One Stop on the Long Walk to Freedom

By Rachel Globus

    Robben Island may well be the perfect prison. Separated from Cape Town, South Africa by 12 kilometers of shark-infested waters known for their strong currents and icy temperatures, in the last four centuries the island has harbored murderers, prostitutes, thieves, lepers, and—considered the most dangerous of these undesirables—political prisoners. During its long history, the island has relinquished few of those banished to its shores. Indeed, its distance from the mainland was meant as a psychological weapon to dispirit prisoners, making them feel as forgotten, isolated and desolate as the island itself.

     Despite these forbidding auspices, today over 300,000 people venture from the mainland to visit it each year. Many, doubtless, bring home tales of the harsh conditions and onetime brutality evident even today. Neil Stipanich, on the other hand, brought home a piece of it.

     “It wasn’t part of the plan—we didn’t even know we were going to do it until we got there,” says Stipanich, who was visiting South Africa for a business conference. But upon hearing of the island, he knew exactly where to collect soil for Gary Simpson’s Common Ground 191.

     First discovered in 1488 by Bartolomeu Dias, Robben Island has a bleak but ultimately redeeming history. Portuguese, British and Dutch colonialists initially used it as a rugged outpost. Located just off the tip of the African continent, it became a convenient refueling station for sailors journeying to India in the 15th and 16th centuries. They also hunted the island’s seals, dubbing the island Robbe Eiland—seal island in Dutch.

     Although Nelson Mandela is the island’s most famous political prisoner, he was not the first. Three centuries before the internationally renowned African leader found himself in those inhospitable environs, a local Khoikhoi leader, Autshumato, was imprisoned there. Today he is remembered as one of the few to escape—by rowing to shore in a stolen rowboat.

     Declaring the tip of South Africa its property in 1795, the British banished army deserters, murderers, thieves, and later Xhosa captives taken in the Frontier Wars, to the island. From 1846 until 1931, Robben Island hosted another class of society’s rejects: lunatics—which at the time included the chronically ill, the poor, prostitutes and lepers.

     Eventually the hospitals were closed and those building that housed lepers were demolished to make way for the island’s conversion to a training and defense station during World War II. The military operated the island until 1961.

     At that time, the British found a new use for Robben Island, creating the prison for which it is now famous. Between its inception and 1991, over 3,000 political prisoners were sent there.

     “It’s the same thing in a sense as Alcatraz, because you can see the mainland,” says Stipanich, who recounts the story of his visit to the island with easy good humor and an eye for beauty. “In this case, instead of seeing San Francisco, you see Cape Town, which is every bit as beautiful—probably more so,” he says. Although today tourists appreciate Robben Island’s more aesthetically pleasing attributes, the political prisoners who stayed there had a much different view.

     “Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system,” wrote Nelson Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, which he began writing secretly in 1974 while imprisoned on the island. As president of the African National Congress, Mandela was one of South Africa’s leaders in the fight against apartheid. In 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island.

     Hardship was both psychological and physical for the inmates there. Made to wear shorts to remind them they were “boys,” the prisoners shivered through the days and the nights as well, sleeping on straw mats with blankets “so flimsy and worn they were practically transparent,” as Mandela recounted in his autobiography.

     Other forms of deprivation included spitefully contradictory rules, such as being allowed books but not glasses to read them with. The prisoners were also forced into the icy waters to harvest kelp, and fed an unappetizing gruel that only improved during hunger strikes or when aid workers were inspecting the island. Even personal contact was used as a form of oppression—prisoners were entitled to one visitor and to write and receive only one letter every six months, and the authorities often withheld mail at will.

     But the prisoners’ time there was punctuated by small victories. They refused to call the warders “baas,” or master, as they were ordered. They also complained to the International Red Cross that they didn’t have the facilities for studying, and received stand-up desks—a wooden board that extended from the wall at chest level. Further vociferous protests won them three-legged stools and desks to sit at. Another coup was the sunglasses they obtained after three years of mining lime in the blinding glare of a quarry.

     “The campaign to improve conditions in the prison was part of the apartheid struggle,” wrote Mandela. “It was, in that sense, all the same; we fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large, or how small, and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity.”

     Hunger strikes were another form of defiance, as well solidarity with the island’s common-law prisoners, with whom they could communicate only by whispered conversations or smuggled notes. The prisoners retrieved matchboxes discarded by the warders and added false bottoms, placing tiny coded messages inside. Such messages were also hidden in food drums or taped inside the rim of a toilet bowl.

     Mandela was instrumental in organizing these covert insurrections. “They talked about him basically being a person who had enough of an aura around him that people would just follow him,” says Stipanich of the tour guides’ portrayal. “Whenever they mentioned Robert Sobukwe, it was with reverence. And of course Mandela the same,” he adds. Sobukwe was a political prisoner considered so dangerous that he was held in solitary confinement there for six years.

     “Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation,” wrote Mandela. “Your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.” Through dedication and will, Mandela endured. After spending 18 years of his life on Robben Island, he was released on February 11, 1990. Three years later he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and on May 10, 1994 he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

     As for Robben Island, the last prisoners left the island in 1991. In 1997, the Robben Island Museum was created there to welcome the thousands of visitors who would come to celebrate “the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship and adversity,” as the museum’s Web site proclaims. The island was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999.

     It is perhaps because the evidence of hardship remains that the island symbolizes the struggle and eventual victory so well. “The quarry where they worked during the day and the prison—it’s just a feeling of that I think that permeated the atmosphere,” says Stipanich. This atmosphere still affects visitors today. “Nobody was really boisterous. It was pretty quiet and somber,” he says of the other tourists with him on the island that day.

     But Robben Island also shows how far the country has come in a few short years. Many of the prisoners, lacking the means to leave or skills to work elsewhere, stayed on to become tour guides. “The guide was—as everybody in Africa has been, every place we’ve been—wonderful,” says Stipanich of the former inmate who led his tour. “He stressed that they had no ill will, he just wanted to move forward, and that he wanted everybody to understand what had happened at the place.”

     For Stipanich, who also traveled in Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania, South Africa was just another of the continent’s selling points. “Everybody is just flat out wonderful,” he says affectionately of the places he visited. “South Africa is like a totally integrated society, where to me it feels safer—but you’re a tourist always—than it can feel here.” Just in front of the main prison, Stipanich scooped up some of the sandy, gray soil, which he then sent back to Laguna Beach, California to become part of Simpson’s growing collection.

     Stipanich is one of many to appreciate the country’s progress, of which Robben Island’s success as a tourist destination is proof. On December 21, 2001, the island officially welcomed its millionth visitor. Even Mandela returned to his former prison this June to bear the Olympic flame. Of his many accomplishments, he joked modestly, “after loafing somewhere on an island and other places for 27 years, the rest is not really deserved,” as Britain’s The Times reported.

     While Robben Island was once a place of isolation and exile, it is now a common ground where visitors from across the globe come to celebrate a victory against apartheid in South Africa, and by extension, against all unjust oppression. As a reminder of the battles won and the battles to come, the island that was once a perfect prison is now the perfect tribute.





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