“This used to be my cell.” Sipho explains in a low and slow voice. “My prisoner’s number was 2484: I was brought here as the 24th prisoner in 1984.” We are quietly seated in a large room where the only furniture is bunk beds. Sipho was sharing his cell with quite a few others.
But not with the most famous inmate of Robben Island. Prisoner number 46664 had already been brought here twenty years before. In 1984 he had just been transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the continent after spending 18 years on the dry and desolated island quarrying the bright white limestones that damaged his sight and weakened his lungs. The Apartheid regime was scared of Nelson Mandela’s influence on young activists. Out of a total of 27 years in prison, he had spent 18 years between the quarry and his single cell. A light bulb, a stool, a mat on the floor. It is in this tiny cell that the future Nobel Peace Prize laureate wrote Long walk to freedom.
If Mandela is undoubtedly the most famous inmate of Robben Island, he was far from being the first isolated here as the island has a long history with political prisoners. The first one was probably Autshumato, a Khoikhoi resisting the Dutch colonial rule who had been sent here as early as in 1657 on island of the unwanted. In the 19th century lepers were confined on Robben Island and about 1,500 are buried here at the lepers’ cemetery. African heroes and kings fighting for their land were imprisoned here before anti-Apartheid fighters. It is only in 1961 that the high security prison was completed to isolate the men who were threatening the dictatorship while common criminals were transferred to a medium security prison. Guards and their families were also living in the village and counting for a good part of its 1,300 inhabitants.
If Mandela was not imprisoned on Robben Island anymore when Sipho arrived, he had left a deep trace. Lawyers, activists, in a nutshell highly educated and smart political prisoners had insulated a culture of fighting for one’s rights. Isolated from the rest of the world with all their correspondence read and censored, they were practicing their skills on Robben Island where the Apartheid was also enforced. Prisoners were segregated. Their uniforms, food, and transport conditions were different based on the prisoner’s colour. Just as they used to do before imprisonment, they kept fighting for equal rights and for more rights. Camaraderie was strong. Solidarity was key. Freedom songs echoed in the cells every day to build mental strength. The organisation was mimicking the outside world with elected leaders and section committees amongst prisoners. These values and this discipline allowed prisoners to win their fights bits by bits. The uniforms ended up being the same for all. The racialized diet was stopped. Access to education, books, and newspapers was gained. Proper medical care, better food, beds, shoes, sports facilities were granted after years of fighting.
More than a prison, Robben Island has been a symbol. A symbol of the Apartheid regime and one of its many tools used to maintain its dictatorship. Prisoners were crushed even before arriving at the maximum security prison: “I got arrested in January 1984. I was 21 year-old back then. Five others members of the ANC* were arrested with me. I was accused of recruiting for the ANC. I was put in solitary confinement in Durban for five months.” Sipho must have told his story hundreds of times to visitors. Still his emotion is palpable. He pauses for a long moment before continuing: “I was tortured by the Security Police. Humiliated naked on the floor, I received electric shocks; I was suffocated with a wet towel; I was punched. When I was not questioned for hours in a row I was kept in a small cell designed to crush my soul and destroy me.” Sipho describes the flawless and inhumane methods of the Apartheid regime to break political prisoners. Some were tortured to death and never made it to court. Sipho’s court case lasted for 18 weeks. “During court, we recovered mentally and emotionally thanks to the support provided by your loved ones and community members who attended. People were running along the van taking us to and out of court, singing, screaming our names. I felt strong when I was sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island.” This strength must have disappeared fast when Sipho was transported to the lost and dry island, 7 kilometres off the coast. The 15-kilometre boat ride from Cape Town on the strong currents of the cold Atlantic Ocean sends a clear message: one does not escape from Robben Island. If Table Mountain and Cape Town are in sight from the desolated coast of the island where penguins roam it is only to highlight even more the isolation of the prisoners.
With the fall of the Apartheid the last political prisoners left Robben Island on the 27th of April 1991. It took another five years to close down the medium security prison and turn Robben Island into a new symbol: a symbol of hope, peace and freedom. Now every day boatloads of tourists from all over the world disembark on the 5km2 flat island to pay their respects to the men who fought relentlessly to put an end to the Apartheid. It is one of the symbolic places where the ones who suffered for justice and freedom in South Africa are honoured.
Marcella & Claire
* ANC stands for African National Congress.
- Apartheid was declared by the UN as a crime against humanity.
- Since the fall of the Apartheid, every elected president has been a member of the ANC and former inmate of Robben Island.
- Make sure you book ahead, especially during the high season in December and January.
- Be aware of the fact that the sea can be rough and trips can get cancelled if it is too rough.
- Bring your passport to embark.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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