Robben Island (Afrikaans: Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 6.9 km west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for “seal island.” Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long north-south, and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km². It is flat and only a few metres above sea level, as a result of an ancient erosion event.
If you had to ask anyone in the world, I am pretty sure they would know who Nelson Mandela was. People would tell you he was a political activist, a lawyer,author of a ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, the first black president of South Africa and many will tell you he was the man that helped change it all for South Africa. Amongst all those things, many people aren’t really aware of the struggle he really went through but then again who but himself would? For those unaware, Mandela was constricted on Robben Island for 18 out of his 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela was sentenced to jail because he was found guilty of conspiracy and sabotage to overthrow the government of South Africa during Apartheid. Together with eight other African National Congress leaders, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 and was released in 1990.
Another lawyer and political dissident whom you may not have heard of but was also condemned to the Island was Robert Sobukwe. He was imprisoned well before Mandela but upheld the same views in opposition to Apartheid. During his lifetime, Sobukwe was considered to be so dangerous by the apartheid government that it arranged for its parliament to enact the “Sobukwe clause”, a statute which on its face seemed to grant broadly applicable powers, but was specifically intended to authorise the arbitrary extension of Sobukwe’s imprisonment. Oh and it gets worse, not only was he separated from his wife and four kids but he was sentenced to solitary confinement on the Island and the only form of communication he was allowed were hand signals during exercise periods. Sadly, he passed away of lung cancer long before he saw a black president in power but his struggle is honoured on the Island as one of the foundations to uprooting the removal of Apartheid.
What was the Island like? Well, since I was a free walking civilian it was enriching. All my high school History lessons came flashing back and my respect for the struggle of equal rights heightened as each monument, building and even garden had a story to it. As a hypothetical prisoner? I wouldn’t survive four hours in that place. Although it was painted and well maintained the idea of being isolated, starved (everyone knows I can’t go without food), being verbally and physically abused on an hourly basis would tear me apart. Not to mention any hopes of escape would be completely drowned in the water (literally).
Meet Sparks, he was our guide and also an ex inmate of the Island. He was imprisoned at the age of 17 for sabotage and treason, where he was to serve 15 years. Thankfully he was released after the negotiations for the release of political prisoners was approved. Sparks shared how himself and the other inmates suffered the harshest conditions and the struggle of racial segregation was worse on the Island then it was on mainland. The amount of food, condition of their attire and claustrophobic confinement of communal cells lead many prisoners to serious illnesses and even death.
So why would someone work or even live at the place which brought him so much hardship and pain? Sparks described how arriving on the Island after Apartheid brought him a lot of grief as it was a daily reminder of the sadness he stomached and the misery he bore. He said how time on the Island only allowed things to get better and he began to see his suffering as a symbol of his triumph and strength. In fact, he believes that Robben Island is, “the safest and best place in the world because there is no police, no torture and no crime.” Ironic right? Just goes to show how time can be a good healer for the inner battles people endure, even for those that have to face their past traumas everyday.
Although the struggle for equal rights around the world is still endured by many, even during a time when people are banished on the basis of their religion. It’s always uplifting to remember that there were people that had the worst of times, like Sparks, where there was no hope or escape and yet they can still see the positive in a place that brought them so much desolation. So yes, Robben Island was worth every cent to visit and learning more about the history doesn’t hurt your time if it allows you to form your own perspective on the racial conflict suffered as opposed to just Googling. See it for yourself to understand and be educated because these are the kind of historical themes that embody us today.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela
Oh and when you do visit, be sure to book a week in advance and say hey to the penguins!
P.s Click the images to view them better