I’ve now been to a couple of island prisons: Alcatraz and Robben Island. There are similarities and differences between the two. For starters, the ferry ride to Alacatraz has beautiful views of San Francisco and is quite peaceful. The boat trip to Robben Island also has amazing views of Cape Town but the ride is significantly longer (around 45 minutes) and travels over rough seas. As a result of the tumultuous seas, I had my head buried in a white paper bag for about 30 minutes, it was…memorable. Alcatraz is known for Sean Connery and hardened criminals; Robben Island is known for Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid.
Robben Island is a small piece of land off the coast of Cape Town. The island weighs in at five square kilometers (or two square miles), but the small size of Robben Island contrasts with the great historical significance that it carries. Robben Island had been used as a detention center for political prisoners since the 17th century when Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Robben Island’s most famous prisoner was former South African president and Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela. Mandela, alongside many other anti-apartheid leaders and freedom fighters, were imprisoned on Robben Island for up to 27 years. The prominent members of many Coloured, Indian, and African political organizations were imprisoned by the National Party apartheid government. Other notable prisoners were Robert Sobukwe, head of the Pan African Congress, a South Africa liberation movement; Walter Sisulu, a well-known activist of the African National Congress (ANC); and Jacob Zuma, current South African president and leader of the ANC.
After taking a short bus tour of the island, we were guided through the once operational maximum security prison by an ex-political prisoner imprisoned on Robben Island. Ironically, the maximum security prison on the island held all of the political prisoners that had not carried out violent crimes, while the minimum security prison housed all of the hardened criminals that were deemed too dangerous to be housed in mainland prisons.
We saw ‘B section’ of the prison which housed the leaders of South African political organizations. The prison cells were filled with the names of the prisoners housed in each cell, along with stories, and items associated with the stories, told by the prisoners. We stood in the courtyard, the only outdoor access that many people had for their 27 years of imprisonment. B-section prisoners constructed a concrete pad that was used as a tennis court. One of their ways of communicating with A section, where other political prisoners were housed, was through the use of a special tennis ball. The ball could be opened and stuffed with a message and then ‘mistakenly’ hit over the concrete wall which surrounded the courtyard. A-section prisoners would then read the message, respond, and return the ball back over the wall.
We saw the quarry where all political prisoners worked 6 days a week; 8 hours per day in the winter and 10 in the summer. Originally the prison wardens had prisoners work in the quarry to extract limestone to be used on roads and for whitewashing houses on the island. Eventually there was no use for the limestone but the prisoners continued the backbreaking work in the quarry as the political elites and prison wardens attempted to break the prisoners’ spirits.
But what amazed me as we looked at the white walls of the quarry and the concrete walls of the courtyard was thinking about the determination and resolve that prisoners hung onto despite decades of imprisonment. Mandela emerged from prison ready and eager to lead a new democratic South Africa. I imagine it was a battle some days to not give up the struggle, amidst cruel treatment and torture, blistering days in the quarry, and years disconnected from those organizing for political reform in the outside world.
I was also struck with the courage it must take an ex-political prisoner to give tours of the place he was imprisoned and maltreated. The man who gave us a tour walked with a cane as he strolled through the cell blocks and eagerly answered our questions. When asked about the current situation in the country, he was quick to critique the ANC and the educational system for not doing enough to inform young South Africans about the history of their country. He suggested that foreign students know more about the apartheid era and figures like Mandela than many South African students. This obviously says nothing about the students themselves but speaks about the constructed national narrative and the place of South African history in the schools. I imagine it also has something to do with how South Africa deals collectively with race, colonization, and apartheid as part of national history and collective memory.
And then we took our 'long walk to freedom' from the prison down to the boat harbor, or based on my previous bout of seasickness, it was my long walk to torture.