They say prison changes a man. After our if i could… visit to Robben Island, we can attest to the fact that prison changes everyone who steps through its metal doors. Whether you are a man, woman, child, prisoner, guard, or visitor.
An outing to Robben Island
After purchasing the R250 ticket and a long ferry ride away from Cape Town’s mainland, we were surprised by the beauty of Robben Island. Lush greenery lines the coast and red-roofed houses oddly add to the beauty of this prison island.
Our tour guide, Joseph*, was a former political prisoner on Robben Island during the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Speaking both English and Afrikaans, Joseph was informative and entertaining. He joked that if didn’t know a word in English he would switch to Afrikaans, confident tourists would understand. His knowledge of the island seemed immense and he invited questions from guests often.
While we spent some time looking for shooting locations from South Africa’s 2013 film ‘Mandela: A long walk to freedom’ starring Idris Elba, we also learned that Robben Island had been a prison for a very long time, long before the apartheid government turned it into a political prison. Robben Island had also been a leper colony, with graveyards of those affected still standing today.
It was a strange sensation to be in the warm sun, on a green island, surrounded by the deep blue ocean and a magnificent view of Table Mountain, while listening to a former prisoner recount the sheer number of gross atrocities that took place on the island.
Most jarring to one of our interns was the story of Robert Sobukwe,. He suffered 6 brutal years of solitary confinement, at times his isolation mere meters away from other prisoners and friends. Sobukwe was feared by the apartheid government because of his charisma, dangerous ideas, and knack for growing a following.
His punishment was, therefore, to never be able to speak to his comrades again. Sobukwe’s guards were changed every four months so he couldn’t build relationships with them. His little house, built especially for one person, still stands. His four children were adopted by an American man, while his wife Veronica still lives in South Africa.
Social development intern
if i could… Social development intern Aly said, “Isolation is the worst form of torture and having endured it for so long is remarkable,” while if i could… Programme Assistant Vasti Hannie added, “It is shocking the lengths that the government went to silence a man without making him a martyr.”
Our guide balanced traumatic tales with endearing ones, weaving together sometimes personal stories of camaraderie and solidarity amongst prisoners – uplifting in the face of the guards’ blatant racism. Almost unbelievable in light of the horrific treatment prisoners endured, was Nelson Mandela’s request that prisoners befriend wardens in an effort to form relationships and make them realise they are brothers.
Of real note is the prisoners’ ‘Each one teach one’ policy. This was taken up during Mandela’s stay and meant that all the prisoners who left Robbin island left literate and educated.
if i could… Programme Assistant Marcina Singh says, “’Each one teach one’ is an example of how education can uplift a person from their circumstances. It was the solution to a big problem at the time. A large number of prisoners missing out on their right to an education. The prisoners educated on Robben Island are some of the people now running the country, Nelson Mandela being the most noteworthy. The moral of this story is to accept education where you can get it. After all, you never know how it will benefit you in the future.”
While Robben Island has an air of desolation and feeling of a distant past, Joseph and other guides remind us that South Africa’s story is not so distant, and it’s still unfolding. if i could… Communications Manager Jenn Warren says, “To become a tour guide on the very island you were imprisoned must be an extremely difficult decision. Meeting Joseph and hearing his story, from ‘general population’ to a place of healing today, will stick with me forever.”
Hats off the to the tour guides who made our visit so meaningful. if i could… recommends the Robben Island tour to all South Africans and visitors alike. Take a water bottle, some sunscreen, and an open mind. You could let prison change you, too.
*Name has been changed