This morning at 9 am I took the ship to visit the infamous prison island “Robben Island” where during times of Apartheid political prisoners were held captive. It was apparently a good decision to start the day early because a short time later the ferry company decided to cancel the other two trips of the day due to bad weather and bumpy sea. So the trip to the island was quite rough, three hours later on the way back the captain did not only slowen the boat, paper bags were also handed out in case someone got seasick.
To be honest as a historian and always interested in sites of historical importance Robben Island was a disappointment. The trips are completely organized and structured with few time left to read for example information sheets or walk through the cell complex. Directly after arriving at the island all travellers are split into groups and distributed to buses already waiting at the harbour.
Perhaps my group was simply unlucky and got a bad guide, but to make it short the one hour and fifteen minutes drive (not 45 minutes like told on the websites) lacked information, instead the guide thanked every nation on the bus for its contribution in fighting Apartheid. And applauded us – not only once. Really? Because all our nations from the USA to Germany were so eager to help it took nearly 50 years to overthrow an oppressive political system. And I was eight in 1990 by the way, so please…
But what was worse: The information the guide provided on the sites were barely more than what any one could read up on Wikipedia.
For example about the lime quary where the political prisoners had to force labour during their time of imprisonment.
The first short stop where people were allowed to leave the bus was at the site where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, was held in solitary confinement. Even though he had been sentenced to three years on Robben Island after protest against the Pass Law in March 1960, he was held there until 1969 after the state had passed the General Law Amendment Act, allowing to renew a sentence every year. It was a procedure also known as “Sobukwe clause”.
Sobukwe’s house and bedroom, next to dog stalls
It is a well made exhibition with lots of information sheets and for example the love letters Sobukwe had written to his wife. But because of the big bus group it was rather crowded and after 15 minutes the guide called everyone back to the bus, leaving no time to more than glimpse the information. Instead we were driven to a viewing point with a beautiful (but thanks to clouds not existant) view upon Cape Town. But there was a little shops to buy sweets and drinks and souvenirs…
Rather late the bus arrived at the point most were actually interested in, the block where the politicals had been imprisoned.
And here the trip did improve, because former prisoners guide the tours (even though thanks to the long bus trip and the departure of the ferry ours was a rather shortened one).
Our guide was Jama who had been imprisoned in Robben Island from 1977 to 1982.
Born and raised in Port Elizabeth Jama had been quite young when he was sentenced to this rather long stay on Robben Island. Still in highschool someone had organized a protest to participate at the youth uprising that at the same time shook Soweto in Johannesburg. Jama protested and was arrested.
Asked about this Jama becomes quite shy. How old had he been? “Young”, he say and smiles, “very young.”
Jama does not speak much about himself, prefers to talk about the famous prisoners like Mbeki or Mandela or the general conditions on Robben Island. Our group sits in one of the group cells where up to 50 men had been imprisoned, first sleeping on matresses on the bare ground, later after international protests in beds.”Was it crowded?” a schoolgirl from the US asks. Jama shakes the head. “Not really. When it was 50 in one cell maybe, but most times it was less.”
He then tells about the food that was part of the segregation policy, food provision depended on the race.
On the wall of the room there are paintings, but those he tells are from later prisoners, criminals who came here after 1990 and before the prison was closed in 1996.
Next to the group cell is still the bathroom, prisoners there could shower as often as they liked, says Jama: “With sea water.” And until 1973 only a cold shower.
And then there is prisoner number 46664. Everyone speaks about 46664 all the time on Robben Island, the famous man, the 466th prisoner who arrived on the island in 1964. Mandela. Mandela is everywhere, the big icon overshadowing all the other prisoners with his fame and importance. Of course visiting Mandela’s cell is the highlight and last point of every visit, the important part you are prepared for all the journey. And because it is a tiny cell in a small corridor and it is crowded when group after group is passing by, people looking in, taking a picture and move on. “Hurry, hurry”, another guide says. The ferry is already waiting.
The last visiors of our group leaving
At the exit Jama shakes everyone’s hand and says goodbye. That’s when I ask him if I could publish a photo I have taken of him on my website because I am writing about my visit. Of course I can, but then I should also take a nice picture without his hat and in the sunshine. And so I did, he approved, here it is:
After Robben Island we decided to have a more cheerful programm in the afternoon and took the car towards Cape of Good Hope.
Sadly we never arrived at
Cape Point is part of a national park and at the entrance the cash mashine was defect – no credit cards today… And me and my travel companion did not have enough cash. Great. So that was the closest I came to Cape Point:
The alternative program
Penguins at the Boulder
Die deutsche Version folgt später.