I guess it never occurred to me to come to Cape Town and then skip Robben Island. I just assumed it was a requirement. Do not pass go, do not collect $200: Do not visit Robben Island, do not gain admission to the airport to leave. So, today I went to Robben Island.
Robben is the Dutch word for seal. The island was given its name due to the thousands of seals living there. How many seals did I see today? Not one.
In order to get to Robben Island you have to take a small ferry about 45 minutes across the harbor. Once you arrive you are hustled onto buses and shuttled around the island. Prior to becoming a prison Robben Island was a leper colony. With the exception of the church, all the buildings from the time of the leper colony were destroyed due to the fear that “the walls may be infected and cause others to contract the disease.”
But we were able to see all the buildings associated with the prison as well as the present day village. About 130 people live on the island full time, including former prisoners, four former prison guards and their families. Once the bus tour concludes you are dropped off at the main prison itself. All the tours of the prison are actually given by former prisoners. My tour guide, Itumetse, was arrested and sent to Robben Island in 1983; he was released in 1990.
I haven’t really spent much time in prisons, so I’m not really sure what I expected. There wasn’t very much to see. Here is one of the watchtowers overlooking the prison yards:
And here is a picture of one of the prison yards where prisoners spent their “free time” when not in their cells:
One of the things I learned during my visit that surprised me was that the prisoners placed a high value on education. If you look at many of the former prisoners of Robben Island, including Mandela as the most prominent, they are all politicians. Several are (or previously were) government ministers, the Chief Justice of South Africa, and members of parliament. I always wondered how this was possible. While their fame associated with Robben Island may have carried them relatively far in their careers, I expected they had to have some level of intelligence in order to make them able to perform their jobs. It turns out that Robben Island is what gave them that education. All prisoners were given access to advanced learning and peer pressure was used to ensure they all participated and took advantage of it.
For the prisoners who were considered “leaders” (Mandela fell into this category) they were sentenced to hard labor, working in the lime quarry. Initially they were told they would only work there for six months, but in reality the lime quarry was operational for 13 years. For the first 11 years they were given no protective equipment, which resulted in numerous health problems for many of them. Most of the prisoners working there had significant damage to their eyes, so much so that most have ineffective tear ducts, meaning they can’t cry, and they cannot stand bright light, so going outside without sunglasses, or having their picture taken with a flash is particularly painful. The quarry itself doesn’t look impressive, but I’m sure anyone who spent time there found it incredibly memorable:
Naturally, everyone who goes to Robben Island wants to see Nelson Mandela’s cell. It is one of about 40 identical cells, but there is one aspect which distinguishes it from the others. As one woman on my tour exclaimed, “Oh look! It’s furnished!” I’m not sure most of us would consider this “furnished” but apparently this was standard issue for prisoners there: