On a sunny Monday in Cape Town, my study abroad peers and I sought to venture out and explore Robben Island. This island was infamously utilized during Apartheid to house thousands of political prisoners. Of those imprisoned one in particular stood out among the rest, Nelson Mandela, future President of South Africa. This was information I had known prior to the excursion, and yet I was so excited to learn much more about the island!
And we’re off! In order to get to Robben Island, you have to take a quick ferry ride. It was pretty short, maybe 30 minutes? Here’s a picture of my friend Pam and I on the ferry to Robben Island.
We arrive and are assigned to a tour guide who goes by the name of Sparks. He’s quite the boisterous and exuberant fellow; tall and well spoken, this makes me feel lucky as he is loud enough for us all to hear. Sparks begins to tell us all of the guides who gives tours on Robben Island were in fact once imprisoned on Robben Island. He himself spent 7 years imprisoned, charged in 1983 with terrorism and released in 1990. He was 17 years old when he entered, and 24 years of age when he got out. He had joined the ANC (African National Congress) and had been arrested for recruiting people into the ANC and for possession of arms. Additionally, all the employees who work on Robben Island and their family live on the island, including himself and the other guides who were once imprisoned there.
Immediately I was taken aback. I had no idea all the guides on the island used to be imprisoned there. I was dazed as so many thoughts raced through my mind.
- First of all, whoa.
- Second, he lives on the island where he spent 7 years of his life jailed?
- How can he possibly live on the island where he endured such cruelty?
- I’m sure he thought the same.
- I wonder how he feels now?
- Perhaps this was essential in him finding closure for the matter.
- Is that messed up to think? I mean is that completely ignorant? Can someone find peace and furthermore closure after something like that?
But there was no time to linger on these ideas, as Sparks moved along quickly. He walked us into a room.
This was the room Sparks was held in. I thought it was rather large until he told us it held 60 people, 3 showers, and 2 toilets. Unfortunately the picture fails to show the room in its entirety. While it is large, I find it astonishing it housed 60. In order to accommodate all of their restroom needs, the political prisoners woke up at 4:00am. If you missed your window, not only would you be out of luck, you’d be locked in solitary confinement. How that makes sense, I will never know.
This room displayed these 4 bunk beds which were used by prisoners. The display is almost an accurate replica of how the cell used to be. As you can see in the picture, the beds had only a thin blanket, no pillows. Additionally the windows are barricaded so that the prisoners would not escape. However there is one crucial difference I must point out. While the windows were caged off, there was no glass to separate the inside from the outside. Because there were no windows, there was nothing to protect them from the rain and the wind. Therefore, winter was cruel. Winter in Cape Town is harsh; it’s cold, windy, and rainy. I can’t imagine having to endure it without windows. Many prisoners would contract tuberculosis or pneumonia. However, the doctor only came to the island once a week. If you got sick the day after he came, you would pray to make it until he returned next week.
As stated earlier, Robben Island was used during Apartheid to house political prisoners. Thus, Apartheid was in full effect during this time. Institutionalized racial discrimination and segregation reigned throughout the nation, and the prisons were no different.
A prisoner’s race classification would determine his/her jail location. Asians, females, Blacks, Whites, and Coloureds were all placed in different jails. But it didn’t stop there. Your race classification would also dictate what clothes and food you received. Coloured were allowed socks, shoes, a shirt, pants, and a jacket. Blacks were only given shorts and a shirt. No socks, shoes, or jackets… even during the Winter.
It blew my mind. In my first blog post, I discussed how I had failed to pack appropriately by only packing 1 jacket in South Africa’s winter season. I was so thankful for that jacket. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place with no windows and no jacket. Not even pants or socks? What the heck.
Their diets were also segregated.
The picture I took shows that Coloureds and Asians were given more nutritious food than Blacks. But let me tell you about the craziest thing I learned.
The picture shows how Coloureds and Asians are given bread while Blacks were given “Puzamandla”. According to Sparks, Puzamandla was a white liquid said to give energy. However the truth is much more sinister than that. When Sparks first got to Robben Island, the elders had warned him and other youngins not to eat the Puzamandla as it would leave them infertile.
Immediately I gasped.
- Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. They were sterilizing Black prisoners!?
Sparks told us how Black prisoners who had consumed the Puzamandla and later released were incapable of conceiving children. I couldn’t believe it. The shiver that went down my spine was too real. My jaw dropped again in astonishment.
But like I said, Sparks moves fast.
He moved the conversation along and taught us of the 3 punishments prisoners would receive.
- Beatings by sticks, whipping, kicking, and/or punches
- Solitary Confinement:
- No food or water given
- 30 Day Diet:
- A 30 day diet that consisted of just porridge. No salt or milk. This left the prisoner weak, often times even too weak to stand.
The injustices that took place on Robben Island were severe.
- Prisoners were only allowed 1 visitor a year
- Prisoners were only allowed 1 letter a year
- Furthermore, the census office would filter through these letters and cut out the majority of its content
- Often times, the guards wished to pin the political prisoners and common law prisoners against one another
Sparks told a story of how a political prisoner was once thirsty.
He asked the guard if he could have some water. The guard ignored him and turned towards a common law prisoner and instructed him to dig a 6 foot hole. Once the hole was dug, the thirsty political prisoner was forced into the hole and buried up to his neck. After this point, the guards would gather over the man’s head and proceed to urinate on his face.
However this was not an unusual phenomenon. Compared to other injustices, it was tame.
Guards would sometimes instruct common law prisoners to sodomize political prisoners, and if they refused, they were punished. They’d be put in solitary confinement, beaten, or placed on the 30 day diet.
A lot of small things a prisoner did could land them in solitary confinement. Even for something as small as folding your blankets wrong.
Of course Sparks told us stories of Nelson Mandela.
He told us stories of how Mandela would play tennis. He would break the tennis ball open, place a message inside, and hit the ball over bounds to the neighboring court that housed other prisoners. The prisoners would open the ball, read the message, respond if needed, and pass the ball back over. I couldn’t help but revel in the genius that took place. Mandela was the man!
He spoke of how Mandela was so influential to the youth in Robben Island. The movement flourished in the prison. Youngins who entered that didn’t even know who Mandela was would leave completely transformed. If the youngins were released earlier they would tell stories of Madiba and what he taught them. Nelson Mandela was known as Madiba which means father in Xhosa.
Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island. It’s where he wrote his book, The Long Walk to Freedom. Interestingly enough, Mandela gave a copy to a fellow prisoner he had befriended. This prisoner smuggled it out when he was released and immediately took it to be published. Soon it was read all over the world. After the 1994 elections, Mac Maharaj, the prisoner who was responsible for smuggling the manuscript out, was appointed as Minister of Transport by President Nelson Mandela, as Madiba believed he was good at it. Ironic, aye? Madiba seemed to have a good sense of humor.
Unlike Sparks who was considered a low level political prisoner, high ranking political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were considered especially dangerous. Their influential nature needed to be separated from other political prisoners. Thus, they were given their own cells. Now before you go on thinking that it must have been nice to have your own cell, I have to interject. His cell was tiny. I mean it was the size of an American closet.
Furthermore, he was not afforded the luxury of a toilet to flush his waste. Instead he was given a bucket to urinate and defecate in. This bucket remained with him in his tiny cell next to his bed.
I felt so privileged.
I couldn’t imagine defecating in a bucket next to my bed and having to sleep next to my own waste. I thought of the smell that he must have had to endure. I don’t even like going to bed without a shower. The thought of sleeping next to waste made me wince.
But enough explaining. Without further delay, I present to you Nelson Mandela’s cell.
Apologies for the bad quality photos. I was rushed to take them as there was a large group behind me waiting to look inside the cell. But as you can see, it’s tiny. I couldn’t believe a man spent almost 2 decades living in these tiny quarters.
I learned a lot about Robben Island while I was there.
At the end, Sparks answered the questions I posed earlier.
He spoke of how when he was first offered the job to be a tour guide and live on Robben Island he had to think about it. The first time he came back onto the island he became emotional. He was angry and upset as it brought back terrible memories. It took him a while to let go of the anger. However, he spoke of how it was Madiba who helped him to know forgiveness in his heart. As time passed, his anger subsided, and he found living on the island gave him closure. Sparks now says that he’s forgiven the guards and they all live together on the island in peace. Really? Peacefully living together? Maybe.
Whether or not this is true I found Sparks to be inspirational. Being able to confront a location where you were forced to endure a vast amount of injustices and not only face it, but transform it into the place that you call home is remarkable. I am humbled by his ability to let go of his anger. I wish to one day be as wise as Sparks and the other political prisoners living on the island.