Posted by: Anna | February 15, 2011

Robben Island

On our last day in Cape Town, I had a whirlwind of a day ending with a visit to Robben Island before rushing to the airport. Robben Island was an infamous prison for political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma (current South African President), during Apartheid. It is very popular and it is essential to reserve a spot in advance for a scheduled tour (the only way you can visit).

Historically, Robben Island has essentially functioned as a dumping ground for the unwanted – prisoners, lepers, etc. A leper colony graveyard dots the landscape with white stone markers in a desolate setting. To reach Robben Island, a boat is needed. The swim is dangerous and cold, much like Alcatraz, making it a popular prisoner destination throughout history, beginning in the 1600s, off and on.

Robben Island is most famous, or infamous, for the Apartheid political prisoners it held. The prison was built by the prisoners themselves (while they lived in a former military base) and held 1000 prisoners at its height. The prisoners worked outside in a limestone quarry during the day, and slept in unheated, un-air conditioned rooms. Conditions were notoriously harsh, violating international standards in many ways.

Today, you board a luxurious ferry for thirty minutes to get to Robben Island. My tour began with a bus tour of the island – essentially a boring waste of time so that the other bus groups can tour the prison first. On the bus tour, a guide gives an overview of the island’s history as a prison, leper colony, and WWII base.


Robben Island, as seen from Cape Town. Odd to think of the infamous prison being your view when you headed to the beach for a nice day during Apartheid.

My bus was filled with a corporate group from a South African company, and provided an ever present reminder that this is modern South Africa – a diverse group, intermittently texting and snacking on the prepared lunches they were all given. Most of those on the bus were about my age, making them children during the end of Apartheid. I wonder what it is like to have something like Apartheid in your childhood memory only. Does it seem real? And if you are old enough to remember it as an adult, your perception is not shaped by the history you are taught in school, so it gives yet another perspective – one of personal experience and whatever news you chose to ingest, not one shaped by the public policy / educational system. Since my life has essentially been lived in an evolving society, not a revolutionary society, I wonder what it must be like to wake up one day, or look back one month, or six months, and realize your world is different. Not just a little different, but at least officially, it now operates on different rules and different underlying assumptions.

The tour guide then turned us over to our guide for the prison part of the tour – a former political prisoner served as the tour guide. First, we stopped in a group cell, which held 40 prisoners at a time. He showed us the mat on which prisoners slept until an NGO purchased beds for the prison. He discussed the clothing issued to prisoners and the daily menu; both were designed to reinforce the racial categorization and separation that characterized Apartheid.


Robben Island - the prison the prisoners built.


When a prisoner arrived, he (no women were held at Robben Island) was issued a number and categorized by race, either coloured, asiatic, or bantu (black) – terms used at the prison. No white prisoners were held at Robben Island. He was given a number, and never again referred to by name, only by number. He was issued his prison clothing – for coloureds/asiatics: pants, socks, shoes, shirt, underwear. Bantus were issued shorts, shirt, and underwear. No socks, no shoes. This really bugged me; it smacks of such smallness, an action designed only to undermine the humanity of the prisoner. Obviously, Apartheid undermined the humanity of South Africans, but for some reason, no shoes really bothered me. The black prisoners had to work in a limestone quarry, barefoot.

For meals, there were two menus, one for, you guessed it, coloureds and Asiatics and one for bantus. Guess which was worse? The bantu meal included 5 oz meat, as opposed to 6 oz, and other small differences intended to foster racial divide within the prisoners.


Our tour guide, a former prisoner, walking around the room showing us the menu card.


After spending time in the group cell, we moved on to see the a block of solitary cells, where many of the leaders were confined, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela is treated rather like a god in South Africa today, and seeing the humble, tiny cell where he spent 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison is somewhat startling – that a man that looms so large in public perception today lived so small for so long.


Group Cell - held 40 inmates

Nelson Mandela's cell


Although visiting the prison is certainly depressing, and forces you to reflect on the darker side of humanity, which I admit I prefer to ignore (note: I do not watch violent or dark movies), there are also glimmers of hope in the stories about the prison. Oddly, soccer is one of those. Human rights organizations campaigned for prisoners to be allowed physical activity, and the prisoners gained access to playing soccer. They organized their own league, with teams, following FIFA rules based upon an old handbook that had been placed in the prisoner library. They certified officials and had methods for resolving scoring and officiating disputes. I believe that their league of prisoners was more honest than FIFA today (perhaps not the most difficult challenge, but still…). The work that human rights organizations did from around the world to improve conditions at Robben Island also impressed upon me the value of the work that NGOs and responsible governments do in the world.

The prisoners treated Robben Island as an opportunity for education, denied many of them, and for building a cohesive network that was able to survive the redesign of South Africa in the immediate post-Apartheid era. Whether relying so heavily upon the Robben Island alumnae network today for South Africa’s political leadership is more debatable. Without that network and the time for the different factions working against Apartheid to bond together while the leaders were imprisoned, however, I believe reaching a (mainly) peaceful end to Apartheid would have been impossible.

The tour ended with our guide telling his story of how he ended up as a prisoner; no one in the group could help but feel the suffering personally that was inflicted. Guilt, even though I was a child and citizen of a different nation, overcame me, thinking of the injustice of the entire Apartheid system, of separating people based on an arbitrary definition of race, allotting education dollars based on race, reserving jobs based on race, etc. Does remembering the history and building a museum to make it more real to those who did not experience it personally further the goals of reconciliation? Perhaps the very act of speaking the truth makes it less painful and elicits the development of compassionate humanity in those who visit.

Of course, America does not have a blameless history in racial relations either. I cannot think of a monument memorializing our ugly history in the same vein as Robben Island, however. Can you?



  1. Perhaps we as Americans haven’t truly fessed up for the atrocities that were committed. We are not willing to admit how bad it was for blacks – especially in the south.

  2. In the movie Invictus the rugby players tour the prison at Robben Island. The scenes about this are moving. The grace and wisdom that Nelson Mandela showed to the players on the South African rugby team as an attempt to move the nation towards healing is also quite moving. While we can certainly learn from our past, I think it is important to focus on that healing, whether it be for events of over 150 years ago, like the Civil War and slavery, or 50 years ago like segregation, or 20 years ago, like Apartheid.

  3. Hi Anna,

    I just wanted to say: 1) I love your blog; and 2) Thanks for passing my blog on to your friend Anita. We just met up for coffee this morning and she’d great.

    I’ll be following along with you from now on.

    Heather (2summers)

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