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Article: Robben Island Journey

December 2013

Fourteen years of hard labour in the Robben Island quarry corroded the tear ducts of Nelson Mandela. But his vision and idealism were never compromised.

[in 2004, I visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for most of his 27-year sentence. When Mandela died in December, 2013, I thought about this piece, which originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.]

There is a photograph: black and white, grainy. Two men, wearing skimpy jackets, are in intense conversation; in the background, faint images of men on their knees, with piles of stone in front of them. A stiff guard standing between them.

The men in the photograph are Nelson Mandela (young, almost robust, his face much wider than now) and his lifelong friend and mentor Walter Sisulu, who died last year. The photograph was taken almost 40 years ago, in the courtyard of Robben Island prison, the barren, rocky, windswept piece of land off the coast near Capetown, South Africa, where more than 3000 political prisoners were incarcerated by the apartheid regime, between 1962 and 1991.

The photograph is blown up in a display in the courtyard of the Robben Island Prison, which is now a popular tourist destination. Visitors to the prison are directed to look at the photograph by the ex-prisoner who is our guide, leading us down bleak corridors and into blinding sunlit corridors, slamming heavy iron doors behind us. This is not a light-hearted adventure; even the children are solemn, as we sit listening to the guide in the hot sun in the courtyard.

There are two stories about the photograph. One is that it was taken clandestinely by a fellow prisoner and smuggled out of the prison, as were many documents and pieces of evidence. The other story, told by our guide, is that the photo was a set-up; in order to allay fears and interventions of the international community about prison conditions on Robben Island, Mandela and Sisulu were given jackets and long pants for the purposes of the photograph, which was then widely distributed and always prominently displayed in government offices during the apartheid era, to demonstrate how good prison conditions were.

After the photo was taken, says our guide, the jackets and long pants were taken away, and Mandela and Sisulu were once again in sandals and shorts,  like all other black political prisoners. (There was a strict hierarchy in the prison, designed to exacerbate racial antagonism; coloured prisoners wore long pants and underwear; black prisoners wore short pants and sandals that they snatched from a pile every morning. Even the diet was divisive: bread for coloureds, none for blacks.)

Nelson Mandela tells a third story about this photograph, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, written clandestinely in his Robben Island cell. He says that it was the only photograph he ever allowed to be taken of him there, and only because it would only be seen overseas. The National Party forbade the display or publication of photographs of Mandela when he was given a life sentence in 1964; when he finally emerged, his face had not been seen by South Africans for almost 25 years.
Our prison guide, somewhat surprisingly, finishes his courtyard lecture with impassioned praise for F.W de Klerk, the National Party leader with whom Mandela negotiated the release of all political prisoners in 1990. Such contradictions are imbedded in the experience of visiting Robben Island. The journey from start to finish is one of conflicting emotions and opposing perspectives. As such, going to Robben Island is a snapshot of life in contemporary South Africa, where it seems that the most impossible contradictions are always in play, and yet a steadfast optimism prevails.

This April marks the tenth anniversary of democracy in South Africa. On 27th  April, 1994, black people voted for the first time; in May 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first president elected by all the citizens of this vast and complex country. (The current African National Congress government has planned the upcoming elections and inauguration ceremonies for the re-swearing in of Thabo Mbeki as president around the anniversary dates, so sure are they of re-election.)  Shortly after the first election, one of the most challenging and controversial terms of change was invoked: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard testimony from 1995 until 1998. Turning Robben Island into a tourist destination seems like a continuing exercise in truth and reconciliation.

The 11-km trip in a hot-rod catamaran from Capetown to Robben Island is a typical harbour jaunt, past diving seals and funky little fishing boats and brown-sailed yachts. The ticket price of 150 rand includes the boat trip, bus and prison tour and the return journey three hours later. Unfortunately, the trip is locked into this strict time frame, and no individual or self-guided tours are currently allowed. If you want to get the morning boats, book a day or so in advance. And prepare yourself for a jumble of hucksterism and unexpected pathos.

Robben Island was a place of imprisonment and exile for almost 400 years. Malaysian and Ceylonese prisoners were brought by the Dutch in the 1600s. In the 1800s, Xsotha chiefs were banished here by the British. The island was a leper colony from 1844 to 1931, with a sad little pew-less church (lepers could only lie or stand because of sores) and a decrepit graveyard.

The tour bus, with a knowledgeable and passionate guide, also once a prisoner, moves slowly through the warders’ settlement, past the school, the church (where mass weddings are performed on Valentines Day). Then to the prison area. There is one house where the prisoner Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary, silent confinement for seven years in the 1960s; other prisoners risked beatings by just waving to him as they marched past en route to the lime quarry. Sobukwe slowly went mad.

The lime quarry burns white in the midday sun. Here prisoners moved stone from one pile to another to another, and yet somehow managed to teach one another to read and write, thus beginning what became known as the Robben Island University. Dug into one wall is the latrine area, a shallow cave. Our guide jokes that the reason political strategy meetings were held there was because it was a “non-whites-only” latrine. Fourteen years of hard labour in this quarry corroded the tear ducts of Nelson Mandela. But his vision and idealism were never compromised.

He was prisoner 466/64. His cell in Block B faced the courtyard, where he planted a small garden, in which manuscript pages of  Long Walk to Freedom, were hidden before being smuggled out. As our guide said, in his hoarse, breaking voice, most of us were not religious. But we always went to church, because it was the priests who smuggled things in and out.

There is one section of the prison in which we are allowed to linger, but too briefly. In each cell there is the photograph of a prisoner, a recording of his voice (activated by a button), and, in a roughly painted wooden cupboard on the wall, an artefact from his time on Robben Island: a cardboard suitcase, a razor, an identity card. One such artefact is a Christmas card from the prisoner’s wife. Above it is an inscription that says simply: when I received this card I could no longer remember what my wife looked like. I felt nothing.

Visitors wander from cell to cell, opening the cupboards and turning on the voice tracks. The result is a chorus of fragmented memories flowing into a corridor where once there was only brutally enforced silence.

[published in The Globe and Mail, March, 2004]