Before traveling to South Africa, I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. This was really helpful in getting a better understanding of apartheid in South Africa. Visiting Robben Island is a very emotional experience, especially for black South Africans, many of which have traveled a long way to make this visit to Robben Island.
You board a ferry that takes you from the water front to the island in about 40 minutes. After arriving, you form two groups to tour the island. One group starts with the prison, and the other begins with the island itself. We began with the prison. All of the tour guides are former prisoners themselves who have returned to the island. The guide explains the ins and outs of day to day life in the prison, including the block system and separation of prisoners. For example, F block housed the criminals, while B block head all the political leaders.
You can tell that discussing what happened in the prison is difficult for the guides, however our guide said that it has been the best place way for him to deal with the anger and memories of being imprisoned on Robben Island. Guides live and work on the island. Today, former prisoners are even neighbors with some of their former white guards. The ability for today’s residents of Robben Island to live peacefully among each other is largely a goal for the rest of the country.
After viewing some of the larger cell blocks, you move into the single cell confinement where Nelson Mandela was kept. Political leaders were kept completely separate from the rest of the prisoners, even during recreational time. They had their own enclosed garden for reaction so that they couldn’t converse with the other prisoners. This is where Nelson Mandela hid the drafts of his autobiography.
Robben in Afrikaans means seals. The island was originally named after the seals that inhabited it and has seen many uses before it became a prison. It was once used as a stopping point for ships passing by and was also home a leper colony. Some of the building from this leper colony are still surviving, however many of them were burned. When touring the island you see the former guards’ homes, the remaining buildings from the leper colony, the church, and the quarry. Even after the quarry was no longer producing stone, the prisoners would have to haul piles of rocks back and forth as a form of humiliation. Despite this, the quarry was also a place of hope. In the cave of the quarry, educated prisoners would hold reading lessons as well as have political discussions away from the ears of the guards. Thus, the cave became named the University of Robben Island.
While the experience is heavy, Robben Island leaves you with strong feelings of hope for the country of South Africa.