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Previous trips can be accessed by clicking the following links:

2013
Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

2014
Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Denmark

2015
Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Thursday, February 2, 2017

12/3: First Person Account of Cape Town's Robben Island

Months ago we'd made reservations to take a 3.5 hour long tour of Robben Island, made famous by its most celebrated inhabitant, Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. We arrived at Cape Town's waterfront well before 8:30 so we could have some time to enjoy the busy harbor front before leaving at 9. After waiting for more than an hour at the Robben Island Museum, we were so relieved that our ferry finally departed.

The stunning view of the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Waterfront was luckily well worth the wait. We looked forward to visiting the harbor, that was built between 1860 and 1920 and had a number of outstanding heritage buildings, on our return from Robben Island. 
The wooden boat below looked to be the same one we'd seen yesterday while relaxing on the beach and watching the world go by.
The seal helped to entertain us as we left the harbor! The home to so many prisoners was called dubbed “Robben” (the Dutch word for seal) Island by early settlers because of the seal population at the time.  


We were so glad we had been able to get seats on the top deck for the short trip across the bay and that we were actually able to travel on the ferry. We had been advised, when we made the reservation several months earlier, that it wasn't at all unusual for the ferry not to be able to travel because the bay wasn't always as calm and innocent as it looked that day.
What a lovely view we enjoyed of the mountains that surround Cape Town on our 40 minute boat journey across to Robben Island. We looked forward to discovering the most famous one, Table Mountain, below, in the next couple of days.
We drove past the Cape Town Stadium from our lodge on our way into town each day but this was a much better perspective obviously for the sports complex that was built for the 2010 FIFA (Soccer) World Cup!

Our arrival at Robben Island:
Robben Island needs no introduction with regards to the significance of its place in South Africa’s and indeed the world’s history.  As “home” to one of the world’s most famous prisoners, statesmen and leaders in Nelson Mandela, Robben Island is quite possibly the most well known island-prison on the planet.


About ten buses met our fellow ferry passengers so we could be taken on a driving tour of the island that had been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site almost twenty years ago in 1997. Robben Island has a long and sad history. From the 1400s to 1900s, travelers, sailors and settlers used it as a base to replenish food and supplies. At various times, it was also used as a post office, a quarantine station, a leper colony, a hospital, a military base and a mental institution but Robben Island is probably best known as a prison for high-profile opponents of apartheid.
The guide on our bus told us that the prisoners were only allowed to receive one visitor per month for 30 minutes! During that brief time, family members and prisoners weren't permitted to speak any African language; if they did, the visit would be immediately terminated. Neither could they talk about any political issues or conditions on the island. 

Photos of the maximum security prison headquarters:

Our guide mentioned that there were over 1,000 lepers' graves in this cemetery. Once a cure for leprosy was found in 1920, patients were returned to the mainland.
The bus slowed down long enough at the Sobukwe House, so that our guide could talk about its former resident, Robert Sobukwe. He was a prominent South African political dissident, who founded the Pan Africanist Congress in opposition to South Africa under apartheid. Sobukwe lived in a separate area in solitary confinement on the island for nine years where he was strictly prohibited from contact with other prisoners and all visitors.

I apologize in advance for the following photos I was only able to take from the moving bus and through its windows but they were the best I could do under the circumstances.
Sobukwe was likely subjected to this special treatment because the South African government had profiled him as a more radical and difficult opponent than the regular African National Congress (ANC) prisoners and feared he might otherwise influence other prisoners on the island. From the time of his arrest in 1960, until his death in 1978 at the age of just 53, Sobukwe was either imprisoned on Robben Island or under house arrest in external exile.
We were driven next to the Limestone Quarry where only political prisoners, in chains, worked eight hours a day regardless of weather conditions and with only a spade and a wheel barrow as their toolsPrisoners labored to manually pound the rocks into fragments for road gravel or simply to transfer rocks and gravel from one side of the quarry to the other. No masks were provided, so many prisoners' eyes became severely affected by the limestone dust over time. Guards, we were told, stood on top of the quarry to make sure the prisoners worked. If they didn't, the guards were instructed to shoot to kill. 
This cave was used as the prisoners' toilet and rest area during lunch. The guide said the prisoners also used this time to discuss their political problems and taught illiterate prisoners how to read and write.
Our guide explained that former political prisoners created these stones of remembrance in 1995 to honor those prisoners who had died in the quarry and was also an impromptu memorial to 18 years of hard labor on Robben IslandI subsequently learned that the heap of stones was known as an Isivivane, an African traditional monument of remembrance. The monument on Robben Island also represented "the unity of purpose of different races, ethnicities and gender who opposed apartheid."
I think Steven and I were both surprised when we saw the sports facilities until the guide explained that there were about 200 people who were currently living on Robben Island year round, including the tour guides and bus drivers.

This was unfortunately all I could view of the island's Garrison Church that was built in 1841 and later used for the warders and their families. When warders' wives gave birth to a son, a blue flag was raised at the church. No mention was made of what happened when girls were born though!
This was the island school for warders' children that was in use until 2011. Since then, children of residents take a boat daily to attend school on the mainland. But, since the weather is often bad, the ferry is canceled so the students have a lot of off days!
A few minutes later, the driver told everyone on the bus that we had just 'ten minutes' to get out and wander around. One smart-aleck asked if he meant ten minutes in 'African time'! The driver laughingly responded, no, European time - i.e. really only ten minutes! They were some who mustn't have heard and came back about twenty minutes later, though - arggh.
From this spot to Cape Town was a distance of about 7.5 miles. In the 1660s, one prisoner manged to steal a boat and successfully escaped from Robben Island. He was the only man ever to do so.
Robben Island is also well known for its penguins and many varieties of birds. African penguins re-colonized Robben Island in 1983 after an absence of about 180 years. Penguin numbers have increased from nine breeding pairs in 1983 to 2,000 pairs in 1992 and more than 8,000 pairs in 2004. As a result of a decline in recent years, they now number about 1,600 pairs. I wasn't lucky enough to see any penguins but Steven was.
I had to wait several minutes for my turn to have Steven take my picture in the 'picture frame.' I thought it was so neat as I hadn't seen one before.


The Church of Good Shepherd was formerly a hospital before becoming an Anglican Church, the dominant religion in Britain.
The island's mosque was built in 1969.
After the hour plus tour of the island, it was a relief to finally pass through the Maximum Security Prison gates and find out where Mandela and so many other prisoners spent so many years of their lives.
The busloads of visitors were then divided into groups of about 45 people, each headed by a former political prisoner at Robben Island. As we walked to the prison's F Section, our guide explained he was one of 4,072 political prisoners at Robben Island and served his sentence from 1984-91. His 'crime' was to be a member of the PAC.

This part of the prison was built from 1962-69 out of blue slate stone mined on the island to hold a maximum of 2,150 prisoners.
Everybody in F Section was charged with high treason, terrorism, aiding and abetting and other similar crimes, according to our guide. He mentioned that the minimum sentence was five years and the maximum was life imprisonment and that there was no possibility of either clemency or pardon. He added that all prisoners' hands and feet were shackled from the moment they arrived on Robben Island by ferry from the mainland.
Upon arrival, prisoners were sent to Section A to be assessed and profiled before the authorities decided where the prisoners would go next. Our guide stated the youngest prisoner was only 15 when he arrived at Robben Island and that he had been just 19. The oldest prisoner to be confined was 60 and wasn't released until he was 79. There were two men imprisoned for 26 years from 1963-89; they were the co-founders of the PAC. 
There was no section for either juveniles or lifers - all were lumped together. Block B was set aside for leaders of political organizations but I was surprised to learn that not all inmates were from South Africa. There were 150 prisoners incarcerated from Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland. If you weren't a leader or a foreigner, our guide stated you'd be kept anywhere in the prison.
This long, narrow room housed 60 men, each of who was given 2 blankets; one was used in the summertime as a pillow. The blankets, he revealed, had to be rolled up when not in use. In 1974, glass windows were introduced in the cells; before that, there were only iron bars over the windows. In 1978, double bunks were added. Music was played in the cells but reggae and Bob Marley were not among the musical offerings!
Cell Life: Between the cells being opened at 6 am and closing at 4 pm, the prisoners worked from 7-3 Monday through Friday on various parts of the island. The guide told everyone in the group that he was assigned to work in the stone quarry that built the prison and also collecting kelp. On Saturdays, the inmates were able to play soccer and rugby; on Sundays, though, none were allowed to leave their cells because the warders said they went to church and then it was 'too late' to open the cells!

 As there was no dining hall, the men ate outside before being locked in for the night. All conversations were constantly monitored. Every prisoner was given a Bible even if they weren't Christian. Rain water was used for laundry and gardening but fresh water had to be ferried over from the mainland. 
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva, was the only outside organization that was finally able to come in and help the prisoners, according to our guide. He commented that Helen Suzman, one of South Africa's most famous white parliamentarians and human rights activists, was the only woman to ever visit the island. In a parliament dominated by male Afrikaners, Suzman was even more of an outsider, as she was an English-speaking Jewish woman. Her struggle against apartheid won her the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978 and the Medallion of Heroism in 1980. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prisoners were also occasionally visited by judges who inspected their living conditions and asked if they were OK and being treated well. In a strange twist of fate, though, these were the same judges who had just sentenced many of them to serve their sentences at Robben Island!
There were 17 hunger strikes - the longest one lasted 21 days in 1967 and the shortest one was 4.5 days. The dispute was over the prisoners wanting white sugar instead of brown sugar. The guide revealed that he had grown up eating brown sugar, but since brotherhood and unity was key to realizing their objectives, he joined the hunger strike so that white sugar would be served. He joked that he was now back to eating brown sugar!
The guide reported that the quantity and quality of their food depended on the prisoners' race, just as it had at the Number Four prison we had toured in Johannesburg. The Indians and 'colored' prisoners comprised less than ten per cent of the prison population. It was shocking to hear that fruits and vegetables weren't introduced into the prisoners' diets until 1982. 

The term Bantu in the photo below refers to black South Africans as described by the apartheid regime. When used in in a racial context, Bantu was "obsolescent and offensive because of its strong association with white minority rule and the apartheid system."
Most prisoners, he declared, were allowed just 12 letters per year - 12 sent and 12 received - and all were heavily censored. One two page letter had only the recipient's address and salutation as the rest had been censored. Letters were never destroyed by the authorities but were given to the prisoners when they were released.
When the guide was asked about the warders, he stated that there were naturally different types; some provided information on life outside the jail and others were extremely cruel to the prisoners. A new prisoner was like a gift as it meant he'd be able to provide new information about current life on the 'outside' because the prisoners were totally cut off  from the outside world. Some of the old jailers still live on the island and in their old homes. When our guide revealed that there were 13 former political prisoners like himself who live on the island as guides, I marveled at how courageous and resilient they were returning to live and work at the same place where they had been imprisoned for so long.

As 60 men were confined to this cell, it wasn't surprising to hear from the guide that the high stress of living under such conditions led to arguments and fights. He commented that 589 men lost their lives while incarcerated at Robben Island because of physical ailments and being tortured. Their bodies were never turned over to the families as they were considered state property and families weren't even notified of loved ones' passing. Instead, up to three bodies were placed in one grave at the paupers' grave site on the island. None of the graves have ever been exhumed, he added.
Psychological Torture: Our guide reported that the prisoners were subject to both psychological and physical torture at Robben Island. Examples of the former included inmates being denied letters or visits cancelled. Often, prisoners' wives would receive a forged letter telling her to move on and get a new life. Similarly, prisoners received forged letters saying their wives wanted a divorce as they'd found someone else to love. 

A Man and his Tree: When old prisoners congregated under this tree, their favorite topic of discussion was possible paroles. They were always on the lookout for any news of their fellow prisoners being released on medical grounds or transferred to another jail. Prison authorities also saw an opportunity to extend their abuse of these old men by giving them false news and hope about their release saying they would be given their freedom in two to three months. The men would wait in anticipation for the time of their release and excitedly share that news with their cell mates. They later learned the truth that they had been deceived.
Velelen Dayeni, serving 25 years, was one of the longest serving prisoners at Robben Island. He died seated under this tree during the lunch hour, without complaining of any ailment. Dayeni's death led to a psychological change of the meaning of this tree: it was no longer known as the tree of parole discussions but as the place of his death. 
After spending a riveting hour inside one of the cells hearing first-hand about life as a prisoner on Robben Island, the guide led us outside to see some of the other facilities.


Prisoners were divided into work details known as reference groups. Members of the Bamboespan Reference Group were forced to collect seaweed in the icy Atlantic Ocean regardless of the weather. They suffered terribly in the winter months.
Members of the Bouspan Reference Group were singled out to to learn building  and 'stone dressing' skills. They were responsible for building the harbor wall among other construction projects.

Matspan Reference Group members were required to make mats from sisal and other materials for prison use on Robben Island as well as in other prisons.
This photo, taken by a British journalist of Mandela talking in one of the courtyards with Walter Sisulu, one of the most famous anti-apartheid activists, was used by the prison authorities as a piece of propaganda to demonstrate the 'dignified life' the prisoners led on Robben Island and how well Mandela and others were being treated.
We then entered Block B where the political leaders were imprisoned so that they would be separated from the other inmates.
 




This was Nelson Mandela's cell where he spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned at Robben Island. Unlike other prisoners, Mandela was only allowed one 30 minute long visit a year and he could only write and receive one letter every six months. Until toilets were installed in 1973, prisoners had to use buckets. After Mandela was released in 1982 because of health concerns, he was transferred from The Island, as the prison was known, to Pollsmoor and then Victor Verster prisons in Cape Town and Stellenbosch, respectively for a total of seven more years.
Certainly a highlight of our long tour was visiting his cell with its simple stark reality. It is hard to comprehend how a man could endure so much solitude and confinement and yet still emerge as an advocate of peace, reconciliation and, most of all, forgiveness to his captors. 
Our guide mentioned that when all the prisoners were released between June 10th, 1990 and May 9th, 1991, the first thing they wanted to do was to visit Table Mountain right away as they'd seen it from their island daily. One hour later, they were there, our guide told us! 
One of the last things our guide told us was that, when he was released, he vowed to himself he'd never set foot on the island again. Yet there he was, back on the island sharing his experiences and answering visitors' questions and showing people around his former prison. He discussed how terribly hard it had been coming back as a guide after being imprisoned there. The stress was appalling but that was outweighed by his desire to share his story of what occurred on the island.
Steven and I have toured other equally horrific political prisons during our travels around the world these last few years, but still our experience visiting Robben Island and getting a sense of how political prisoners were treated during the brutal apartheid regime impacted us greatly. The guides, especially the former prisoner, provided so much historical information and context. That combined with seeing some of the iconic places from the life of Nelson Mandela was incredible. I left in awe of the prisoners' strength, will and humanity when faced with desperate times.

Posted on February 2nd, 2017 from Littleton, Colorado.

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