So, Halloween was kind of a bust. After Tony and Emily dropped me back at the hostel in Cape Town, I discovered that my party partner was in rough shape. My beloved Marnie had gotten herself so excited about Halloween that she’d already spent the entire weekend doing shots of tequila until 5 in the morning. I couldn’t help it! There were parties everywhere I turned! Someone won a costume contest dressed as a tampon last night – sorry you missed that! Needless to say, I’m knackered beyond repair. So rather than find a rager on Long Street, my vegetarian pal, a few other roommates, and I decided to go out for steak. I could probably use the protein to soak up the alcohol. And I’ve already had ostrich on this trip for Christ’s sake… If ya can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em, right?
The next day, much to my sadness, Marnie packed up and headed off along the coast with the backpacker bus. We vowed to try to meet along the route somewhere, and otherwise we’d have a shot in Australia next summer, when I’d be arriving and she’d be finishing up her adventure there. I knew I’d see her again, but I was sad about having to start all over in the new-best-mate department – how could anyone replace the spitfire Brit? But I guess that’s what it’s all about, really: another day, another new connection. And little did I know, the next lady love of my life would be waiting in our dorm room when I returned that night. Ask and ye shall receive in record time.
To occupy the rest of my day alone, I was headed out to Robben Island. I’d been trying to get a ticket for the boat since I landed in Cape Town, and today was the day. It was only a 30 minute ride out to the infamous prison island, but I soon discovered that 30 minutes is plenty of time for me to get seriously seasick. When will I ever learn to listen to my mother and pop a Bonine an hour before I step on a boat? As I clung to the seat in front of me and tried not to revisit breakfast, I learned from an info video that the island had previously been a leper colony, hospital for the mentally ill, and WW II training base. Over the years it had become a prison where the Dutch and British settlers stashed undesirables, including local and far-flung colonial opposition figures. Like Alcatraz, the distance from the mainland and the shark-infested waters ensured that no one, from the lepers to Nelson Mandela, was getting off this island without permission… or a nauseating ride.
When we arrived, we were held up by an attention-seeking sealion doing a twenty minute posing routine on the dock. Apparently, for him, the island has always been a great place for sunning and free food… not quite the same as Mandela’s experience. After the usual crowd jockeying, we boarded a set of buses for a tour of the island. I got stuck in the back the bus that didn’t seem to have a guide. The bus next to us took off – with their spunky, young, female guide at the helm – and we waited another ten minutes until a scruffy older man stepped onboard, gave us a once-over, and said, So where are all you silly tourist people from? Oh man, I’m totally on the crappy bus.
As we drove past the main prison and on to our tour of the island, he poked gentle fun at each of our respective countries, and even his own. South Africa’s middle name is hope. As in, hope Mandela lives forever or we’re screwed! His warm smile and Hindi-tinged Afrikaans accent lent him a sweet, grandfatherly aura – the kind of grandfather who’s lived his life in pursuit of a great pun. He joked that the other bus guide wasn’t even born when Robben Island was closed and explained that the young lady’s pretty face was meant to provide relief from the parade of ugly old mugs like his. He was growing on me.
We pulled up next to a row of tiny cement buildings and he asked us what we thought they were for. They look like doghouses, right? And small ones at that. Maybe for the prison’s guard dogs? We all looked at him in silence, agreeing with the possibility and lacking the bravery to venture a further guess. This is where the apartheid government held Robert Sobukwe, head of the military branch of the African National Congress and president of the Pan African Congress, in solitary confinement. He was arrested for leading the Pass Law protest in 1960 and was deeply feared by the apartheid government as an effective opposition leader who saw an African-only path to the country’s future.He looked back out the window and a sardonic smile drew across his face. On the day Sobukwe was released, the government passed the General Law Amendment Act, also known as the “Sobukwe Clause”, which allowed them to renew his imprisonment annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. They sent out a new warrant for his arrest. He stepped off the boat and they put the handcuffs right back on him. Back to the doghouse on Robben Island because they were so afraid of him… He paused and leaned over onto the wall of the bus, one foot crossing over the other. Imagine what that many years alone in that small, dark cell does to your mind. Imagine. It’s a good thing our man, Mandela, didn’t end up in there or we might not be where we are today. Robert Sobukwe spent his life fighting for freedom, many years of it in that cell there, and he died before he could see his dream come true. Many great men died before that dream could come true.
As I stared at Sobukwe’s tiny cement hell, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is something like a next life for all of us, and what his would be like. If there are such things as souls, do you carry all of that with you? Do you emerge into the daylight, fists high for a fight? Or does it all get left behind, on the floor of that cell, where it belongs?
We drove on from the doghouses and pulled up next to an old quarry, bright with the midday sun. The inmates of Robben Island built their own prison with the stone from this quarry, he told us. The bright sunlight your sunglasses and this bus are protecting us from stole the sight and burned the bodies of the men who worked here. They were beaten and humiliated by the guards here on a daily basis. This is where the torture greater than imprisonment was carried out… He leaned forward, resting each hand on one of the front seats. But it is also the place where Mandela and his fellow prisoners changed the world. You see that cave there? He pointed to a craggy split in the rock in the back of the quarry. That was the “bathroom” for the prisoners working out here. And it would also become their classroom. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC working in this quarry believed education and reconciliation were the keys to freedom – anger at the oppressor would only consume you and perpetuate hatred. “Each one, teach one” they said. Each one. Teach one. And the teaching that lead to the South Africa we know today took place in that cave. Young men learned to read and write, human rights issues were intensely debated, and the first meeting of the parliament of the ANC took place in that cave.
He adjusted the tweed newsy cap on his head and crossed his arms over his chest. They were allowed this space to gather and learn, amongst their own piss and feces, thanks a twist of apartheid irony. Because the cave was technically designated a “black toilet”, the white guards couldn’t enter it. No one could touch them in there. In the end, apartheid brought itself down.
I watched a patch of white dust swirl in the wind and imagined them crowded in their foul-smelling classroom, huddled around a lesson drawn in the dirt by some of the greatest minds of our time. I imagined them discussing growth and forgiveness, remarking on the blindness of an eye for an eye. I imagined their incredible strength, a strength I couldn’t begin to imagine in myself.
Before leaving the site, our guide pointed to a small pile of stones close to the bus. He told us that Mandela and his fellow prisoners had returned to the quarry in 1995 for a reunion. After standing here for a few minutes in silence, Mandela had bent down, chosen a stone, and placed it firmly on that spot. All of the others followed suit and vowed never to forget.
We were driven to a beautiful viewpoint on the east side of the island and told we had 10 minutes to take pictures of Cape Town and grab a snack at the small shop. When we returned with ice cream in hand and began the drive back to the prison, buoyed by the treats and lovely scenery, our guide told us something I should have guessed but was not at all expecting to hear.
I was sentenced to Robben Island for crimes against the state when was I was a very young man, in the early 1960’s. I was a stupid, loud-mouthed rabble rouser, with a distaste for authority, and I made the mistake early on of talking back to the head guard. He decided to make an example out of me. This was back when they could really beat you. I learned my lessons quickly… When I was released, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, doing anything. The incredible woman I married has had to provide for our family for most of our lives. A few years ago, a young man in a suit came to my house and asked me if I would like to work as a tour guide for the museum they were opening on Robben Island. I’d never been so angry or insulted in all my life – I screamed at him and kicked him out of my house. Those were the worst years of my life, I said. How dare you ask me to go back there?... But it was my children who eventually convinced me to change my mind. They said I had to help the world understand what had happened to us on Robben Island. I had to help make sure it would never happen again. I had a responsibility to everyone who had fought for the closing of this terrible place, for our freedom. It was my responsibility to humanity. They were right… so here I am. He smiled, pinched his eyes closed tight for a minute, and nodded.
We arrived at the prison entrance and he thanked us for visiting the island. He told us to enjoy the rest of the tour with his younger and more handsome colleague, who was waiting for us inside the gate. When I reached the front of the bus, I smiled in the gaze of his soft, kind eyes. Everyone had been shaking his hand before getting off the bus, but I gave him a hug – I couldn’t help it. I thanked him for taking this job, for helping me understand. He smiled from ear to ear and cocked his head. Didn’t you say you were American? I’m surprised you are a hugger. You must have an African heart. He gave me a wink and, as I followed the others down the steps, I thought how wrong I’d been about getting the crappy bus. I was one of the lucky ones.
Our prison guide told us up front that he had been a prisoner on the island in the 80’s and 90’s. He told us he’d spent most of his time in F Block, which is where most people were transferred to after being a “newbie” in A Block. The leaders, like Mandela, were held in B Block, and C Block was reserved for the trouble-makers. Those who were unlucky enough to make it there were placed in solitary confinement and given only water and sugar for anywhere from seven to fourteen days. No matter what block you were in, your life was totally controlled by the prison administration. Any letters you might receive were heavily censored – in one case, in fact, a prisoner received a letter that was entirely blacked out except for the word “Dear” and his name. If you had a scheduled visitor, there was a good chance that person might travel all the way from the other side of the country only to be told you were in the medical wing and unavailable – you could be one room away, in perfectly good health, and they’d be sent home. While serving your time, you could apply to study and earn a degree, but the little access to those privileges that was granted was based solely on whether or not they liked your face.
Our guide paused and absorbed the distressed looks on our faces. He flashed a kind smile, as if to remind us that were not in fact being processed into the prison today. Welcome to Robben Island, he said and marched off down the long hall in front of us.
He took us first to the courtyard, where prisoners like Mandela had sat in the searing African sun, crushing stones each day. They used to bounce tennis balls with messages in them over the tall stone walls to prisoners in the other blocks – this was how the movement communicated. Large photos now sit in the middle of the courtyard, one of them the famous photo of Mandela, dressed in a special uniform for press and Red Cross visits, talking to a journalist. The outside world had occasionally been paraded in to inspect Robben Island’s conditions, and a pleasant little show was put on by nicely-clad prisoners for their benefit. While Mandela was posing for these farces, he was also writing his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, and hiding chapters under the far corner of this courtyard. He would get the truth out eventually. Four years of his work was actually destroyed when guards discovered his stash during the building of a new wall, but Mandela hid the rest of his writing in a fellow prisoner’s photo album and rewrote the lost chapters from memory when he was released.
Mandela’s cell in B Block is an iconic image, now familiar to the world. All I can say is that seeing his mat, his bucket, and the sad light drifting in through his tiny window is still arresting. You stand there trying to imagine all those years… and you can’t.
In A Block, there were stories from individual prisoners mounted in each cell: moments they remembered, things that brought them hope, lessons they learned. One story that struck me was about a prisoner who had ended up tutoring some of the white guards. During one of his lessons, a guard turned to him and said “My parents always told me that blacks were evil… spawn of the devil. All they want is to be set free so they can kill all the white people, they said. I realize now how wrong they were. I’m ashamed I listened to them. I’m sorry.”
As we all wandered the A Block cells, our guide stood in one of the doorways, observing our reactions. I wanted to know his story. Do you mind if I ask what you were here for? I said as I stood across from him in the doorway. Well, I was arrested in ’84 for inciting riots, smuggling weapons, etc… you name it I did it. After they beat and tortured me for the requisite period, I was convicted of high treason and sentenced to thirty years. I arrived here in June 1986.
I was born in June 1986, I said, feeling a pulse of heat run up my spine.
The thumb and pinky finger he’d been tapping back and forth against his leg stopped dead. Well… then we are connected, you and I… Your journey was beginning just as I thought mine was ending. I watched tears fill the hulls of his eyes as his gaze turned and locked on mine. Turns out, we were both at the beginning after all.
The force of his words stood me still. I watched his lips slowly pull together into a warm smile and felt one draw across my mouth in return. Wet cold ran down the heat of my face. I nodded and chewed the inside of my lip. It felt so true, so monumental. Atoms colliding.
The last block he took us to consisted of one very large room with several bare-looking bunk beds and a blown-up photo of a prisoner ID and meal card. This was where you were sent if you’d been in the prison for a while and weren’t causing any trouble: the average Joe block. He explained that the meal card would indicate how much or little food you were to receive each day, based on skin color. Until hunger strikes forced the prison to change its policies, black inmates received less and lesser-quality food than coloured inmates every day simply because coloureds were seen as slightly superior, even in prison. The bunk beds, he said, came only after the Red Cross visited and demanded them; before, there were just mats on the ground. The speakers in the wall, supposedly for announcements and playing the radio news for the inmates, were in fact used to listen in on them. Eventually they made boxes to cover the speakers when they needed to talk, he told us. Every month you’d leave the block to see a parole panel and keep silent as the warden answered all of their questions for you. Every day you’d wish the next one would be different.
That was our life here, he said with a long sigh… Does anyone have any questions?
Someone raised their hand and asked if it was hard for him to do this job, to come back every day and lead people around a place that had taken so much from him. It was very hard at first, he said. I really couldn’t do it at first. I had to stop and excuse myself during tours. It was very emotional… But now, it’s really the best form of therapy, I think. It helps me process everything.
On our way out of the prison and back to the dock, he said it was time for him to bid us farewell, and we each took a moment to thank him. The woman in front of me said to him, I’m sorry this happened to you. He shook his head. It was my national duty.
When it was my turn, we smiled at each other and he shook my hand. See you at the end, my sister, he said.
Between waves on the way back to shore, the feeling of hope I was left with began to turn to sadness. I worried that future generations would never have the chance I’d just had. Someday those men will be gone and my children’s children won’t be able to hear their stories while watching the lines in their faces change. Someday it really will just be a museum. What will happen without their kind eyes to share with us? What will happen when there are only plaques to read? Who will remind us that we are connected, you and I?
I can only hope that someday we won’t need reminding.