Day 6 Robben Island

Tour of Robben Island prison

Robben Island is a must-see for anyone who travels to Cape Town.  On Wednesday morning we set out from the waterfront to Robben Island on the first ferry. Our goal was to try to understand the experiences of Nelson Mandela and thousands of other political prisoners who spent many of their prime years there.

We walked to the maximum security prison and were greeted by our guide, a man who was imprisoned for 13 years from 1977 to 1990.  Our guide was arrested at age 19 for  protesting the teaching of all subjects in the Afrikaans language in 1976 and  convicted, serving 13 years in prison, and finally released in 1900.  He took us first to the exercise yard where Mandela spent much time breaking rock. 

Our guide enumerated the various laws - Group Areas Act, Immorality Act, Job Reservation Act, Pass Laws - for which blacks were arrested.  Once at the prison for political prisoners, they became part of a cauldron of revolutionary ideas and leadership.  After 1976, they young men set a more revolutionary tone than Mandela's group that had already been there for at least eight years. In fact, prisoners were forced to build a fourth wall around the exercise yard to separate the youth from the more mature leaders.

We saw the 8' x 10' cell in which Mandela spent 20 of his 27 years in prison.  The sanitized version with painted walls, no smells, and no Afrikaner jailers still was chilling.  A further walk down the cell block brought us to cells in which former prisoners had left their stories and their artifacts.  Our guide detailed the many punishments that were meted out for prison infractions including one meal a day and solitary confinement.  A sign showed the daily rations which gave less food to Black Africans than it gave to other prisoners.

In 1995 many prisoners returned to Robben Island to work with historians and the museum giving interviews and relating their experiences.  The students were most moved by these individual stories of suffering and hope.

Our guide's most powerful message came at the end when he implored the students not to act out of hate.  "No action," he said, "should ever be justified by hate."  His message that revenge can never work and that education is the key to get out of this cycle is very powerful for all of us.

The second part of the trip was a bus tour around the 600 hectare island.  It is a bird sanctuary, but also has many other parts. We visited the lime quarry where prisoners, shackled two by two, dug lime.  They built a cave where they ate lunch and planned strategy.

We saw the solitary confinement home of Robert Sobukwe, a  linguistics professor and leader in the African National Congress who founded the Pan African Congress in 1959.  He organized the first protests against the pass laws in 1960 which led to the March 16, 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in which police killed 69 protestors and wounded 139.  For this he got three years in prison. Before he got out the government passed a law, the Sobukwe clause, which allowed him to be rearrested the moment he stepped out of jail and put in solitary confinement.  He was held in this house for 6 years where he could not communicate with anyone.  His jailers were changed every 6 months so he did not develop realtionships with anyone.  His vocal chords were affected and when he was released because of throat cancer and he lived out his life under house arrest for 9 years, he never spoke again.

Sobukwe's case led to concerted effort by the Red Cross to send the press to Robben Island to determine the conditions of imprisonment.  It wasn't until 1977 that this happened, but prisoners will say that conditions improved tremendously once the press was let in.  Helen Suzman, a South African politician was instrumental in this change.

Visitors could come to Robben Island once every 6 months.  They were allowed only speak in English or Afrikaans and if they could not speak those languages, they ahd to just sit and look at each other through plexiglass for their 30 minute visit.

In a wierd twist, on another part of the island, a minimum security prison was built to house murders, rapists and robbers.  This prison did not close until 1996.

The experience was sobering for our students, though in my second visit, I was struck by how sanitized the experience was.  The prison was painted, lacked the smells and sounds, and according to our guide was a great place of learning.  I think that was true, but the gut wrenching experience of imprisonment did not come through as emotionally as it might have. Even so, the message of hope came through strongly -- that was powerful.


Our afternoon was spent at the waterfront, exploring this shopping heaven.  Students had time to explore African crafts, go to the movies and hang out.  It has been quite a fast pace here.

Today we are onto Crossroads Township where we will deliver food and interact with children in daycares.  There is a strong NGO presence here and we will be part of that. West Hartford students have been great in every way on the trip and are leaving a good impression on all we meet.

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