Destination: Robben Island

Yesterday, Caroline and I went to Robben Island. Robben Island (meaning “seal island”) is the island that housed the infamous Apartheid-era prison, where former president Nelson Mandela, former president  Kgalema Motlanthe and current president Jacob Zuma all served sentences, along with many other political prisoners.

A pirate ship we spotted while waiting to go to Robben Island

Once we arrived on Robben Island, we took a bus tour to see various sites, like the leper cemetery from the 1800s, the lime quarry where Mandela worked, and various WWII buildings. After the bus tour, we toured the main prison, where we were led by a former prisoner.

The main prison on Robben Island

We also met a former warden, who was fascinating. He’s a friend of Mandela’s and he told an amazing story about Winnie Mandela coming to Robben Island and smuggling one of their grandchildren over. Children and infants weren’t allowed on the island, so he (the warden) told her that she had to leave the child with one of the other visitors while she saw Mandela. Mandela himself asked him if he could just see the baby though the window, but he said no because he could’ve been fired for that. Later, Winnie also begged him to let Mandela see the baby, but he refused. He then saw his superior and told him what Mandela wanted; his superior said that as long as Winnie didn’t know, he could make it happen. So the warden went over to Winnie and told her that Mandela wanted to see her about one more thing (he needed to tell her about applying to visit at Christmas) so she should leave the baby with him. It was the first time he’d ever held a black child, he said. He locked the door behind Winnie, then went around to the other side and called Mandela over. Outside the visitor’s room, he handed the baby to Mandela, who got to hold him for a few minutes and kiss his cheeks. Winnie, meanwhile, was knocking on the door on the other side, having found it locked. The warden took the baby back, went over to Winnie’s side, and opened the door and gave the baby back to Winnie. She went back to the mainland and told the press that she had smuggled the baby over to the Island but that Mandela had not been allowed to see him.

Wow. I was very touched by this small act of rebellion against the Apartheid government, by a man who had a lot to lose if he was caught. He could’ve been charged with treason, as was the case with guards who were kind and seen to sympathize with the prisoners. It’s amazing that both former guards/wardens and former prisoners now live and work on the Island.

A former warden (left) and former prisoner

Inside the prison, we visited the different blocks. Block A is where the new prisoners were kept. Block B was where the political prisoners were kept, like Mandela, and block C housed the prisoners who broke prison rules. Blocks D & E housed other prisoners, like the coloured and Asian prisoners (the rest of the prisoners were Black male prisoners, many political and some criminals, who were used to try to break the political prisoners. Other prisons around the country housed the white political prisoners and women prisoners).

Nelson Mandela’s former cell. He was imprisoned here for 18 years

It’s funny, being on Robben Island was much less creepy than being in Alcatraz (I think it was the fresh coats of paint), but it made me think a lot about the terrorism & rule of law course I took at LSE. Mandela was considered a terrorist 40 or 50 years ago. My maternal grandmother’s uncle was in the IRA in 1910s and 1920s Ireland. He fought for independence for his country, and would’ve been considered a terrorist, and still would’ve been considered that, had they not won. Ireland is now an independent republic with good relations with Britain, and members of that early IRA (not the one that developed in Northern Ireland) are considered heroes and freedom fighters. The same happened with Mandela and other members of the ANC and its armed wing. But Mandela actually participated in bombing campaigns. He carried out violent dissent. So why is he now considered a national hero – a man who stood up against the evil of Apartheid – all around the world, when those fighting for their rights in Palestine are continually being labelled evil terrorists? Will there be a time, 50 years from now, when they’ll also be considered freedom fighters and heroes around the world, for fighting for equality and human rights? Does using violence to achieve peace make that peace any less real, or worthwhile, or valid? I don’t have the answers to these questions…does anyone else? 🙂

The bush in the corner is where Mandela hid his manuscript of “Long Walk to Freedom”

My Aunt Margaret (who’s one of my inspirations and has taught me a lot about human rights and social justice) took me to my first political meeting when I was a year old, in 1987. It was an anti-Apartheid meeting and I’ve thought of that as technically being the starting point of my passion for social justice. Yesterday was such an amazing day to experience the history of this country that, in a way, lit a fire in me and made me question and try to understand how people can be so cruel to other human beings.

Inside one of the group bunkers

After Robben Island, I wandered a bit more around the Waterfront. It’s so beautiful – and I saw a seal!! I love seals.

Nobel Square, depicting the late Chief Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk

Today was a great day, traveling down the Cape. I saw penguins, seals, ostrich and baboons on the way! More on that tomorrow. G’night!

An awesome local band. I got them to sign their CD for me.


About kbardswich

Writer. Photographer. Activist. Lesbian. Feminist. Traveller. Voracious learner. Part-time shit-disturber.

Posted on November 24, 2011, in South Africa. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Mary-Margaret Jones

    This is an amazing post, Kaitlin! I am envious of this journey on many levels.

    Regarding your comment on Ireland, South Africa, and Israel … I would consider the IRA in the same camp as the PLO; I’m not a fan of either. Unfortunately, both organizations have blood on their hands, as do England and Israel.

    People participating and supporting non-violent protest, acting on their right and desire for self-determination, are not terrorists. One of the many issues with Palestine and Israel is the use of the word terrorist. It’s about power dynamics and perception, as far as I can tell. Israel is considered “legitimate” and Palestine is not. It is imperative — and I write this know it is unfair — that the body negotiating for Palestine is above reproach in order to win the perception game. (The IRA did this well when they created Sinn Fein, the political arm.) That’s a hard sell when we know that Fatah and Hamas leaders have denounced the state of Israel, and continue to maintain ties with Iran who is not a big fan of Israel.

    There is a growing dialogue in Israel and Palestine, from what I read, between every day citizens who are coming to a common understanding and developing a mutual respect for one another. The problem lies — in my mind — with the political structures/ bodies that perpetuate an agenda, and do not represent the will of the people. Western Europe and North America are complicit. And, as far as I can see, there is no easy resolution in sight for as long as political leadership remains beholden to corporate interest and religious zealots.

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