The water of the Atlantic Ocean sparkled in the early morning sunshine as we boarded the ferry bound for Robben Island. The journey from Victoria Dock to Robben Island usually takes about 30 minutes, but today the water was heavy, with large waves causing the ferry to roll from side to side. The first sight of the island is of a small, green, flat area with low buildings and houses dotting one side near the harbor. Hard not to imagine the feelings of fear, perhaps despair, of the prisoners when they arrived.
The first part of the tour entails a bus ride around part of the island, discovering the island’s checkered history: leper colony, place for those deemed “insane,” perhaps because of epilepsy or some other treatable illnesses, and prison. Nowadays a living museum, the island is home to about 120 residents, some of whom are ex-prisoners, and of course the prison itself, a monument to how the human spirit can triumph even in such harsh and inhuman adversity.
One of the first buildings we saw was the tiny “house” in which Robert Sebukwe was kept in solitary confinement for several years, accused of sedition and instigating an uprising. The road then follows the ocean, with its wild beauty, crashing waves, and white, seething sea foam; the infamous lime quarry is almost tucked away from view with a pile of stones standing proudly at the entrance, placed there in 1995 during a reunion of political prisoners who had all worked in the quarry during their time on Robben Island; each had picked up a stone and placed the individual stones together, making a small mound, signifying their deep and lasting unity which had been forged in and through their fight against apartheid on Robben Island. Clearly visible is the cave at the back of the quarry, where so much of the education and real teaching happened, with those prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela, who were educated, teaching others math, reading, and political debate, and all espousing the philosophy of each one, teach one.
Inside the actual prison we gathered in the yard, which was the one area allowed for the political prisoners deemed leaders, such as Mandela. In one corner, overgrown but still recognizable is the garden that after much red tape, Nelson Mandela, was finally allowed to cultivate, from which he eventually produced vegetables from the inhospitable soil. The cells themselves are barely large enough for one person, and would not allow a prisoner to stretch out, even when sleeping. The cells are simply not human sized spaces. Stark, bare, and utterly devoid of any humanity, the cells are yet another testament to the human spirit and the will to survive and overcome.
Led by an ex-prisoner, the prison tour conveyed the harsh details of life on Robben Island for the hundreds of African prisoners: the daily privations, humiliations, such as the strict caste system based on skin color with the Indian and colored prisoners given more food and more privileges than the African prisoners, such as being allowed to wear shoes and long pants in contrast to the African prisoners, whose dress was shorts and no shoes. One row of cells contains details from the lives of the inmates, such as cement sacks used as books in the endless quest by the educated to teach and for all to prepare for the freedom they all hoped would eventually come.
Mandala and the other prisoners who opposed the cruel and immoral system of apartheid exemplified the very African concept of “ubantu” the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others, and it was surely their strength, unity and humanity towards each other that gave them the will to survive.