Saturday, February 11, 2017

Robben Island

A view of Robben Island from the top of Table Mountain.
Last month I visited Robben Island for the second time. For some reason, the first time I didn't write about it. Maybe that's because I try to avoid writing blog posts where I need to do any research or remember any historical facts. Or maybe it's because what was most memorable about that particular trip to Cape Town was that Mr. Deep and I got lost hiking up Table Mountain.

Table Mountain as seen from Robben Island January 2017. 
Table Mountain as seen from Robben Island January 2016.

Robben Island is located in Table Bay about nine miles off the coast of Cape Town. The island is most famously known as the home of the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 year sentence.  In addition to Mandela, numerous other political prisoners were kept on Robben, about 3000 in total. Actual criminals were also held there and political prisoners and criminals were housed together from 1961 until 1971. In the past, Robben Island was also home to a mental hospital and a leper colony. 

As an American I can't help but compare Robben Island to Alcatraz (I also frequently compare Cape Town to San Fransisco) but other than being islands and former prisons, the two are not very similar. 
  • The boat ride out to Robben Island is longer than the one to Alcatraz.I think the boat ride to Robben takes at least 45 minutes each way depending on the boat that you take. 
  • Robben is much larger than the tiny rock that is Alcatraz Island. Robben Island is over two miles long and nearly two miles wide. 
  • There is a town on Robben Island. In the past the warders live there and these days some of the staff who work on the island live there. There used to be a school but it closed and so now any school age students who live on the island have a very long commute to school traveling to Cape Town by boat.
The tour includes a round trip boat ride from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, a bus tour around the island and and a visit to the prison. The prison tour is led by a former political prisoner. 
Unfortunately, Derek, the ex-political prisoner who spoke to us, was repeatedly interrupted by a crying baby. At some points the baby was making so much noise while Derek was trying to speak that he lost his train of thought completely. All I kept thinking was it was a good thing that Mr. Deep was not on the tour with us because he would have gone bananas over the crying baby and the parents who thought it was a good idea to bring a small baby on this tour. 

Derek enjoying a moment free of baby screeching.
Mandela's cell. Number 5. 

While I love any excuse to pat myself on the back publicly for having read Mandela's book "A Long Walk to Freedom," I truly believe a trip to Robben Island has more impact for those who have read the book. The tour of the island and the prison provides and opportunity to see the quarry where Mandela and the others worked in the bright sun for years as well as Mandela's prison cell, and the garden where he buried his manuscript. 

One of the most unimaginable stories that is shared on the tour is that of Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe was a freedom fighter and the founder of the Pan African Congress. The apartheid government was very afraid of Sobukwe. He was sentenced to three years in prison but after he served his sentence the government created a new law stating that the minister of justice could extend the sentence of any political prisoner as long as he wanted. So Sobukwe was sent to Robben Island for an additional six years. For those six years he lived alone far from the other prisoners and he was not allowed to speak with anyone.  

The quarry. Notice the pile of the rocks. Each rock was placed by a former prisoner when visiting the island as a free man. 

The garden
The cell block

"There is only one race. The human race."
-Robert Sobukwe

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. A good summary, giving me goosebumps all over again.


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Hello and thank you for taking an interest in my blog. This blog tells the story of some big life changes. First, my husband and I have just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a few months following a few years of living in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two places could not be more different. I'm excited to share our adventures, challenges and insights with you! My thoughts and opinions are my own.