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Jul 11

Robben Island and Table Mountain

by Tony in Cape Town, South Africa, World Cup 2010

Cape Town from Robben Island

The day after the Spain vs Portugal game in Cape Town was beautiful, so we couldn’t believe it when the staff told us that all the ferries to Robben Island were cancelled due to rough seas. We were about to get annoyed when they told us that they couldn’t rebook us for the next day, as it was already full. Robben Island was one of the things we were anticipating the most in Cape Town, so to be told we would not be able to visit it was a huge disappointment. We explained that the next day was our last day, and the agent eventually agreed to book us on one of the tours – relief, if the weather improved.

Cable Car to Table Mountain

Ninfa high in the clouds, Cape Point in the distance

If the weather wasn’t good enough to sail in, it was ideal for another of Cape Town’s highlights – Table Mountain. Table Mountain rises 1,086m above sea level. By the time we had reorganised our Robben Island tour, we arrived just in time to get one of the last cable cars to the top at around 5pm. The cable car has a rotating floor so everybody on board gets a 360 degree view as we climb up. As you rise, you see Table Bay open out below you, and just near the top the cable car rises above the ridge that joins Lion’s Head to Table Mountain, and the whole of False Bay opens out on the other side, to the oohs and ahhs of everyone on board. It gets cold on top of Table Mountain, and it wasn’t a good idea to be wearing shorts anymore, but we still enjoyed watching the sun set over Cape Town, looking out over the city to Signal Hill, Lion’s Head and further offshore, the elusive Robben Island.

Cape Town from the foot of Table Mountain

Ninfa, with Lion's Head and Robben Island

Cape Town has a number of highly recommended restaurants, but that night we took it easy back at the apartment we were renting. It was such a novelty to be able to stay at home and cook that we couldn’t resist staying in. We’ve been on the road for three months, and it’s the first time we’ve been in a proper kitchen since we left.

Me, on a chilly Table Mountain

Sunset on Table Mountain

On the morning of our last day in Cape Town, the weather was again beautiful. We made our now daily trip to the V&A Waterfront to see if the boat was running to Robben Island, and jackpot! Shortly after the boat left, we realised why it had been cancelled the two previous days. On a calm day like today, the swell of the sea in Table Bay is huge. No wonder the Cape of Good Hope has caused so many shipwrecks in the past. Across the bay we saw anchored cargo ships drop halfway out of sight as the waves rolled them and us around.

From the port in Robben Island, we were picked up by bus and given a tour of the island. Our first stop was to the solitary confinement section which had previously housed Robert Sobukwe. Robert Sobukwe was the leader of the Pan African Congress in the 1960′s-1970′s. He had a reputation for charisma and being a wonderful communicator, and was seen as such a threat by the Apartheid government that they passed a “Sobukwe Law” which allowed for the indefinite detention of political suspects without trial. After a PAC policy of burning their “Dom-passes” (literally “stupid-pass” that all non-whites were obliged to carry), Sobukwe was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for over 4 years during which time he was not permitted to speak or be spoken to. The strategy was to destroy that which was strongest in Sobukwe, and it worked. At the end of his time on Robben Island, Sobukwe was a sick man, psychologically drained and lacking the ability to speak properly as his vocal chords had decayed due to lack of use. Of all that I heard and saw in our tour of Robben Island, this angered and saddened me most.

Solitary Confinement Area of Robert Sobukwe

Robben Island Prison Tower

A former inmate gives his own personal account

Further along the island, we saw the lime pit where the prisoners were brought to slave as manual labour, using basic tools and sometimes only their bare hands to quarry the lime from the ground and break it. There was no use for the lime being quarried; it was simply a meaningless exercise, and a weapon in the hands of the Apartheid regime designed to break the prisoners both physically and mentally. To add to this, he prisoners were denied any protective equipment which severely damaged their health. In fact, the toxicity of the lime almost blinded Nelson Mandela, but in an operation to save his sight, his tear ducts were ruined, and as a result he is unable to shed a tear. There is a small cave in the quarry which became known as the University of Robben Island, as it was the only place where the prisoners could gather, and there they educated each other in topics ranging from the most basic literacy skills to some of the most advanced theories in politics and history.

From here we went to the prison buildings. There, we were greeted by a former prisoner of Robben Island. Our guide, whose name I forget, was emprisoned there for five years in the 1980′s, and gave us accounts of his daily life in Robben Island. He told us of the physical and verbal abuse the prisoners suffered as well as the harsh living conditions. He then guided us around the prison, and to B-Section, which was the area which housed the most “dangerous” political prisoners, including Mandela. On the way, I caught a glimpse of the football pitch where the prisoners played matches. The prisoners set up the Makana Football Association, and ran a league which helped maintain morale and foster understanding between the rival anti-apartheid political parties. Jacob Zuma, the current South African president was a referee, but so far in this World Cup, he’s remained in the stands – will he referee the World Cup Final perhaps?

Robben Island football pitch - Makana FA

B-Section prison cells from the prison yard

We were then led through to the B-Section cells, and the cell itself which housed Nelson Mandela for 18 years from 1964-1982. It’s a very poignant moment, and again makes you marvel at his strength and that of his fellow prisoners in overcoming this terrible hardship and to never have lost hope.

All the staff live on Robben Island, and there is a primary school for the young children. Our guide, the former prisoner, told us that he lives on the island, as do some of the former prison guards. He told us that not all prison guards were the same, and that some of them had treated the prisoners humanely. I still could not fathom the possibility of living side by side with my former captor, but this is exactly the challenge that South Africans have been able to overcome so successfully since the fall of Apartheid. Our guide did confide that on some days Robben Island is the last place he wants to be, and he feels he cannot face the prison, but that he is driven by the goal of showing the world what must be avoided, and to live as an example of reconciliation and not revenge.

Robben Island

Gateway to Robben Island Prison

If I could complain about anything about the tour, it would be the fact that it was too crowded. Even our guide told us that due to the previous days’ cancellation and the high demand, the groups contained twice the number of people that they would normally have. As a result it was a little rushed, especially when viewing the cells. Another thing was the delay getting back to the mainland. For some reason the boatmen had gone on strike for part of the day, resulting in over an hour delay to our return trip, and two hours for the tour before us. But in the end, these were small nuisances in comparison to the wonderful experience we had been able to witness.

Madiba's Prison Cell

On the boat back, we were able to appreciate beautiful views of Cape Town, nestling in the outstretched arms of Table Mountain which sweep down to the sea. The contrast of the natural beauty of Table Bay, compared to the human tragedy and subsequent triumph on Robben Island, underlined Cape Town as an amazing city with two treasures which reward all the senses.

“Today when I look at Robben Island, I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid. It is true that Robben Island was once a place of darkness, but out of that darkness has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls…“ – Nelson Mandela

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