A visit to Robben Island

The island prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.

A visit to Robben Island
18th March 2007 Jane Tomlinson

Guided tours of visitor attractions can be pretty ropey. They can feel like the guide is simply reading meaningless words from a script. This is definitely not so on the tour of Robben Island, which lies baking in sunshine 12kms off the coast of Cape Town in cold, shark-infested waters. We were there just three weeks ago (March 2007).

It is here that Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner.

As the Robben Island Museum says on its website: “…for nearly 400 years, Robben Island was a place of banishment, exile, isolation and imprisonment … During the apartheid years Robben Island became internationally known for its brutality. Some freedom fighters spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for their beliefs … Those imprisoned on the island succeeded … in turning a prison ‘hell-hole’ into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation. Robben Island came to symbolise, not only for South Africa … but also for the entire world, the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship and adversity.”

Moth and I suspected we were in for an emotional tour. We were right.

To get to Robben Island, you take a boat from Cape Town’s Waterfront from which you get wonderful – almost tear-jerking – views of the city, Table Mountain and the bay. I got drawing:

Visitors land on Robben Island at the same jetties that the prisoners did. We got onto buses, originally used to transport prisoners, for a tour of the island. A personable and highly intelligent guide told us about the rich flora and fauna and the history of the island. We saw bonteboks grazing, sea lions lazing in the water and penguins sleeping in the shade of low bushes. He took us to the limestone quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners worked breaking rocks in the searing heat and dazzling white light which would eventually damage his eyesight.

The limestone quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners worked. This cave was used as a latrine.
He dispassionately described what happened if prisoners broke the rules (such as no talking), and gave us time to take in the appalling injustice of it all. He talked about the way prisoners used their incarceration as a chance to learn from each other, share ideas, and begin to plan what it would be like in the new South Africa that they would create.

I remembered my pathetic show of solidarity with the struggle for freedom in South Africa; I asked my mum to stop buying South African apples. She did, of course. What more could I, a teenage girl, do? At least I did something.

We were taken to the prison. We sat in a long bunk house, originally used to house 200 men including Glen, a former prisoner, who was to be our guide:

He described in detail what it was like to be a prisoner here. It was difficult not to be in awe of this very ordinary man from Soweto, whose belief in justice and freedom put him behind bars for many years. He showed us Mandela’s cell:

I stood in a cell next to Mandela’s and closed the door. It was horrible of course, but it was impossible to imagine the fear, terror and hardships these men must have faced. Instead all I could feel was an almost tangible spirit of freedom, intelligence and defiance.

Triumphant prisoners arrive in Cape Town harbour after finally being freed from Robben Island prison.

Everyone who thinks politics doesn’t matter, or doesn’t affect them should take this tour.

Everyone who thinks that ordinary people can’t make a difference in the world should take this tour. Young people just starting out in life should take this tour. Daily Mail readers, lazy people who don’t use their vote, racists and bigots should take this tour to remind them that freedom and equality is hard won and very, very precious.

Actually, everyone in the world should take this tour. It’s makes you feel very human, very humble and very glad to be alive.