It had not been easy to secure a place on the boat to Robben Island, as the weather had prevented me from going, and then the boat appeared to be fully booked. So, when I was finally sailing north on the modern catamaran, I was happy I made it. While I somehow had expected a low-profile boat trip to the former prison island, I was surprised to find a well-organized modern tour organization taking care of the many visitors. Also, the size of the island took me by surprise: where I had thought Robben Island to be rather small, several buses were waiting for us upon arrival and took us on a tour around the island. Contrary to what I imagined beforehand, Robben Island is inhabited nowadays, and has a functional living community. During our tour around the island, we could unfortunately never disembark, and I realized once more how much I dislike group tours where you are restricted in your freedom to move at your own speed. We saw the village, the leper cemetery, the place where Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement for six years, the lime quarry where prisoners were forced to work, the red and white lighthouse of Robben Island, before we arrived at the former prison of the island.
Robben Island was established as a penal colony in the 17th century by the Dutch, who saw its proximity to Cape Town in combination with the wild, cold ocean separating the island from the mainland as a perfect location for a prison and who named it Robbeneiland, or Seal Island, a name that stuck. The British colonizers continued its usage as a place of isolation, and so did the South African government in its apartheid years. The island was also used as a hospital, and held a colony of lepers which were thus effectively separated from the mainland. From here, Cape Town is only 11km away, but the sea is rough and cold, even though it is reported that several prisoners managed to escape swimming the distance. Near the entrance of Robben Island prison, you can see a Moturu Kramat, a sacred Muslim site, which was built in 1969 in memory of an Indonesian imam kept here in the 18th century by the Dutch, and which has become an important pilgrimage site for Muslims.
Once inside, our group gets assigned a guide who served time in Robben Island prison, and the story gets grim. We hear about the 4 different groups of prisoners, their privileges, the conditions and food, reality for prisoners here, and our guide gives us a realistic account of his time and the conditions without a trace of emotions, bitterness or regret. This is the part of the tour that I liked most by far - hearing the guide talk about life in prison, that was of course much more complicated than an outsider would imagine. We see the courtyard where Mandela and others could take in fresh air, the vegetable garden where Mandela used to hide his books, the cell where Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years of prison - contrary to what many believe, he was serving time in another prison at the time of his release in 1990. I again realize that words and labels make a difference and are highly questionable, depending on the position of the person using them. Mandela was for a long time not even considered a political prisoner, but a terrorist, and was therefore denied certain rights. Ultimately, this only added to his fame and his symbolical power. The visit to the prison was a confrontational walk back in time - even though I disliked the hasty way in which visitors are pushed onwards to allow a next group to see a certain place. While seeing some of the penguins on the way back to the catamaran, I fantasized about how I would liked to spend a whole day here with a former prisoner - walking the island, listening to the many extremely interesting stories that must be there.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Robben Island (South Africa). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Robben Island. Read more about this site.