The place of incarceration of Nelson Mandela, father of South Africa, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and hides a million painful stories in its rocky heart.
When I first reached Robben Island, after an hour-long ferry ride from Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the landscapes; the view from here was just so pristine, and the sea was embracing the sky creating different shades of blue. The breeze was quite cold in April as it coincides with the onset of winter in South Africa. I then turned my eyes towards the land and noticed that the soil and vegetation were quite dry. There were plenty of rocks surrounding the island. But what caught my eye was a giant wall covered by barbed wires… “Freedom cannot be manacled!” I read on the wall before I suddenly understood the pain of the innocent people, who had been imprisoned here, kept in captivity in a beautiful island with only a window with a view of the deep blue sea as their only escape.
The silence around, that contrasted sharply with the vivid and colourful city of Cape Town, made my heart heavier. But then came this tall, old, black man, his eyes red and his head clean shaven. He introduced himself as our tour guide and a former political prisoner, who had been sentenced and imprisoned on the island. Leaving us dumbstruck, and before we had time to ask him a question, he took us through the prison and began explaining how the prisoners used to live here.
“This is the Island! Here you will die!”
I did not really know more about Robben Island than that it was where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during his fight against the Apartheid regime. He served 18 of his 27 years in prison here.
“We were met by a group of burly white wardens shouting [in Afrikaans]: ‘Dis die Eiland! Hier gaan julle vrek!’ (This is the Island! Here you will die!)”, Mandela wrote in his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.
Today, as the place is open to visitors, hundreds of tourists visit his tiny cell every year. As the finale of the tour, the guide gave us enough time to observe Mandela’s four square metre cell. The first thing that comes to my mind is how did Mandela manage to retain his sanity, let alone triumph over his oppressors and liberate the country, from such a tiny, constrained space, where I could hardly breathe!
“To survive in prison, one must develop ways to find satisfaction in daily life. One can feel fulfilled by washing one’s clothes so that they are particularly clean, by sweeping a corridor so that it is free of dust, by organising one’s cell to conserve as much space as possible. The same pride one takes in more consequential tasks outside prison, one can find in doing small things inside prison,” Mandela recounted in his autobiography.
“Political prisoners in the island were treated in a more aggressive manner,” explains the guide. “Everyday, prisoners were taken to work in a limestone quarry, no matter how hot it was, as a result, many prisoners-died working there,” he remembers. “As a category ‘D’ political prisoner, Mandela was allowed to only one visit and one letter every six months,” our guide reminded us.
Many say Mandela’s ordeal in Robben Island was the making of him. Like him, thousands of other political prisoners were sent to the island for simply raising their voices against the apartheid or holding peaceful protests. “The challenge for every prisoner is how to survive the prison, to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs. The authorities’ greatest mistake was to keep us together, for together, our determination was reinforced. We supported each other and gained strength from each other,” Mandela explained in his autobiography.
“The island was exclusively for ‘coloured’ prisoners including blacks and people of Indian origin, the whites were jailed on the mainland,” added our guide. Indeed, South Africa is home to an important Indian diaspora as many Indians came to work on the plantations as indentured labours. Mahatma Gandhi himself worked in South Africa as a lawyer, before returning to India to fight against the colonisation, after facing the inhuman apartheid regime in South Africa.
“The segregation happened in the jail as well, the Indian origin and the black prisoners were served different meals,” explained the guide.
Let Freedom Reign
Robben Island became a UNESCO World Heritage site partly because of Nelson Mandela but its history and tragedy goes back to the 17th century. It was a jail as well as a mental hospital. During the World War II, it was also used as a military base.
There are about 700 historical buildings and sites listed on the island. Some of them can be seen, as a bus takes you on a tour of the island. It includes a Muslim shrine, in homage of Adurohman Moturu, one of the first Imams of South Africa who was exiled on the island and died there in 1754. We also crossed a church and a large cemetery, burying thousands of prisoners that had succumbed to the terrible prison conditions.
“The atrocities on Robben Island came to end only in the 1990s when the inhumane apartheid regime was abolished,” said our guide. He finally confessed to us that he had been jailed here for almost 15 years when he was just a teenager. His crime? Participating in a protest against the segregation.
A question kept tormenting me as I observed his slow movements and calm nature. Why did he return to live and work in the same place that had given him so much pain? I finally mustered the courage to ask him.
“After I was released, I did not know what to do, I was lost. I had lost my entire youth here. When the place was opened to the public, I was contacted for this position and I immediately accepted. We are the living history of what happen in this island. Someone should tell the story, for freedom to reign,” he said with a shy smile on his face, his eyes lost in the blue sky.