Apartheid's prison: A journey to Robben Island

Welcome to the prison home of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid heroes

Robben Island was once notorious as the prison home of many leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, including former South African president Nelson Mandela. Today, school children, university professors and ordinary citizens flock to the popular historical spot that serves as a symbol of the terrible times that began to end in 1994 with the fall of apartheid. They come to see what really happened before Freedom Day and the first democratic elections held that same year.

As we ferry out to the island, Cape Town sparkles in the bright morning sun. At first glance, it is a clean, vibrant, modern city set between flat Table Mountain and the harbour that separates the white metropolis from the now peaceful prison. The red top of a white lighthouse peeks out from the far eastern end of the island as the Sarah Kruger, the boat that carried prisoners, chugs along with its cargo of curious tourists.

A young white South African man is coming to see "what it was all about." He had not been taught in school about his government's racial policies. A black couple from Botswana is here so their two boys can gather information for a school essay. A Johannesburg jewelry artist from the former East Germany has her daughters with her. They, too, have a school essay due.

Four young Canadians, just finished a tour of duty as volunteers building a clinic in Namibia, are wielding their Canons and Nikons in every direction as they try to record the history they are about to see.

The museum shop, filled with Robben Island tourist paraphernalia, beckons but an informative bus tour of the island comes first. The fridge magnets, key chains, cups, tea towels, clothing, books and DVDs, all marked with the familiar black stick figures of prisoners, the museum's logo, can wait.

Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language that was forced on black school children, can be heard as some of the South Africans chat among themselves on the bus. Mixed with it are Zulu, Xhosa and six other languages that make up the 11 spoken in South Africa.

After a brief stop at the quarry where the prisoners broke rocks without the benefit of even a toilet, the bus lets us out at the entrance to the prison, our minds somewhat readied for what we will see inside.

"No tea today," says Len, our guide. The Sarah Kruger brought him here in chains in the mid-1980s. A member of the underground military wing of the African National Congress, the party that now rules the country, he was ratted out for his role in sabotaging the regime.

The prisoners of Robben Island shared their meals, Len explains. "That way, no one got more than another and we managed to get along without fighting amongst ourselves." He shows us the sleeping quarters, a thin mat on the concrete floor when the prison began and later bunk beds.

Is he bitter? "Not at all. I have even seen the man who turned me in and put me here. He was one of ours then. Now he's a businessman. We have talked. I understand that many people did what they had to do in those days." Now one of about 125 permanent residents who maintain the island, he says it is "the best place in the world to live."

Indeed, it is a tranquil place. But for the barbed wire, high concrete walls and grey brick guard towers, it is not obvious that it was a prison. But then there are the big black and white photographs of prisoners in the yard, hunched over a pile of slate. They hammered all day long and when the slate was broken, it was moved to another part of the yard, a useless job of work meant only to keep them busy and demoralize them.

It's a beautiful place, too, with majestic Table Mountain in the foreground, its cable cars shuttling tourists to exquisite views overlooking the city and the island. Not far away, sailboats bob in the surf. On this day, a tall ship has docked in Table Harbour near the post-apartheid Table Bay Hotel, opened in 1997 by ex-Robben Island inmate Mandela. Tourism vendors, selling everything from carved and painted rocks to high-class hosiery and jewelry, surround the colonial Victoria and Alfred Hotel nearby.

Back on the island, Len is watchful of the children in the crowd. He knows they have probably already seen some of the thousands of cormorants and penguins (called jacards here), some having just given birth to tiny baby penguins. Learning about the history of apartheid and the lives of its inmates is not likely to be high on the children's priority lists, especially on a gorgeous day like this one.

"No prisoner died at the hands of the guards on this island," he lectures. "No guard died at the hands of a prisoner." There were deaths, he says, more than 400 of them over the years. But those prisoners died of ill health. Tuberculosis is partly why Mandela was shipped here. Others came as diabetics. Some died insane after years of confinement.

"We did not stay quiet here," Len continues. "We did not stand by and let the guards abuse us. If such an attempt was made, we stood together to protect him. It was not always easy to communicate with each other, but we devised ways of doing so. There were signs and sounds. We managed."

That some of the prisoners should go insane is not difficult to understand once you have visited the Apartheid Museum next door to Johannesburg amusement park called Gold City. The company agreed to build the museum in exchange for the rights to build the park.

It is an awesome contradiction to drive through a guarded gate to the complex. To the right are the giant Ferris wheel, the roller coaster and other rides. To the left is a museum that will take your breath away and, yes, drive some insane with anger and pity.

Here we see what the prisoners of Robben Island were fighting against. A collection of nooses hangs in one small room not far from the tiny jail cells, reminders of the inhumanity of apartheid. A series of screens offers film footage that brings you back to the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 when many died as police attacked those protesting the so-called pass laws of the era that segregated blacks from whites in every corner of society.

Other screens show you the carnage that occurred during the Soweto protests of 1976, when police shot and killed 12-year-old Hector Peterson, one of the children caught up in the student strike to oppose the teaching of Afrikaans in local schools.

In Soweto Township itself, we see a museum and memorial dedicated to Hector and the other young martyrs. Today, Hector's sister works at the museum and many artisans sell their wares - batiks, masks and headdresses - near the monument to her brother. A photographer offers to snap your picture in front of the large black and white image of a young man carrying Hector's lifeless body as his sister screams to the left.

Not so far from Robben Island in Guguletu, one of the townships surrounding Cape Town, you can see another monument, this one to the Guguletu Seven, the young people who were killed by squads of security police ostensibly quelling riots, but said by others to be randomly shooting and possibly targeting the young.

The Trojan Horse Massacre Memorial stands in a nearby township as a reminder of the three young people who died on Oct. 15, 1985. You can also visit the District Six Museum or see the still vacant land of that district where blacks once lived but were forcibly removed by apartheid police.

The nightmarish images of apartheid are spotted here and there across the country, reminders of what drove Mandela and the other prisoners to battle the regime as they did, and what landed them on Robben Island.

"The fourth window from the left, that was Mandela's cell," Len explains. It is a pathetically small, sparsely furnished concrete box, similar to what we saw at the Apartheid Museum. The tourists shoot off their cameras as Len finishes the last of his lectures.

Mandela is a free man now and a living monument to that dark period of his country's history that many might wish to forget. To help us remember it, Robben Island became a museum in 1997. A decade after it was created, it won't let them or us forget or deny the deadly experience of apartheid.

Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver-based writer.


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