Robben Island

We went to Robben Island yesterday. This small island was used as a prison from the early 1800’s through 1991. It’s probably most famous for the political prisoners who were housed there during apartheid, including Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years on the island.

mandela_cellFor the first 45 minutes, we took a guided bus tour around the island. We saw the prisons (there were four), the quarries where the prison labor worked, and the town where the warden and guards lived. In the limestone quarry, the prisoners worked with manual tools to quarry the stone, eight hours a day, seven days a week. They didn’t really have a use for the limestone, though. The work was just to punish the prisoners. Eventually, they started crushing it and using it for road construction.

The town is still inhabited by about 100 families. These people are former inmates and guards. They live there with their families, and have their own store, post office, church, and school. They have their own community.

In the second part of the tour, a former inmate showed us around the prison. First, he took us to a barracks-like cell where he was imprisoned for seven years along with about 60 other inmates convicted of political crimes. He was convicted of terrorism for being a member of the ANC. He told us that they initially slept on mats on the floor, but finally got beds after a long hunger strike. He also told us about the different meals given to the colored and black prisoners. Black prisoners, for example, were not eligible to have jelly or syrup. For a long time, only the colored prisoners were allowed to wear long sleeved shirts or long pants. That’s a pretty big deal in a country where temperatures can get below freezing, and the buildings aren’t heated.

We also had the opportunity to see Mandela’s cell. He spent 18 years in the prison, in a cell that is six square meters. It was a bit surreal to be in that place, especially led by a person who was formerly an inmate in the prison. When asked why he’s doing this, he was unexpectedly frank. There apparently aren’t a lot of job options for ex-cons, even if their crimes were political, and their side ended up winning. He said that the first time he returned to the prison, it was a very emotional experience for him. But now, he likes sharing his experience with others.

He also pointed out that he’s now friends with the people who used to be his guards. The ANC promoted peaceful revolution. The did not advocate violence. They did not retaliate against their oppressors. In the almost 30 years of enprisonment, none of the ANC members attempted to break out. After they were released, there was no retribution against their former oppressors. There was no reason, they said, to dwell on the sins of the past. It was time to focus on the future. For the future, a united South Africa benefits everyone.

There are many who disagree about how that philosophy actually worked out. South Africa certainly has its problems, and it’s still a lot more segreated than it was before apartheid. But I don’t think anyone would argue that the goals of tolerance and forgiveness are admirable in any setting.