Robben Island Today we toured the former prison at Robben Island where the leaders of the struggle against racial apartheid in South Africa, most famously Nelson Mandela, were held as political prisoners for many years. The boat ride out to the island was not very long but as we moved further and further out to the prison, now a Cultural Heritage Site and museum, I began to wonder what so many of the prisoners must have been thinking as they made their way across those very same waters.
Though the entire tour of Robben Island invoked a lot of emotion and stirred my conceptualization of freedom and reconciliation, two pieces of the tour exaggerated that experience the most. First, we learned that all of the prisoners on Robben Island were forced at one point or another, to contribute to the building of the very walls which would hold them captive. From 1962 to 1964 the first prisoners began the extracting and breaking of blue slate to build parts of the prison. Over the years as prisoners continued to enter Robben Island, the breaking of the blue slate continued to be the focal point of prison labor. Viewing the place where the blue slate was broken we learned two critical things: (1) as results of the extraction of the slate, many prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, now have life-long health conditions. Specifically, issues with eye sight. Second, the area where the blue slate was extracted was very often the place where political prisoners would meet to discuss and strategize on the very issues which had unjustly and unfairly placed them in prison.
As I sat looking at the piles of blue slate and rock, I was moved by the thought that while the apartheid government had illegally and unjustly stolen the physical freedom of these political prisoners, forced them to build the walls which held them captive, and in the process destroyed the physical health and eye sight of so many; they ultimately failed to steal their spirit of freedom, to hold their hearts captive, and would never destroy the vision of hope they held for their country.
This spirit is the second critical thing which impressed me on this tour. Our tour guide today was a former political prisoner on Robben Island. His presence made the tour rich, connected, and personal. He was arrested and charged with treason and conspiracy to commit terrorism during the apartheid regime. As we moved through the former prison, he described prison life on Robben Island including the limited visitation privileges, prisoner diets, and the relationships between the prisoners.
Lastly, he described why he decided to come back to Robben Island to work and live. Today, just under 200 residence live on Robben Island, including former prisoner’s such as our guide, former guards of the prison, and current employees of the museum. When asked how or why he could possibly return to this place of pain, brutality, and injustice, our guide responded that, he felt that it was his responsibility to tell his story and the story of so many other prisoners as a duty to South Africa and the world. This spirit of reconciliation and the dedication to telling the story made this tour an emotional and informative experience but also a hopeful and inspiring adventure.