Sunday, 6 July 2014

Robben Island: The triumph of the human spirit over adversity and suffering

When the bus dropped us off at the Robben Island Museum located in the Waterfront area it was raining and rather dreary outside. To be honest, I was not looking forward to traveling to Robben Island via ferry over stormy seas. But to my surprise, the skies cleared up for the ferry ride and as we came closer to the island's harbor, I was eager to get inside and hear first hand about the importance of this historic landmark. A tour guide greeted our group and took us to the "Section B" prison cells. When inside, he explained how around 80 prisoners slept in one room. Each prisoner was given a mat to sleep on, but because it was so cold, all of the prisoners slept close to one another to spread body heat. They would all fall asleep facing the same direction and then in the middle of the night, when it was time to roll over, one prisoner would elbow his neighbor and the entire line of sleeping prisoners would shift sides all at once. 769 total prisoners were kept on Robben Island over the years which included people of all races; however, when it came to eating, there were rations placed on the food. The blacks were referred to as "Bantus" and were not fed the same amount of food as the colored or Asian prisoners.

Example of the food rations as decided by race

Nelson Mandela's Cell
Our tour guide was a prisoner himself on Robben Island for 10 years. During his imprisonment, prison guards used his body as a human ash tray and also forced him to eat his fecal matter at one point. Years later, when Robben Island had been shut down as a prison and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was underway, the guide's prison guards applied for amnesty and were granted freedom. Years later, the guide invited one of his prison guards over for dinner. This guard was one of the more "sympathetic guards" as the guide admitted, but the guide claimed that the guard still seemed nervous when he showed up to the former prisoner's house for dinner. It was truly amazing to listen to the tour guide confess the truths about his past and the power of forgiveness. Next, we got to see Nelson Mandela's prison cell, cell number 46664. As you can see below, it was a small room that was practically empty--no toilet or bed. The guide shared with us that the guards would allow the light in Mandela's room to be kept on for an additional one hour and fifteen minutes after all of the other cells' lights had been turned off, acknowledging Mandela's great intelligence and busy nights spent writing letters and organizing political movements for the ANC. 
Old school for kids who lived on the island

After visiting Mandela's cell, the group boarded a tour bus that drove us around the perimeter of the island. We stopped at "Lepers Graveyard," which was where inhabitants of the island, who died isolated from their families and the mainland were laid to rest.  From there, the bus drove by the few residences that remain on the island. Currently, about 140 people live on the island. Most of the current citizens include ex prisoners and guards, as well as anyone involved directly with Robben Island tourism. Guards who were the most sympathetic towards prisoners are best knows as the guards that still live on the island. Next, we drove by a cave which was known as the first site of the democratic parliament. Prisoners were kept in the cave under a "shot to kill" policy which means that if they tried to escape, the prison guards on duty above the cave, were ordered to shoot and kill the fleeing prisoner. Because of their isolation, the prisoners in the cave had no choice but to use the cave as a toilet as well. The smell became so foul that the guards kept their distance--making it the ideal location for secret political meetings. 
The entire JHU group on Robben Island
The last stop on the tour was at a great lookout point right on the water that had amazing views of the mountains encompassing the city bowl area. The panoramic view featured Table Mountain, Devils Peak and Lion's Head and was breathtaking. The tours through the prison cells were a bit depressing, but the view was refreshing and the tour guide ended the tour reminding the group that while the history of Robben Island is devastating, it is important to look at the current status of South Africa and be optimistic about the future and the many freedoms that exist today. After all the motto of the museum is: "The Triumph of the human spirit over adversity and suffering."
 - Megan Auzenbergs


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