TRAVELLOGUE with VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
NELSON Mandela in his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ wrote that “Journeying to Robben Island was like going to another country. Its isolation made it not simply another prison but a world of its own.”
It is in this “world” that Mr Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a prisoner.
My journey to this historical island started around 07:00 hours in the morning when I and other journalists were invited by ABB to the launch of microgrid technology at Robben Island.
ABB is a leading global technology company in power and automation that enables utility, industry, transport and infrastructure customers to improve their performance while lowering environmental impact.
The company in collaboration with South Africa Ministry of Tourism provided a microgrid system to integrate solar energy and supply power to Robben Island. Essentially a small-scale electric grid, the new microgrid will substantially lower fuel costs and carbon emissions, enabling the island to run on solar power for at least nine months of the year.
By 08:00 hours, the harbour was already busy with tourists. ABB had booked tickets in advance which allowed us to get on the second boat called Madiba one to behold the wonders of the island.
I had heard stories and watched documentaries detailing the inhumane treatment inmates were usually subjected to, however, nothing prepared me for what was about to be revealed at Robben Island.
Reading Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ autobiography also allowed me to imagine the extent of ill treatment inmates received in prison as I walked down the same pathways the apartheid resistance had used for many years.
When we arrived on the island, we were welcomed by a prison guide who identified himself as Allan Fourie. Mr Fourie was also our driver for the tour.
The small island located on the coast of Cape Town is roughly oval in shape and has an area of five square kilometres.
It consists of several buildings including a church and houses for prison guards. According to Mr Fourie, detached holding cells were built to keep prisoners in isolation when need arose.
Mr Fourie said the island was initially used as a prison for the Dutch East India Company which colonised the Cape in the mid-17th century.
“Robben is the Dutch name for seals. This island got its name because of the many seals the Dutch colonists found here,” he said.
During the tour, Mr Fourie informed us that Robben Island became a political prison in 1961. He said political prisoners were isolated for months at a time in a small space.
After about three minutes into our tour, Mr Fourie took us to a place where lepers were kept isolated from their families.
“Robben Island also served as a leper colony dating back to 1845. It was initially done on a voluntary basis but later after the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892, the movement of lepers was restricted,” he said.
Mr Fourie said lepers that died were buried at the island. In the graveyard, formal headstones occupy a small portion of land where they are buried. The area has been well maintained over the years.
Another notable place at the island is the limestone quarry, which is also an indication of one of the earliest features of human occupation on the island.
Prisoners would crush stones with a hummer to make gravel. This task was one way of tormenting the prisoners.
Mr Fourie explained that there was no real need for the island’s limestone quarrying during the time of Mandela.
“They moved the limestones from point A to point B using still wheelbarrows. It is believed that as a result of the white limestone, Mandela suffered eye problems,” Mr Fourie explained.
Near the limestone quarry is a pile of stones, a landmark that has had remained untouched since its placement in 1995 by Mandela and other former political prisoners.
After Mandela’s release in 1990, he went back to the island as the first black President of South Africa, taking along with him 1500 other political prisoners.
After demonstrating to the media how the hard labour was performed, he took a stone and put it near the quarry. All the other prisoners put their stone above his stone to mark the commemoration of their own history.
Mandela and his fellow prisoners used their time in the quarry to educate themselves in everything- literature, philosophy, history and current affairs.
According to Mr Fourie, under what they dubbed ‘each one shall teach one’ they were able to transfer knowledge to one another.
Mandela was a lawyer when he was imprisoned, there were others with different qualifications too and all these helped to transfer knowledge to one another. The quarry is today referred as the ‘University of Life’ because through this process many left with degrees.
After the quarry, we went to Mandela’s cell in what was known as section B. Here I found small cells which were described as one person cell. I could hardly believe that Mandela spent 13 years using this small cell.
Mr Fourie explained that Mandela arrived at the island in the winter of 1964 and left in 1982.
“Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labour in a limestone quarry,” he said.
Mandela’s cell was almost two metre by one metre and is the only cell with a small table and a small stool. His prison number was 46664.
“He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months with minimal access to reading materials,” he said.
It is only when you visit the island that it becomes clear that Mandela and his fellow prisoners underwent very harsh conditions at the hands of their colonial masters.
In all this, however, Mandela would be the first to protest the ill treatment and would often times be locked up in solitary confinement as punishment for months.
“In those early years, isolation became a habit. We were routinely charged for the smallest violations and sentenced to isolation,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography.
According to him, authorities believed isolation was the cure for their defiance and rebelliousness.
However, Mandela believed it only served to transform him into a man with an incomparable forgiving heart.
Reflecting on the Robben Island experience, Mandela was really sad that he lost his mother and son whilst in prison and was never allowed to attend their funerals.
“Wounds that can’t be seen are more painful than those that can be seen and cured by a doctor,” he recalls in his autobiographic. Mandela was really brokenhearted.
Mandela left Robben Island to Pollsmoor and later Victor Verster Prison before his final release in February 1990. The last prisoners at the island were released in 1991.
Robben Island was closed in 1996 and the island, including the prison, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some of the tour guides on the island are former prisoners.
On this tour we meet Tulani Mambaso, who spent 10 years as a prisoner at the island and now works as a tour guide.
“I have chosen to forget my prison experience because it has a lot of sad memories. I am here for work,” Mr Mambaso said.
I wished to stay a little longer but was there at the invitation of ABB, we had to leave.