Monday, 7 January 2013

Robben Island

‘For some reason, it was assumed that people like me didn’t eat bread.’ 

This is what our guide, a former inmate of Robben Island told us.  By ‘people like me’, he meant class ‘C’ prisoners, also knows as ‘Bantus’, no matter what tribe they belonged to.  It was basically the term used for anyone who was black – and, according to the Apartheid system, Bantus didn’t eat bread.  It also appears from the ration card we were shown that they ate less than their category ‘B’ (Asiatics) counterparts.
We were told this while sitting in a barrack that was supposed to house 30-40 prisoners in narrow bunks.   But the normal number was generally well above 60, sometimes even twice that.  Our former inmate also showed us the straw mat and rough blanket he was given to sleep on the floor.

The ration card, showing who got to eat what

Eddie didn’t argue when I said I wanted to visit Robben Island.  ‘You’ve got to see it,’ he said and he’s absolutely right.  A visit to Robben Island is much more than a wander around a nature reserve, a world heritage centre, a chance to have a peek inside a high security prison, a comparison with the ‘Alcatraz’ experience.  Visiting Robben Island is about looking at a nasty piece of history and being thankful that it’s over.

I lived in South Africa during apartheid.  I was ten years old when I started three years at a boarding school, but the first thing I remembered was the term ‘boy’. If you were eating dinner and wanted more food, you stuck your hand up and said ‘boy!’  A black servant would then rush over. 

‘We class C prisoners had to wear shorts no matter how cold it was,’ said our Robben Island guide.  ‘Because that’s what boys wore.  And that’s what we were – boys.  I have no idea why the apartheid system didn’t allow us to grow up.’

He said we could ask him any question we liked.  And that’s how we found out that he was 18 when he was arrested for trying to set fire to the rent office, because his parents were too poor to pay their rent and he didn’t want them evicted.  This classed him as a political prisoner and he was sentenced to 7 years for sabotage.  But, thanks to Nelson Mandela, he was released long before his sentence was up.

He spoke of beatings and cruelty.  But he also spoke of kindness and compassion.  Most of all he was at pains to stress how many white people were against apartheid, how many of them too became political prisoners (they went to Pretoria, black and white prisoners were never held together).  And he spoke of Afrikaaners, known to the world as harbingers of apartheid, who stood up against the system. 

His talk was not bitter, it was not about retaliation, but reconciliation.  He spoke of his gratitude to the rest of the world for sticking up for him with sanctions etc.  He said that South Africa is a beautiful country.  It might be in a bit of a mess in places, but it’s still a beautiful country.  Some of his fellow inmates have struggled with psychological problems as a result of their incarceration, but our guide uses his experience to live on the island and tell everyone about it.  ‘In any case,’ he grins.  ‘My family all think I’m mad anyway.’

Nelson Mandela's Cell

So, if you’re visiting Cape Town, you should go to RobbenIsland.  But remember to book if you’re going in the busy summer season, which you can do online.  Oh, and the 45 minute boat journey there can be a bit choppy.   

1 comment:

  1. I heard on the radio recently that there are grape vines growing in the exercise area and that 'Mandela' wine has been made from them. Did you get any?


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