One Stop on the Long Walk to Freedom
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.
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.
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.
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.
the hospitals were closed and those building that housed lepers
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
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.
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
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.”
were another form of defiance, as well solidarity with the
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.
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,
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.
Island also shows how far the country has come in a few short
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.”
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.
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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