African shoestrings – South Africa Day Thirty-three – Robben Island Cape Town
Another pretty interesting guy whom unfortunately we didn’t get around to meet was Nelson Mandela. We did however get to meet someone who served time with him on Robben island a small former prison island 11 kilometres north west of Cape Town.
Eugene was his name and he served seven years on Robben Island for his part in a student anti-apartheid demonstration in 1983. He was still there but this time as a guide.
Mandela spent twenty-six years as a political prisoner there and certainly in the earlier years had to overcome some pretty harsh treatment to survive.
In the 1960’s they were only allowed one visit of 30 minutes and one heavily censored letter every six months.
For around thirteen years Mandela and others were made to work with picks and shovels in a lime quarry where the heat and blinding glare in summer could eventually kill or blind.
In the 1980’s the authorities eventually softened under international pressure and stopped hard labour, allowing education of selected subjects to university level.
The prison itself however is not what you expect. The layout is pretty similar to any other high security prison found in the western world, you know, small cells, high walls, a cramped exercise yard and barbed wire everywhere. For effect life size cardboard cut outs of past prison guards are strategically placed around the prison corridor and yards. These guys are pretty lifelike, at first glance I wondered what this guy in the uniform with a gun was guarding! From what Eugene was saying I was glad that they were only cardboard, their reputation as cruel and harsh was apparently well justified. Beatings and other acts of violence were all in a day’s work. And yet the main gate to the prison gives no hint to these brutal facts. Written above it in Afrikaans is “ONS DIEN MET TROTS” that means “We serve with pride”.
The known history of the island dates back some 400 years and has been used as a fishing base, a whaling station, a hospital, a mental asylum, a civilian prison, a military base, a political prison and now finally a museum.
It’s as a museum that it seeks to be as Mandela puts it “a symbol of the victory of the human spirit over political oppression; and for reconciliation over enforced division.”
The island itself has little natural beauty to mention although it does have the odd gemsbok and springbok around and the views of Cape Town and its spectacular Table mountain backdrop are worth the admission price alone.