Robben Island

It’s hard to go long in South Africa without seeing the remnants of apartheid wherever you go. What always shocks me about it is how very recent it is- the new South African government is celebrating its 15th year and Nelson Mandela celebrated his 91st birthday while I was in the country.

I’m going to place a bet that a lot of readers my age only have a fuzzy idea of what apartheid means as it’s not like you studied African history in school, let alone something that happened so recently. (It’s like how anything you know about the end of the Cold War was probably self-taught because your history teacher doesn’t realize you were a toddler.) So here is the bare-bones explanation: during the majority of the 20th century South Africa had the apartheid system in order to maintain white supremacy in their majority-black nation. (“Apartheid” is the Afrikaans word for “apart.” The Afrikaaners are descendants of the first Dutch settlers in South Africa from the sixteenth century, also referred to as Boers by the other main white group, the English. The English invented the first concentration camps during their wars against the Boers in the turn of the 20th century so the two don’t like each other, but that’s another story.) Under apartheid everyone in the nation was classified as “white,” “black,” “colored (Indian/Malay descent)”, or “mixed,” and you could only live in areas designated for your race, had to carry a passbook at all times showing you were allowed to be where you were… you get the idea.

South Africa officially got its new democratic government in landmark elections in 1994, but the most enduring symbol of apartheid government preceding it is Robben Island, seven kilometers out from Cape Town. Robben Island was where all the (black) political prisoners from the apartheid era were held, most famous of whom is Nelson Mandela, leader for several decades of the African National Congress (ANC, the illegal political party arguing for black equality) who served eighteen of his 27 years in prison here. Nowadays it’s a popular tourist attraction in Cape Town, sort of like Alcatraz but these guys didn’t deserve to be here, so I took the ferry out one afternoon.

The view from Robben Island back towards Cape Town, a half hour boat journey away. Robben Island has been a prison of one sort or another for several centuries and it’s worth noting that only one man in history ever managed to escape- he stole a small boat, and did this in the seventeenth century. So you needn’t bother with a swimming attempt!

Oh yeah, and it’s hard not to notice that the island is overrun with bunnies- giant, fat bunnies introduced a few centuries ago to an island with no predators so they do nothing but casually hop along the roadside to eat more grass to give birth to more bunnies. They’re trying to cull the rabbit herd by 10,000 or so, we’ll see how well that goes.

To continue the island tour, this is the infamous lime quarry where the leaders of the political prisoners did forced labor for several years (the rocks were used for an extensive road network on the island). Most political prisoners were members of the intelligentsia- primarily lawyers but a host of other educated people- so the work was supposed to be punishment but ended up being the only time many people in solitary confinement could share ideas. So that backfired on those in charge of the prison, sort of like how they used to house political prisoners with the dangerous convicts until the political ones started converting the convicts.


To tour the prison itself is a fascinating experience because the tour guides are actually former prisoners (something tells me they never thought at the time that they’d be doing this!). This is our guide whose name embarrassingly eludes me who spent ten years in Block C of the prison. His story went something like this: at the age of eighteen he was living in Soweto township in Johannesburg frustrated by his lack of educational prospects, so he joined the youth branch of the ANC (illegal act #1). He also left South Africa (illegal act #2) to recieve guerrilla training in Angola (illegal act #3) before coming back (second illegal border crossing) and was an ANC organizer (#5) until he got caught. Back in those days you were held at the local police station up to six months until you got charged, and it was a bit eye-opening to listen to someone describe the torture that occurred at the police stations in those days.

It’s also I confess hard to listen to a man who freely admits that at your age he was becoming well-versed in guerrilla warfare training. There really were no prospects so far as education goes in South Africa at the time- even the education minister is on the record saying “what is the purpose of teaching a Bantu [black] child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice… it’s absurd!” so only 5% of blacks got even secondary education. As someone who has always had the chance to make something of myself it’s a tough one to think about…

At this point it seems appropriate to mention the Afrikaaner view of apartheid, which I heard from a very kind but opinionated hostel owner a few days later. He says the international opinion of apartheid (which resulted in sanctions by most other nations during the era) is grossly exaggerated, as the main reason for apartheid was the blacks were backed by the Communists and you couldn’t let the commies take over South Africa. He has never been unkind to black people and never knows any other white people who were either and things are pretty much the same as they were during the apartheid times anyway, as you still have blacks as the poorer class and whites on top. Some people got a little beat up by police who didn’t deserve it but that happens all over the world, right?

Then there was a slight pause, followed by the comment “it’s just that we know black people can’t do politics well, so we couldn’t let them to vote.” Right. Moving on…image307

This is the cell where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years in solitary confinement. It’s hard to describe what an incredible statesman Mandela was throughout his life, but what amazes me most is what he did after his release in 1990.  For starters, he forgave the government that had imprisoned him for so many years, believing there was no way forward as one country without this.  Second, he kept the most prosperous nation on the continent together during a tumultuous transition in which frankly a lesser person would have failed (case in point: virtually every other African transition).  The more you look into it the more impossible it is to not fully admire the man.

The effects of apartheid are still around, but South Africa is definitely moving forward.  To end this whole sobering topic, though, I will just close with Nelson Mandela’s words as he was on trial in 1964, about to be sentenced to life imprisonment-

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

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