Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The one and only Robben Island

Fact: Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years of confinement.
Fact: Many many other people were imprisoned here, and the Island museum does a great job of reminding you of this important reality! 
Fact: Robben (which means 'seal' in Dutch for the many of them in Table Bay) Island was used starting in 1657!  From then until 1846 it held slaves who quarried rock for structures in the City as punishment.  There are 3 quarries on the Island.

Other things you may not know:
RI was a leper colony starting in the mid-1800's until 1932 when the cure became more widely dispersed - there is still a church there, called both the Leper Church and the Church of the Good Shepherd, that remains in use from that time.

Another church on the Island is open to the public on February 14th each year - this year, 23 couples were married there on that day!

Around 190 staff and their families live on the island, including former convicts AND former guards. Side by side...

During WWII, Britain used RI, and other sites around Cape Town, as lookout points, and various gun turrets remain.  After WWII, it was used for black political prisoners from around 1960 to the early 90's.  It was then reopened as a museum in 1997.  That year, Hilary Clinton visited as first lady, with a rather memorable mishap.  Seeing as how she would be touring the island with a number of other dignitaries, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu among them, a Mercedes van was airlifted by helicopter to the island to improve the comfort of their tour...but midway across the water, one of the support ropes tore, dropping the van into the water!  So they took a regular tour bus, just like the rest of us...

Our tour guide was a former inmate, imprisoned for 18 years with a nasty cough that is probably attributable to his work in the limestone quarry.  He was full of stories of torture and random acts of violence.  He also spoke of how Mandela was often singled out for better treatment which he always refused, gaining the begrudging respect of many on the warden's staff, and the unblemished alliance of the rest of the inmates.  We learned about the Sobukwe Clause, the unjust continuation of Robert Sobukwe's imprisonment after the completion of his sentence, and his family's (wife and four children!) two week visit with him while he was otherwise held in solitary confinement. Meanwhile Parliamentarians and prison staff played golf on the links just over the fence...

In short, we learned a great deal, but there is so much more for you to learn when you visit yourself!

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