Robben Island

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October 4th 2016
Published: October 17th 2016
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Today was our last full day in South Africa and we were off to visit Robben Island. Last year when I came, unfortunately I didn't get to visit Robben Island so we were looking forward to visiting somewhere that was new for us both. Robben Island departs from the V&A Waterfront and must be booked well in advance, we had spoken to so many visitors who had left it until the last minute of their trips and couldn't get tickets to visit. Whilst waiting to board our ferry there were vast amounts of people from Joburg that had been group booked so do book in plenty of time.

The ferry takes approximately 50 minutes to transfer to Robben Island where you follow the crowd to the buses. Once aboard the bus, we had a lovely tour guide called Alan. Alan had a good sense of humour and gave us an insight into the history of Robben Island as well as how Robben island functions today. In South Africa there is a huge Dutch influence, Robben island means seal island in Dutch. One thing to highlight, and this was made clear, Nelson Mandela played a huge part in Robben island and apartheid, but he did not act alone and the movement was down to many men fighting for their rights.

One of the first sights we saw was a building that resembled a mosque, however Alan informed us that it is actually a Kramat. A Kramat is a shrine that honours a holy person in Islam. The Kramat was built to honour a prince who had died on the island. The bus drove on to the Leper Cemetary, those who were diagnosed were shipped to Robben Islanod to die, in a bid to eradicate leprosy and to stop it spreading further. Those who died from leprosy, did so in isolation and away from their loved ones 😔. There are so many graves, many unmarked and those that were marked, were marked only by headstones with no inscriptions. We then stopped at an incredibly small cell belonging for many years to a prisoner we had not heard of before, Robert Suobukwe. Mr Subukewe was a political prisoner who had already served three years in prison prior to being sentenced to six years of solitary confinement on Robben Island. Three years into his sentence on mainland South Africa, the apartheid government deemed him so dangerous they created a law 'Sobukwe's clause' which allowed the Minster of justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely hence him being shipped to Robben island. For six years, Sobukwe was not allowed to communicate with anybody, including warders and he used secret physical gestures to communicate with fellow prisoners during 'exercise' time. He was allowed civilian clothes and books, Robert Sobukwe did not waste any time and studied, he obtained an economics degree from the University of London in 1964. His wife and children were incredibly restricted to visiting him and he was only able to see them from a far when the they did visit.The clause was never used to imprison anybody else and each year it was due to expire, the government renewed it. In 1969, Sobukwe was released from Robben island however he was under 12 hours house arrest and was not allowed to engage in any political activities or to leave the country. His vocal chords were affected as you could imagine and he developed throat cancer. They say he never spoke again.

We moved on to see the maximum security prison, which in fact was built by the political prisoners themselves and was fairly new, only being built in the early 1960's if my memory serves me right. We moved on to, what we deemed, one of the most poignant parts of Robben Island - the limestone quarry also known as Nelson Mandela's Unviersity. The prisoners spent long days breaking limestone into piles, they were not allowed to wear masks or sunglasses, inhaling vasts amount of limestone dust and the limestone was so bright, it was almost blinding. They had a deep tunnel at the quarry, which Mandela and the other political prisoners used to learn, discuss and socialise with one another. The tunnel was also their bathroom and where they had to eat. At the university of Robben Island there weren't any standardised tests or any targets, just a love and pursuit for knowledge.

The second part of our tour was on foot, we were met by our guide, an ex political prisoner who had served his time on Robben island.

We sat in his old cell that he shared with a ridiculous amount of prisoners with only a small thin mat to sleep with. He informed that black prisoners were given less food hand prisoners of other colours in addition to being provided with an "energy drink". His elders informed him to not drink this "energy drink" as it would make him sterile, luckily he did not drink it and informed us he now three children. Always listen to your elders! We visited the 8' x 10' cells that housed many prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Although vacant, it was chilling and horrifying to imagine what had happened, not so long ago.

Fortunately Robben island closed to prisoners in 1994. In 1997 many ex prisoners returned to Robben Island to work with historians and the museum offering interviews and relating their experiences, the island was open for visitors . The most important message came as we were leaving and doing our not so long walk to freedom, "no action should ever be justified by hate." A powerful message for all.

We got on the ferry back to Cale town and luckily we were able to sit upstairs. We had the most spectacular view for 50 minutes, in which we saw several seals, wild dolphins and a whale!

With love, from Cape Town x

There is only one race, the human race.

Robert Sobukwe


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