The late summer sun beats down on this denuded island of scrub brush and the odd patch of faded weed and dry grass, but the ever-present Cape wind cools its glare. We’re tourists come over from Cape Town on the Robben Island ferry. “Anyone here want to get married today?” Thabo, our guide for the first part of our trip asks. Funny question I think. But after all it is February 14th and there are 29 couples marrying today on what seems an odd choice of sites. Thabo offers his crowd-pleasing explanation, “They say marriage is a life sentence so where is a more appropriate place to begin serving your time!”
Thabo asks us from where we hail and the answers include Japan, Gabon, Belgium, California, the Netherlands, Johannesburg, New Mexico, Botswana and, he laughingly adds, “and my township, this mama in the front row knows me, I better speak well…” The tour bus drives slowly about the Island stopping often for the young man’s stories of life at Robben Island. His soft and easy South African-accented English is almost mesmerizing as he tells the tales of an island used through time as a place for isolating the region’s troublemakers. “I know you are anxious to see where Nelson Mandela lived but he would be the first to remind us that everyone coming through here during apartheid played a part in the struggle.”
After an hour or so with Thabo he bids us good-bye and we are turned over to a stocky smiling man in his fifties, an ex-prisoner, who will take us through the prison compound. Here the story becomes more personal and both more and less horrific than we imagine it to be. John was here for over six years. He lived in the open barracks, a long room heavily barred but for most of his years without window panes to keep the cold and stormy ways of the Cape at bay; they had only mats on which to sleep at first although eventually bunk beds were installed. There were three meals a day but even then the cruel pettiness ever-present in the “divide and conquer” schemes of the apartheid government came into play. A menu board lists the daily rations for “Coloureds/Asiatics” and for “Bantus” who simply received less of everything, including “No jam/syrup” while the lighter-skinned “coloureds” got treated to a daily “1 oz.” of the treasured sweets.
In response to a question about daily life though, John says “I’d be lying to you if I told you every day was bad. It wasn’t. We made a life under the conditions that existed and it had its joys. We worked five days a week, mostly out in the quarries, and we played soccer and tennis on Saturdays. We could socialize, each within our building mostly, but the best thing was our education programs for the kids who wound up prisoners. They had their first real schooling by all the professors and doctors and lawyers sentenced here…remember for most of the apartheid years Robben Island was only for political prisoners and many were professional men.”
We finally get to Mandela’s cell, the climax of our trip. The 8 by 8 cell holds only the bucket which for many years served as the prisoners’ only container for, in turn, drinking water, bathing and waste; a small stool and a mat and blanket. The leaders of the movement had their own cells, sparse though they were, and usually the ability to communicate freely inside and outside where they grew their gardens of flowers and vegetables, both to make time pass and try to maintain some vestiges of normalcy.
This sunny Valentine’s Day in 2010, it is hard to get my mind around the impact of this place on the men who lived here and the society that put them here. Robben Island wasn’t a place of physical torture or outright murder for the most part—that was done elsewhere. This non-descript island with its fairytale view of Cape Town and Table Mountain just a brief span of blue sea away, was a place to play the mental games necessary to break spirits not bodies. What a testimony South Africa today is to apartheid’s inability to conquer those spirits.
John shared a closing thought that would make a striking Valentine’s card image. “You know the prisoners could have visitors, their wives and children over the age of 16, but no one younger could come to the Island. Well, one summer the guards who lived here got to bring their small children to their compound which was at the other end. It seems that by mistake, their babysitters brought them over to the guards’ golf course near the quarry to play. There were many prisoners working in the quarry that day, digging, pounding, crushing the hard rock, when the sound of children’s laughter came to them. All of them stopped dead still and just stood in silence, almost at attention, with tears making tiny rivers down their dusty faces as their thoughts went to their own children and life as it was supposed to be lived.”
But it’s 2010 and there is a Robben Island souvenir shop, and a summer swimming competition is being organized to commemorate some event of Island history, and animal rights activists are up in arms over a government scheme to shoot all the Robben Island bunnies because they are consuming every shred of plant life on the island. So life moves on.
I have a butternut squash pancake and nice South African wine back on the mainland and think about the reality that never quite lives up to the hope and inspiration of big movements but how inspiring it all is anyway. And I think how one of the few places I ever feel lonely when traveling alone is when I’m participating in a group tour. Can one be ‘a wallflower at the tour?’