Since this is the first Nelson Mandela Day since Madiba died, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the profound jolt I got when visiting Robben Island. I have provided a picture of just a section of the wall you confront when stepping off the boat for your tour.
It includes several panels devoted to the prison sections and the men held in them.
We were told about 200 people still live on Robben Island, most of them are former prisoners who serve as guides. At the ferry dock when we returned, I saw some of the families with their grocery carts of supplies to take back to the island. The island is about 11 miles from the Cape Town waterfront but has had a long history of being a prison for several hundred years. The island is so close, yet so far away. You wonder why more didn’t try to escape but apparently those 11 miles were quite treacherous and impossible to swim. Seeing Cape Town so close yet so unattainable truly was psychological punishment.
The ferry boat Rick and I took to Robben resembled more of a party boat rather than passenger ferry. Booze cruise came to mind as there was a nice sitting area inside with tables and cushioned “couches.” The weather was gorgeous sunny, warming up and seemingly perfect for a Sunday morning sail… to an island prison? Incongruity.
Once you get to Robben Island, you board a bus outside the main prison gate. The bus traveled around a portion of the island, stopping at the quarry where the prisoners worked and where Mandela developed his eye problems/sensitivity to bright light. Because tourists in the past have tried to collect the rocks from the quarry for souvenirs, you are not allowed off the bus at the quarry.
Since Robben Island served as a defense location for South Africa as well, you find a gunnery stand along the way. You also stop and see the prison house of Robert Sobukwe, the head of the Pan Africanist Congress who was kept in solitary confinement and who was the subject of a bizarre law or clause that gave the government power to keep him imprison indefinitely, regardless whether he had completed the prison sentence decreed in a court of justice. Even when he was released from prison, he lived under house arrest.
Sobukwe and Mandela and Walter Sisulu and Dennis Brutus are among the well-known Robben Island prisoners. Yet the museum and tour folk do a good job letting the visitor know the stories of others who sacrificed their freedom there.
In one section of the prison on the tour, each cell is set up to tell you a different prisoner’s story. One cell was dedicated to a trumpet player who eventually got one to play in prison. Another featured the story of a prisoner who fashioned a skeleton key to open every cell. The tour guide talks of the conditions such as the use of the toilet bucket, or eating the gruel that is jokingly referred to as an early version of an “energy drink” despite not providing enough nutrients for any kind of energy. He explained the speakers on the wall through which the guards could listen in on conversations. He spoke of the black prisoners having to wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
The guide explains how life was lived in the prison and how the guards were imprisoned as well. He adds to the description Mandela himself outlined in “Long Walk to Freedom” as to the seemingly petty and dehumanizing acts of containment as punishment.
The tour culminates with the visit to Mandela’s cell. Mandela did not spend all 27 years of his imprisonment on Robben but the vast majority of it was spent there. I, like the more than a dozen others in my tour group, each got up to the bars and took a picture of it. Snap! It does not show anything. But the picture that best epitomizes the tragedy of Robben Island is the one of Mandela returning and looking out the window of that cell. I now know that dozens of men have had that same experience of returning to the scene of the crime where they had no freedom, but now do and must determine the path each will take with it.
So I now think of another quote that brings tears to my eyes and a sense of resolve in my soul because I have it easy. “The greatest glory of living lies not in never falling but in rising every time you fall.” Oh yeah.