You can’t go to Cape Town and not go to Robben Island, so after 5 weeks over here, Alex and I had booked tickets to go there on Saturday. We hadn’t exactly taken into consideration that Friday was Halloween, and so we trotted down to the Waterfront Saturday morning with a slight headache being quite tired – it had been a fun night though!
We got on a ferry (which looked more like a yacht) and it was about a 45 minute boat ride to Robben Island. We had quite the spectacular view behind us on the boat ride!
Still finding this view as beautiful as ever
The tour of the island started with a bus tour with information of various places on the island.
The buses we drove were white buses with ‘Driven by Freedom’ written on the side.
The first stop was the house which a man named Robert Sobukwe had lived in. There was a lot of very touching and shocking information which we were told on the tour, so I thought I would share it with you, attempting to not make it too long and boring.
In 1948, a party called the National Party, came into power in South Africa. This was the beginning of apartheid. The National Party quickly enforced a law where all the black people had to carry around a Dompass, which means ‘passport for the dumb’. It was a type of identification card for the black people which they had to show regularly. If they had forgotten their Dompass, they had to pay 60 Rand, but because this was a lot of money at the time, no one could pay and they would end up in jail for 6 months.
So because this seemed very unfair, a man named Robert Sobukwe, told all the black people to leave their Dompasses at home one day to protest against the unfair law. However, this didn’t end very well, as over 60 black people were shot by police officers, which became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Sobukwe was eventually sent to Robben Island where he had his very own house; this was absolutely not a good thing! He was not allowed to talk to anyone during his stay there – not even the other prisoners. He had guards walk outside his house every second, who were changed every 3 months so no friendship could be made between them. After 6 years of not talking to anyone and living like that, he became mentally ill and was transferred back to Cape Town. Eventually he died – it is all in all a very tragic story.
Next stop were the lime quarries where the prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela were forced to work for at least 8 hours a day and did this everyday for about 14 years. The conditions were horrible and the prisoners were not given protective glasses or gloves. The little building you can see at the top left, is known as the University of Life. It was initially the place where the prisoners would go to the toilet, but then the prisoners ended up teaching each other various things and eventually it actually became a registered university where you could sit exams.
As the bus tour was finished, we went inside the Maximum Security prison which is where Nelson Mandela famously did his 18 year sentence; from 1964 to 1982.
Our tour guide was an ex political prisoner, who had sentenced 5 years at Robben Island.
We got to visit an open cell where there could be from 40 – 60 people. They had 3 showers and 2 toilets to share and only from 1973 could prisoners shower with hot water. Living conditions were tough.
Until 1979, there were also differences in the food prisoners received depending on their “race”. So as you can see in the picture below, Coloureds/Asians would receive jam, syrup, more sugar, more fat and bread, whilst the buntus, which would be an extremely offensive word for the blacks, would not get bread, and would get less fat, sugar and no jam or syrup; just absolutely shocking and unbelievable.
We then went on to see Nelson Mandela’s cell. Mandela lived in the B section for all the 18 years that he spent at Robben Island, which consisted of living in a single cell, 2mx2m.
As you can see, the conditions which he lived in were primitive. Barely a bed, no toilet, just the bucket. The bucket was taken out at 4pm every day so it couldn’t be used after that. The prisoners were usually only allowed to go outside for 1 hour every day when they weren’t working. I don’t think it’s ever possible to imagine how it must have been.
Although the living conditions were almost unbearable for the prisoners who lived there at the beginning, our tour guide very carefully explained that things changed a lot over the years. So he said that when he was there in the 1980s, the rules were much less strict and although it was bad, it was absolutely not so bad. He made sure to remind us that it had only improved due to the prisoners who had been there before him who had fought for these things to change.
He was also very passionate about the improvements that have happened in South Africa. He made it clear that the country has a long way to go, both socially and economically, but that it has come very far since Mandela ‘ended’ apartheid in 1990.
In general, Mandela seems to be a hero for everyone in South Africa. Whether coloured, white or black, Mandela is loved by the absolute majority. His prison number was 4664, and this artistic piece was made outside the prison in his honour.
It was a very touching experience, but it was very interesting to learn more about South African history. It’s a history filled with lots of evil, but I feel it’s important to know what has happened to be able to have an opinion about any of it.