In case the picture isn’t clear, the quote reads:
“While we will not forget the brutality of Apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit… a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.” -Ahmed Kathrada
The gateway to Robben Island
On Friday morning, we queued up at the Robben Island Museum to board the ferry that would take us across the water. The ticket includes the ferry back and forth, a bus tour around the island, and a tour of the maximum security prison which housed Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.
Robben Island has been used as a prison for several hundred years, in large part because it’s isolated from the mainland, and the 12 kilometer stretch of water between the Island and Cape Town is notoriously choppy and difficult to swim. Apparently many people have drowned trying to escape the island. Robben Island was also a quarantine facility for lepers (that building is now an elementary school. I’m not kidding.)
Barf bags were provided on the ferry – here’s Joel trying to force Phil to smell the barf bag (they smelled like lamb. Again, I’m not kidding). Our crossing on the way over was pretty smooth, but coming back was a little bumpy. I’m not sure if anyone needed a barf bag on that boat ride, but I’m sure they’ve come in handy on more than one occasion.
Above is the limestone quarry where prisoners were forced to work. The pile of rocks was started by Nelson Mandela when the former prisoners reunited on the island; one rock added by each prisoner.
Robben Island boasts this incredible view of Cape Town and Table Mountain.
The tour was very structured, and we were kind of herded from one place to another. There’s a small village on the island, and I understand that those are private residences, but I was slightly disappointed* that we didn’t get any time to explore some of the beaches (also, there’s a group of African penguins on the island and I really wanted to see them!)
Our tour guide told us that among the inhabitants of the village are both former prisoners and former prison guards, however “there is no animosity.” (The tour guide we had on our bus drive around the island was one of the best we had during our time in South Africa – and we had really great guides! We were there on Friday, Monday had been MLK Day and the second inauguration of Barack Obama back at home. The guide had met Obama a year or two before he was elected president and took his picture standing under the sign for “Barrack Street” on the island, and was very excited to have Americans on board the bus so he could tell us the story.)
Our only five minutes of downtime were at a secluded rest stop away from the village and the prisons. Joel ate a Lunch Bar – a South African candy bar (unfortunately, they had gluten in them so I couldn’t try one.)
Our tour guide, a former political prisoner.
The tour looped back to the maximum security prison for the second half. The tours of the prison are only given by former inmates, so they can give a little perspective to the experience.
Our guide had served time in the prison from 1981 to 1989, and he told us that his time in prison was not so bad – he was there because he’d been fighting for a cause he believed in, and became friends with the other inmates. He said that the worst part of the experience was his interrogation, during which he was alone and afraid.
Nelson Mandela’s cell in the isolation wing.
And the line of people waiting to see Mandela’s cell. Note that about half of the group had already gone through, and this was only one of about eight groups!
You can see the doors of other cells in the hallway here – none of the other cells had been preserved, all were empty. Nelson Mandela is the most famous former prisoner, but many others have been involved in politics since the dissolution of Apartheid, including the current President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.
The new South African flag flying in front of Robben Island Maximum Security Prison.
*I can’t say that I was too disappointed with the structure of the Robben Island tour; all in all, it was probably the best tour we went on in South Africa. It was definitely the most informative, and (somewhat ironically) it was one of the most beautiful places we visited.