Robben Island in Cape Town has served as a prison for over 300 years, its most famous prisoner being Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela
Just seven kilometres off the coast of Cape Town (South Africa) lies Robben Island. Unruly waves of the cold Atlantic smash against its shores and strong winds gust across the land. From the shores of this island, one gets a breath-taking view of Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain in the backdrop.
This could easily be a touristy location with wonderful views and weather. But Robben Island has a rather sinister history.
It has served as a prison for over 300 years. Started by the Dutch, the prison used to house political prisoners from their colonies in East Asia. Of all the prisoners housed over the centuries, the most famous was Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela. He spent 18 of his 27 long years incarcerated on this island.
This is my story of an evocative visit to Robben Island.
My son and I were at the end of our rollicking two-week trip across beautiful South Africa. We were back in Cape Town with a day to spare before taking our return flight home. Both of us were admirers of Mandela. The admiration stemmed mainly from his popular portrayal in the media.
Having thoroughly enjoyed the nature of this country, we thought why not round the trip off with some insight into its political past. The trip to Robben Island seemed like a natural choice; little did we know that we were in for an experience which will always remain etched in our minds.
The ferries that took us to Robben Island left from the pretty V&A Waterfront. It was a short ride and once we arrived, we were herded into groups with military precision. Each group was assigned a guide and we had Mlilwana “Sparky” Sparks. More on him later.
A bus took us around the island. It was a short trip with not much to see but a few barracks that looked suited to military use. We drove by a quarry where the prisoners were put to work. In the centre of the quarry was a pile of rocks, put there by the ex-prisoners. The first one had been placed by Mandela when he visited the island as president.
After the bus tour we were taken to the barracks that constituted the cell blocks for political prisoners during the apartheid era. As we walked into this section, Sparky, our guide who had been quiet thus far, took over. Sparky was one of the political prisoners at Robben Island where he spent seven years, a time that overlapped with Mandela in prison.
In his seminal book Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recounts his dark days at Robben Island in considerable detail. More than 150 pages are dedicated to his time there. In fact, one of the chapters is aptly named: Robben Island: The Dark Years.
I could never have sensed an iota of the isolation that he experienced had I not stood in front of his cell where he spent his time. It was tiny, Spartan with a mat to sleep on and a bucket to use as a toilet. Only a tiny window gave him a sense of freedom that lay outside. He describes how difficult it was to keep track of time as days melted into months and months into years with no end in sight.
He was jailed when he was 46 and was to emerge as a free man at a ripe old age of 73. His only crime was seeking equal rights for his people.
The apartheid regime was at its peak, with tacit support from many Western powers. It was a bad time to be black and worse to be a black political prisoner. Sparky described in detail how black prisoners were forced to wear shorter trousers and eat smaller rations. He held out copies of ration cards which food segregated by race and displayed the flimsy mat that was offered to prisoners as bed.
Block by block, barrack by barrack we walked through the prison complex. Our large group was stunned into silence as Sparky recounted his days as a prisoner. The feeling of grief and sorrow was palpable. Most people had tears in their eyes; some were even crying.
What I felt the strongest was disbelief. I could not believe how a man could endure so much for so long and still emerge as one of the world’s greatest statesmen.
He was allowed one letter and one visitor in six months. The authorities worked hard to ensure that even these privileges were discouraged. There was a period when Mandela did not see his wife Winnie for over two years. When a transcript of his book was discovered, he lost access to pen and paper for FIVE years. (Luckily, a copy had been smuggled out earlier).
The real miracle was not that he emerged strong after his long incarceration. It was that he became the leader who could unite the nation. He announced an amnesty for the whites and organised the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was unique in its approach. Sparky told us that some of his fellow inmates had suffered a nervous breakdown when they discovered that the guards who had tortured them for years were given amnesty. But the vision of a statesman, a true leader, sees more than just an opportunity for revenge.
It is well beyond the realm of my imagination that a man who endured 27 years of travails can lead with such a clear and humane vision. It is truly his leadership that held South Africa together and stopped it from descending into a chaotic civil war.
As our tour came to an end, I shook hands with Sparky. It is only a matter of a few years that there will be none like him who had witnessed history at such a close range.
On our way out we saw a small green structure beside the prison buildings. It is known as the Mazar of Imam Motura, mausoleum of another political prisoner who was banished to this island and later died there in 1700s. Little is known about him except that he was a prince in Sumatra, Indonesia, which used to be a Dutch colony. It is now considered a holy site and South African Muslims often go there to pay their respects. Another sombre reminder of the dark history of this place.
We went to Robben Island as ordinary tourists looking for a day out and gaining some insight into the celebrated life of Nelson Mandela. We returned as two converts who were privileged to walk in the footsteps of a giant of the 20th Century, albeit for a few hours. Indeed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets @travelutionary1