Today is D-Day. Departure day. But with a flight that didn’t leave until 6:30pm, that meant almost an entire day to devote to one last hoorah! Today was a trip to Robben Island, the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Honestly, I don’t know much about apartheid or any of that history (yet- gotta research for class!). So I was hoping for a good mini crash course.
If you want to go to Robben Island, at least during the high season for tourism (mid-December to mid-January), you have to book your tickets in advance online. Originally, I had planned to do this trip by myself over Christmas, but it was completely sold out for days on end. I got us tickets for January 11 at 9am. We woke up, finished packing, said goodbye to the housesitters, and headed into Cape Town. It was weird leaving the house to someone other than the homeowner or caretaker…and I felt some kind of odd responsibility toward it. Like if something went wrong on their watch it would be my fault somehow because I suggested them, or that I should check up on them and make sure everything was ok (even though I know they are STELLAR house sitters with amazing reviews from numerous international sits). Maybe without any real pets to bond with (it’s hard to bond with a porcupine, although I love and will never forget my little Behati!!), I bonded with the house. Down the hill we went for the last time. Past the little penguin beach. Past the shops. Up and over the mountain toward Noordhoek. Down into Cape Town. All of this such a familiar path by now. We got the V & A Waterfront (where I went to the aquarium what seems like months ago!), and I must say that the signs telling you where to park and how to find the boat were pretty much non-existant. Google maps tried to take us down some industrial freight delivery road. Let me pause here and say that of everywhere I’ve been with my beloved Google Maps, it sucks the worst in South Africa. I’ve been on remote roads in the middle of no where Cuba with more accurate information… We finally asked someone, found the “red building” to park in. Asked someone which lift to take to the boat. Ugh. Stepped outside and there was a huge line. This is a VERY popular tour! Had to show our tickets, go through security, and then get on the boat. Let me clarify “boat”. This was a huge catamaran with a zillion nice seats inside. Kind of like sitting on a really wide train! 🙂 The housesitters had told us to be the first off the boat so we didn’t have to wait on a bus when we got to the island, so we sat at the back of the boat.
We literally could not have picked a more beautiful day to go to the island. When it’s windy, the boats don’t run, and that is a serious concern. But today there was zero wind and the sea was practically like glass. Of course, we took our Bonine as a precaution anyway, because no one wants to be seasick then get on a plane! It was a quick half hour ish to the island, and we jumped up and got in line to get off the boat as quickly as possible. Saw where the buses were, and went into our speed-walk-pass-up-everyone mode. Got on the first bus they filled. It was the last to drive through the gate. 🙂
We then drove to the prison, where we would be led on a tour by an actual former political prisoner who was imprisoned here. That’s pretty sobering, and I was really excited to learn from someone who had lived it, not just studied it. Our group was massive. Probably 40 people or so. Side Note: If you’re ever in a large tour group with me and lose me in the crowd, find the guide. I’m always about 6” away so I can hear everything! Our guide explained that he had been imprisoned here. He was arrested on June 18, 1984. He was kept in an individual cell for 6 months. Two years after his arrest, he was sentenced to 14 years for “terrorism”- basically, for fighting for his rights as a black man against an oppressive government. He served 4 years of that 14 year sentence, because all former political prisoners in the country were released on February 11, 1990- including Nelson Mandela. We entered the prison. It’s sectioned off into different blocks, designated by letters. We started in F block. Here there was a large (relatively speaking) communal cell that we entered. This is the same cell that our guide spent most of his time in. Wow. This cell would hold 40-60 men- both political and criminal. The prison was opened in 1961, and until the Red Cross intervened in 1979, the men slept on mats on the floor. The Red Cross provided bunk beds and helped to better conditions in the prison. Nelson Mandela was one of the prisoners that had complained to the Red Cross about the living conditions- food, bedding, treatment by the guards, etc… The picture below shows the mat and the bunk bed.
Racism didn’t just exist outside of the prison walls, it existed inside as well. Here you can see the daily allowance of food, and it’s split into 2 groups. B- Colored/Asiatics and C- Bantus. I’ll be honest, it was really hard to keep up with what the guide was saying. His accent was thick. He had to speak loud because there were so many people, and his voice echoed off the cement floors and walls. My ears give me fits as it is, so this was not my ideal learning environment! I had no idea what this card even was (other than a menu) until I came back and really listened to the video I took and did a little research. What’s a Bantu? A black person. Look at the differences in what they were allowed. And honestly, look at how little food it really is. The whole thing is just….degrading. God.
Next, we moved into A block. These were individual cells, and they were tiny. There were probably about 70 cells in total (maybe more). We were allowed to walk on our own through the block. Practically every cell had a picture of the man who lived here, a written story from them about their time there in their own words, and sometimes even a momento of their time there- a book of letters they kept from family, a certificate they won playing table tennis, etc… I knew I didn’t have time to read them all, so I went through quickly taking two pics in each cell- one of the man and one of his story. Some of them (like the one below) are not “classroom friendly”, but many were. I was so excited that students could read these men’s own words and see their faces- something to make it a little more real to them. Imagine my chagrin when I was on maybe the 10th cell, when our guide called for us to move to the next building. WHAT?! We hadn’t even been in there for 5 minutes! And we hadn’t even worked our way to Nelson Mandela’s cell! Brian and I, and another man and his son started running down the hall, checking every cell’s picture trying to find Mr. Mandela’s- which all of us could have swore the guide said was the 7th cell. The rest of the group had exited, the guide had been REALLY clear about staying together, and all 4 of us were just in a panic. After checking every cell where we thought it was, we finally followed the group out. I really did not like being rushed through like that and missing so much important information. In fact, I was mad.
We were herded across to another block and into a courtyard. The guide said that this was the courtyard for Nelson Mandela’s block, and his window was the 4th one on the right. PHEW! We hadn’t missed his cell after all! Everyone pushed their way into the hallway of the block, and filed past the cell that Mandela had spent 18 years in- from 1961 to 1982. He served a total of 27 years- some of that time at other prisons. His cell was exactly like every other cell on the block. Nothing special about it. Nothing that made it stand out. About 8 feet x 7 feet with a mat and blanket, a table with his food dish and a cup, and a metal trash can. It wasn’t for trash.
And that was it. Our prison tour was over. I really felt like something was “missing”. Some part of the experience. Some deeper understanding. I don’t know. We boarded our bus with a new tour guide. A young man who probably wasn’t even born in 1990 when the prisoners were released. But he was quite knowledgeable! We drove around the island to see other parts of it. First up was a huge graveyard. The island actually served as a place to remove people with various problems from society in the 1800’s- leprosy, mental illness, the elderly, people with diabetes- anyone no one wanted to take care of, basically…Ignorance. I question how much more educated we really are today…
We then pulled up in front of a lime quarry. This is where the prisoners were forced to work every day. The sun shining off the blinding white lime and no sun glasses. The dust from taking lime rocks and pounding them down to powder with no masks to protect their lungs. Hardly any food. Watched so closely by guards and dogs that you dare not slow down or get out of line. Except….to go to the bathroom. A little cave was dug out (you can see it in the pic on the left) for that purpose. And it STUNK! Horrible!!! But for the prisoners, it was their sanctuary. Because it smelled so bad, the guards wouldn’t go in there. And newspapers (sometimes years old, but still news to them) and books were smuggled in and hidden there. Quick meetings were held where the prisoners could talk openly with each other. If those limestone walls could talk…
We pulled up in front of a fenced in yard with several buildings, and learned about a very interesting man I had never heard of. Robert Sobukwe. He was educated, and a fervent organizer and leader of black protests against Apartheid. After one incident, he was arrested and spent 3 years in prison. AFTER he finished his sentence, a law was actually written in to the Constitution stating that he was to be kept on Robben Island at the complete discretion of the Minister of Justice. In other words, imagine you are fighting for your basic human rights, are arrested, serve your complete prison sentence, and instead of going home you are told that a new law has been put into place and you aren’t going anywhere unless the Minister of Justice decides you are no longer a threat. Outrageous! The law was called the “Sobukwe Clause”, and he was the only person to have a law written that only applied to him!! He wasn’t kept in the prison, but in a house on the Island (see the house on the left with the electric pole). It was basically solitary confinement, as he couldn’t interact with the other prisoners. But he was allowed the luxury of books and magazines that other prisoners couldn’t have. His family would even come and stay with him for a week or so every once in a while. He remained here for an additional 6 years- earning a degree in Economics from the University of London. Actually, after reading materials were finally allowed into the prison, most every political prison left with at least one degree. Those buildings on the right with all the doors? I never would have guessed that they were DOG KENNELS!! Air conditioned and much larger than prisoner cells, the dogs that lived here were treated well. They had rank- one rank ABOVE the guard they were assigned to, to insure the guard took the best care imaginable of the dog. These were highly skilled attack dogs, meant to keep the prisoners in line…
And just like that, our day at Robben Island was over. Brian and I both said it would have been better if you could just do a walking tour of the island, either an audio tour (like Alcatraz) or with signage. That way you wouldn’t feel so rushed and “herded” everywhere. There really wasn’t enough time to soak it all in. We were only on the island for about 2 hours. One thing will stick out in my mind always. Something our former political prisoner guide said. A tourist asked him what crime he committed. He simply answered that he committed no crime. His charges were a different thing entirely, though. How true. How can standing up for your basic human rights- the right to be treated fairly and equally, the right to freedom and dignity, be a crime- even if you have to use force? Who among us wouldn’t do the same? His words were so simple, but so powerful.
Went back to the dock, boarded our return boat (not nearly as nice as the first one), and grabbed lunch at the water front. Returned our car, checked our bags with Lufthansa, and off we went. It gets harder and harder to come home after each trip. My traveling legs are already itchy, and I’m seriously contemplating a trip to Colombia over spring break in two months. I don’t feel like I can wait for summer. I’m writing this blog from my couch, it’s 11am and thanks to relentless jag lag I’ve already been awake for almost 12 hours (that’s right- since 11:30pm last night). I’ll hit a wall here soon, and the vicious cycle will start again. But it’s all worth it. Because I went in to Africa. And Africa went into me.