Nelson Mandela

MarkthesparkStarred Page By Markthespark, 7th May 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Africa>South Africa>Cape Town & The Cape Peninsula

A trip to South Africa's tough and cold former maximum security prison, Robben Island, where struggle icon Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island and other experiences

Part 1/...

There is nothing more haunting than a trip to Robben Island an apartheid-styled former prison in Table Bay, South Africa, where struggle icon Nelson Mandela, and many other anti-apartheid activists were interred. Mandela spent 18 years of his life there, most of them in a confined cell no more than 2m x 4m wide.

I use the expression haunting because, at the island, now a Unesco World Heritage site where visitors from across the world visit to honour its legacy in the fight and struggle against apartheid, one can still feel the “presence” of the former prisoners in their cells, trudging the large corridors on their way to work in the limestone quarry. I even hear the voices of prisoners speaking and have a clear view in my mind of prison guards watching over them. The guards were at times cruel, exposing the prisoners to long hours of work in the sun and restricted their rations of food. Prison authorities also kept strict control over letters prisoners received on the island from family members. If they were even remotely thought to have a different agenda, the letters were destroyed, never to reach their intended recipients.

Robben Island is situated west of Bloubergstrand and is covered by vast expanse of water, that is the Atlantic Ocean. According to www. Robben Island started out as a prison already in the mid-17th century and was also used as a leper colony in the mid-1800s. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was probably Harry die strandloper in the mid-17th century. Among its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship Meermin. Wikipedia further states that the island, is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long north-south, and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km².

The view off Robben Island

According to the island’s hospital was closed in 1931 when the League of Nations ruled that lepers should not be ostracised from society. It adds the island became a maximum security prison in 1959 after being used as a defence outpost to protect South Africa from German invasion. It further states 3 000 prisoners were detained there between 1961 and 1991. However the last of the common-law prisoners (not political prisoners) were released in 1996, before the island was declared a heritage site.

My journey to the island begins at the wharf at the V &A Waterfront in Cape Town. A charter boat run under auspices of Robben Island Museum, criss-crosses Table Bay at least five times a day taking tourists to and from the island. Robben Island Museum is governed by a council appointed by the Minister of Arts and Culture, whose job it is to preserve, promote and establish the area as a world heritage site. A walk-in-facility, the Robben Island Museum, situated at the bookings centre is dedicated to the struggle against apartheid. After I have paid for tickets for my wife and I for an early afternoon trip to the island, we pop into the museum for a quick visit. Here we see exhibits of South Africa’s struggle heroes, reflected on massive billboards which have inscribed on them a summary of pivotal moments in South Africa’s transition to democracy.

I see struggle icons of the past, such as Ahmad Kathrada and Walter Sisulu, who were interred alongside Nelson Mandela on the island. Then there are other struggle legends like Dullah Omar, Robert Sobukwe and Govan Mbeki. Then there is an exhibit of the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960 , the scene of widespread protests against the pass laws (where 69 protesters were shot and killed and more than 200 wounded by police) that gives insight to the then-apartheid state’s determination to trample opposition to the state’s oppressive policies. A pass book which was a type of identity document, restricted the movement of South Africa’s black populations to only certain areas of the Republic at the time. There is a depiction of women of all races lining the streets in 1956 in Pretoria to protest the pass laws – they were demanding then-Prime Minister GJ Strijdom remove the pass laws from the statute books. Here they broke out into song: you strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed !

Once the formalities at the museum are over, the charter ferry sets off from the waterfront deep into the heart of Robben Island. As the boat chugs along the coastline on a lovely summer’s day, I imagine there couldn’t have been much hope of an escape – though some prisoners did try - for those imprisoned on the island. The deep, cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean often buffetted by strong south- westerly swells, and inhabited by sharks, dispel my notions of possible escape routes off the island. The trip takes all of 30-minutes and, as we dock at the Robben Island wharf, I’m filled with restless anxiety as to what to expect.

The entrance to the prison

As our tour group of about 30 people walk towards the entrance of the prison, I notice the old-styled perimeter fencing and a lookout tower to my right. I still see the ever-watchful gun-toting prison guard in my mind’s eye looking over proceedings. I ask my picture be taken next to a huge billboard, depicting a group of prisoners, with fists raised after their release from the prison – probably in the early 1990s. Then we hop onto the bus that takes us around the island.

Prison "home" of Robert Sobukwe

One of the first stops is the “prison house” of liberation icon, Robert Sobukwe. I say prison house because his cell resembles “a little home” outside the main prison, that was fenced in apart from the other inmates. Our tour guide tells us that Sobukwe who was leader of the Pan African Congress at the time, was regarded by the apartheid government as “even more dangerous” than some of his ANC counterparts, hence his confinement outside the main section of the prison. His “home” was fenced in and a lone guard and his watchdog kept an eye over him on a 24-hour basis. Our guide tells us Sobukwe was arrested in 1960 while organising and leading a march against the pass book system . Upon being asked his pass book by a police officer on the day of the protest, Sobukwe duly handed it over, and was arrested for being unlawfully in an area not stipulated in his pass book. He was jailed for three years and once he had served his sentence, was banished to Robben island.

Now the authorities frustrated him even more by reviewing his sentence every three years, before he was eventually released in 1969, nine years after his arrest. He was allowed to live in Kimberley but remained under house arrest, before passing on in 1978 at the age of 54, of lung failure. Many believed that his illness came as a result of the inhumane conditions he was subjected to at Robben Island.

Tourists visit communal section for prisoners

Our tourist guide, himself a former politicial prisoner of Robben Island for more than 10 years, takes the group through the long corridors with cells on each side. This is the section where political prisoners were detained, most of them in singe cells. The surroundings smell of prison – not that I know what a prison smells like! But I feel it, I smell it. It’s creepy, to the point of being surreal. The first thing that strikes me is how neat the prison area is. Floors are spotlessly clean, and the holding cells are neat. I wonder if it was always this spick-and-span. My guess is, probably so, as the prison guards would have forced prisoners to keep cells and their perimeter in mint condition.

Our footsteps echo into the distance and only the whispered tones of our group disrupt them. I imagine how the clip clop, clip clop sound of the prison warders’ boots rebounded about the corridors in the morning, when they rang the bell and shouted to the prisoners: “ Wake up! Get up!". The guide tells us prisoners were roused at 5.30am and were not let out of cells until 6.45, by which time the cells would have to be tidied up.

The guide takes us into a rather large communal section that could probably accommodate I would say 80 to 100 prisoners. Here prisoners were given food rations for the morning and afternoon. The authorities also dealt them out based on the race of the prisoners, says the prison guide. If you were a so-called “Coloured” prisoner (neither black or white as determined by the apartheid authorities) you’d receive bread with jam or syrup on it, while ethnic black prisoners did not receive these “luxuries” at all. An original food menu board from the time shows “Coloureds” received rice as ration, while black prisoners did not. Also rations were given out in different quantities, based on the race of the individual prisoner, says our guide. For example, there were two ounces sugar for Coloureds and one-and-a- half ounces for blacks. Prisoners would receive one single grey issue (cotton) blanket that made it difficult during the exceptionally cold winters on the island.

At this point I look at the cement floors, and think: “How did people like Mandela survive here?”. Blacks also received short pants, while Coloureds and Indians received long pants as prison uniform issue . Food rations were strictly counted, and those prisoners with a higher category of could obtain food form the prison shop, to a value not exceeding R8 a month. Our guide says prisoners were also counted after breakfast and at 4h30pm in the afternoon to ensure none of them had escaped.

The limestone quarry

At noon after prisoners had spent their morning chopping stones in the limestone quarry, a bell would sound for lunch and food would be served from a metal drum. For ethnic blacks lunch consisted of boiled kernels of corn. The Indian and Coloured prisoners received samp, which was sometimes served with vegetables, whereas the black prisoners were denied these, receiving their corn kernels bone dry. Our guide tells us that prisoners also received a mug of what was described as coffee, but which was in fact ground-up maize, baked until it was black, and then brewed with hot water.

Now our tour guide talks about a drink often served to prisoners, the notorius phuzamandla, a Xhosa (African tribe) word which means “drink of strength.” This was a type of powder made from dry corn and a bit of yeast. It could at times be quite tasty, but often the tour guide said the prisoners felt spent and tired after drinking the mixture. The guards would then set upon them. Either they did not give them the powder as promised, substituting it with something else that dropped their energy levels very quickly.

Each prisoner was required to have the three buttons of his khaki jacket properly buttoned. They were also required to doff their hats as the warder walked by. If they violated prison prisoners were charged with a violation of the prison code and punished with either solitary confinement or the loss of meals.

Part 2 to follow/...

Sun sets on Robben Island

The sun sets on our visit, but just as it did for the prisoners so many years ago, it sure will come up again in the morning to reveal the extreme harshness of a relic of a bygone era, where history has firmly established itself for future generations.

Part 2 to follow/...


Atlantic Ocean, Mandela, Prisoners, Robben Island, V A Waterfront Charter Boat

Meet the author

author avatar Markthespark
I am a 49 year old journalist, and have been involved in the profession for 19 years. I am currently a newspaper sub-editor at a newspaper group in Port Elizabeth on the east coast of South Africa. .

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
16th Apr 2015 (#)

Apartheid system struck me as weird ever since I heard about it. I remember asking a British friend in 1980s how to justify it. He thought for a moment and said - it is tough to talk about it to an Indian! I asked an Indian who was living in Botswana how he managed to keep out of harms way when he visited South Africa. He said he knew the limits!

We fall short in terms of justice
towards fellow humans - siva

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author avatar Markthespark
16th Apr 2015 (#)

Thanks ...We have a large indian community in South Africa however, most of them having settled in Natal, now Kwazulu Natal in the early 1900s after arriving by ship from India, coming to work mainly in sugar-cane fields. Many Indians fought apartheid - some of them famous - and have left us a legacy up until today, becoming esteemed doctors, lawyers etc.

More than weird, it was an inhumane system to say the least! It's actually easier to talk about it than to actually to have experienced it. Apartheid in another guise, (racism, prejudice) in fact exists throughout the world. The only difference is that then it was institutionalized in South Africa i.o.w. it was enshrined in the statute books as law by the National Party, that was until 1991 of course with the unbanning of the ANC, and then transition to a new democracy!

Imagine, me as a "Coloured" growing up in my home town/country not being able to swim at whites only beaches, not being able to dine at whites-only restaurants, play in whites-only parks, travel in whites-only buses, get a permit to study at whites-only universities, banned from residing in whites-only suburbs, unable to go to whites-only cinemas, - and so the list goes on and on. These draconian laws and others were only removed in about 1992 or so from the statue books... when I was already 29. So my entire youth was having spent enduring a divisive, inhumane degrading system. It was difficult and I still get angry .. but I just have to feel and enjoy today's blessings!

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