South Africa: Robben Island

Entrance to Robben IslandRobben Island is located twenty-five minutes from the coast of Cape Town. We spent our first afternoon on this island, which for centuries was the home of exiles. Until the 1930s, it was the home of those infected with leprosy. More recently, it is remembered as the place of imprisonment of those who demonstrated political opposition, most famously Nelson Mandela, as well as those lesser known, such as Robert Sobukwe. Despite these leaders differences, they were all sent to the same place. And Robben Island made it apparent that the legacy of apartheid still lingers.

A former prisoner guided our group through the prison. The man’s history was unique from both Mr. Mandela’s and Mr. Sobukwe’s. When he spoke of Mandela or of the other prisoners, he always referred to them as “comrade”, perhaps a showing of the connection they all shared. As a nineteen-year-old student, our guide had become dissatisfied with the limitations placed on education for non-white people. He demonstrated against these limitations in non-violent protests, which resulted in police attacks, including tear gas and torture. He described how some of the other protesters had been tortured to the point of becoming mentally disturbed. These violent reactions led him to leave for Swaziland, then Mozambique and other countries, before arriving in Angola, where he received military training. Upon returning to South Africa, Ntando was imprisoned for seven years for multiple offenses, including leaving the country. The majority of the time our guide spent on Robben Island was in a common prison cell. Each communal cell had 42 people living in them. The individual cells were used for people such as political opposition leaders that included Mandela and others with very disparate views. Despite spending seven years of his life as a political prisoner, the guide referred to Robben Island as a “wonderful place”. When asked why he was positive, he did not clarify his upbeat attitude.

A twenty-something man guided the remainder of the tour on Robben Island. He considered himself to be a person of colour, meaning he was born to mixed parentage, rather than black or white parentage. A person of colour could also be a follower of Islam called the Malai. There are 25 mosques in Cape Town at the present time. While the younger guide recognizes how far South Africa has come in race relations, he remains cautious of the future. He emphasized how even with anti-discrimination laws, he believes there are behaviors so ingrained that the legacy of Apartheid still lingers. He is apprehensive towards a government accused of corruption, and worried that things could regress. While concerned, his attitude was not entirely negative. When asked how he felt about being a person of color, his response was that he feels “nothing” about it. The younger guides parting words were to believe in Ubuntu, and only through that spirit and remembering not just now, but for generations to come can the ills caused by Apartheid be truly healed.

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