It is a bit hard to see the arrival at Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, as a welcoming event. As our boat arrived after the ~50 minute cruise over from the Cape Town Waterfront, it was hard not to feel both very welcome on the island as well as the effects of stepping back into history, near and far.
The island was used for hundreds of years as a prison, leper colony and quarantine station. Starting in the 1960s Robben Island had a number of buildings constructed to allow for its use as a maximum security prison facility to house political prisoners. The most famous of its residents in that time was Nelson Mandela, and several other famous political figures from South Africa served sentences there as well. In 1991 the last of the prisoners were removed from the island, ending its long-running role. Five years later Nelson Mandela, a former resident of the prison, was elected as the President of South Africa and the prison complex became a museum.
Today the Robben Island Museum is operated by the Ministry of Arts and Culture, offering tours of the island. The Island is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and it is the 47th I have visited). In addition to the boat ride out to Robben Island and a tour of the maximum security prison facilities and other bits of the island the tours also include a portion guided by an ex-prisoner of the facility. When I first read that on their website I was mostly unimpressed. I’m not entirely sure why, but I didn’t expect that part of the tour to be particularly special. I could not have been more wrong.
It was clear that he was not a professional tour guide, but having someone there with the personal connection to the site really made an enormous difference. And having him give us a tour not just of the prison complex, but of the cell where he personally spent so many years of his life, was incredibly moving.
The common cells (shown in the photo above) were crowded, offered no privacy and were exposed to the elements, leaving the prisoners cold and wet in the winters and overheated in the summers. The private cells weren’t much better. The isolation that the prisoners were subjected to was just as punishing as the fact that they were imprisoned at all.
After we left the main prison complex portion of the tour we boarded buses and drove around the rest of the island. There is a small town still on the island – many of the former prisoners still live there with their families today – and there are some phenomenal views back across the harbor to Cape Town.
We also drove past the old quarry on the island. The quarry was worked by the prisoners and was also one of the main areas they used as a meeting place to provide education to each other and to continue their work for the African National Congress. When the former prisoners returned in 1996 after winning control of the government they were faced with the decision of what to do with the facility. As they completed their tour of the quarry area Nelson Mandela picked up a stone and carried it towards the exit of the area, depositing it at the exit of the quarry. Others followed in his footsteps, eventually building the mound of stones that is now visible at the site.
This is the only monument of any sort that was built on the grounds.
And then it was time for the boat ride back across the harbor into Cape Town. The mood on the ride over was somewhat chipper and sociable. The return ride was much quieter, to say the least. Most passengers were lost in their own thoughts.
I simply cannot express enough how amazing the whole experience was. Yes, it was somewhat emotionally draining, but every now and then it is good to really feel something like that in your travels rather than simply gliding through a city only seeing the pretty things.
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