissed it as blacks not knowing how to play tennis. No prisoner was allowed to communicate with the outside world; their visitors would sneak messages out for them. This was easiest for priests, who would hide messages inside their Bibles; wardens didn't dare search a priest!

Nelson Mandela brought about change, despite the conditions he was forced to live under. One of his goals was to make sure that the prisoners who didn't have an education, got one. Many political prisoners were doctors, lawyers, and other academics; they were able to sneak around the ban on educating inmates. Mandela (and other prisoners) even helped the prison wardens, hired for their brutality more for their brains, get an education and better themselves. The idea was that they too were victims of apartheid, that they wouldn't be the way they were had things been different. The right to education for prisoners was eventually given in 1966.

Our second guide gave us a tour of the prison blocks and tiny, spartan cells, including Nelson Mandela's prison cell, which nearly has “shrine status” now. We also visited the only current prisoner, in the slammer for protesting high alcohol prices and drunken rowdiness. We managed to help him escape hehe ;-P

Anyway, apartheid is officially over and the prisoners are doing their best not to hold a grudge – forgiveness and reconciliation and all. The idea is to not seek revenge for past wrongs, as this would make you just as evil as your oppressors. If only the whole world could think like that! However, one must not forget the wrongs of the past. The Robben Island tour is a good way for people to confront the harsh realities of the injustices of the past, in order to head towards a better future.

Besides the prison, housing for former prison wardens and officials, some churches, and the such. Robben Island has a lot of wildlife, including springbok, bontebok, ostriches, rabbits, and a penguin colony. It also has a bunch of eucalyptus trees brought in around 1890 – because of these water-slurping trees, there is no fresh water on the island.

Robben Island became a National Monument in 1996 and a World Heritage Site in 1999. It's one of the absolutely-must-see's if you're ever in Cape Town. Do get your tickets ahead of time though, especially if you're travelling during high season.

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