Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Silent Land

Amid a stormy and overcast day, the Cape Town Ten set out for yet another adventure—this time to Robben Island, the famed historical site of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. We arrived at the Waterfront at noon, and, after an extraordinarily gifted speaker gave us the most majestic safety speech ever, we took off on a ferry for the island just as the sun started to break through the clouds.
Awkward smiles to start off the day!

The ferry was one of the few incidents we’ve had to experience Cape Town from sea,  so, naturally, we took plenty of pictures. We laughed and hung on to railings for dear life as the boat bumped and shot its way across the water, while sea mist sprayed us from all around. A few times we even saw the elusive end of a whale diving in the distance or boxhead jellyfish floating, pale and ghostly, beneath the surface.

Tyler and Christina stop to ponder Cape Town.
An hour later, we landed in Robben Island’s harbor. As we dismounted shakily from the boat, we were promptly greeted by an old face—Ilyas, our guide from Bo Kaap (see Christina’s post). During our hour long bus tour of the island, we learned quite a bit about Robben Island’s colorful history. First colonized in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, who named it after the plentiful seal colonies they saw on land, the island was mainly utilized as a leper colony, a quarantine station and an isolation spot for political prisoners.

We passed by the leper graveyard and learned of some of the more famous prisoners that stayed on the island—Xhosa leader Makanda Nxele, who led an uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, and more recently, the political activists, dissidents and freedom fighters of the apartheid period.

“How many of you guys know Nelson Mandela?” Ilyas asked as we passed by a small prison complex. Everyone on the bus raised their hands. “Now, how many of you know Robert Sobukwe?” There was silence on the bus, as most of the predominantly tourist crowd looked at each other, shrugging their shoulders. A Zulu man in the back raised his hand high.

We soon learned that this small prison yard we had stopped with was “the smallest prison in the world”, built specifically for one prisoner—Robert Sobukwe, whose intriguing story and defiant fight against apartheid places him among the ranks of Mandela, yet, as Ilyas laments, is still widely unknown in the world. The highly influential leader of the Pan-African Congress was arrested in Soweto protesting the Pass Law of 1960 that required all black Africans to carry passbooks with them at all times to separate them and limit their mobility. Seen as highly dangerous because of his radical ideas, Sobukwe was confined alone under a special clause written just for him until he died.
The World's Smallest Prison -- Sobukwe's Solitary Confinement Camp

The hour long tour ended with a stop at the famous limestone quarry where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners worked during the day under backbreaking conditions as part of their internment. Later on, at a reunion, Mandela started a rock pile which was added to, one rock at a time, by all the ex-prisoners. The pile is a testimony to the bond that was forged in those difficult times, and the resistant spirit that the prisoners kept even under their hard labor.

The quarry. Note the pile of stones--Mandela's work.

The last part of the tour was what we were all waiting for—a tour of the actual prison complex, by one of the ex-prisoners. As we walked by concrete rooms with barred windows and empty courtyards surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and guardhouses, we learned about the brutal system that was used to break the prisoners here—the few opportunities they had to communicate with their loved ones and the draconian methods used to punish resistance organizations within the prison.

Yet, despite the prison’s best efforts, they could not contain resistance. “Politics was all we ever talked about—that was why we were there,” said our guide. The senior political prisoners who were higher up in the ANC would teach those confined with them, and classes would be organized to educate all the prisoners on politics. Material for discussion and lessons were hidden under pillows, stuffed in shoes and wherever they could hide it. They knew they were going to be released—they had faith to understand that the apartheid system was going to collapse, and they prepared, eagerly, for their release at any time. And so, behind concrete doors, in whispers at night, the prisoners dreamed, brainstormed and laid out the political structure of South Africa today.

Concrete, barred windows, bunk beds. The conditions.

Note the concrete. And the sky. This is vaguely symbolic.

This is extremely symbolic.  
Guard tower, and more barbed wire.

More concrete! And sky! Ponder the silence conveyed in this picture. 

The guard tower from outside the prison system. 
 As Mandela suggests, Robben Island was much more than just a prison system, but a

 “a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit.” As we ended the tour by passing by Mandela’s own personal cell—a modest, square room with nothing more but a creaky wooden stool, a chamber pot and a roll of bed linens, I realized then that despite the brutality of being confined for most of his adult life, it was ultimately prison that imparted to him much of the patience, wisdom and forgiveness he needed to lead the nation.

Indeed, as we left the facilities that were once grim but now hopeful, once repressing but now educational, I got a sense of what he was talking about.


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