Robben Island – not just Mandela

Monday 21 November

I remember newspaper reports of Nelson Mandela and how he was imprisoned for being an activist in South Africa.

I remember feeling disgusted that a country could impose regulations that prohibited people of different races from mixing.

I remember that South Africa became an isolated country. The rest of the world wouldn’t trade with it or play sport against it.

South Africa was a dirty phrase. How did this come about?

No trip to Cape Town is complete without visiting Robben Island and learning about the tragedy of apartheid.

Like many countries in Africa, South Africa was colonised. Cape Town was a strategic part of the world – allowing passage to Europe of silks, cottons and spices from the Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese were the first to make use of the Cape to refresh water and food supplies as they delivered slaves and goods to Europe.

Then came the Dutch. As well as using the Cape to refresh supplies, they also started to farm the land. They encroached on the hunting grounds of the Sans and Xhosa (Kosa) people and rather than negotiate for some rights to the land, they took those people prisoners – and put them on Robben Island.

Then the British came. They used the island to house the critically ill, mentally insane, homeless and lepers. They isolated the unwanteds.

During World War II the island also became an outpost to protect the country, however war never came to South Africa.

But there is a long history of separating the whites from the others. The South African Government in post war actively segregated the whites and non-whites. Non-whites were any African, Indian or mixed race.

Of course the intellectual non-whites tried to resist. Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe were amongst the many leaders.

As we discovered during our visit to the Jewish museum, the activists got some support from the Jewish community, particularly in defending them in their trials of treason.

There was in fact only one Political Prisoner, Robert Sobukwe. He was kept isolated at Robben Island and at later at Kimberly in the Northern Cape Province. As a political prisoner he had certain rights, such as family visits but he was also gagged, not allowed to communicate with anyone.

Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were charged with either treason or sedition or both and were sentenced to hard labour.

Our visit to Robben Island was controlled. After the three-quarter hour boat trip we were herded onto buses and ‘shown around’. There was very good commentary but little opportunity to explore beyond the controlled tour. This is forced in part because of the many souvenir hunters who were removing artefacts, even rocks from the quarry where Nelson Mandela worked.

We were taken to the edge of the island to visit the lighthouse and see some African Penguins. This was a time filler, while the other half of the boat cruise was show Mandela’s living quarters.

Then it was our turn. Guides are past prisoners who understandably show a lot of emotion in delivering of their stories.

It’s a sad place, even on a warm and sunny day. Within sight of Cape Town and surrounded by swirling currents it is too dangerous to swim. May it remain just a tourist destination for evermore.