When I learned I was coming to South Africa, one of the first things that crossed my mind was that I had to go to Robben Island. During my 3rd year in undergrad, I took an amazing class on Nelson Mandela and the Anti-Apartheid movement and ever since then I’ve been intrigued. After reading his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”, and getting a deeper sense of who he was, I knew I had to find a way to get to Robben Island. So, when my organization asked me if I would be interested in working at their Cape Town office, I felt like the stars were aligning.
During my first weekend in Cape Town, I was told that the tours on the island were cancelled in the event of bad weather which could mean heavy rainfall, high winds etc. So, my first attempt to go proved unsuccessful due to high winds. Since my time in Cape Town was short, I carefully planned my next attempt, checking the weather everyday to make sure it was safe to reserve my ticket. I finally made it and the weather couldn’t have been better. It was 73°F/23°C!
When we got to the island, we boarded the buses and began our tour which lasted about 2.5 hours. We drove to various locations, stopped along the way and listened to detailed accounts of what happened on the island. We only got off the bus twice, but I figured that was in an effort to save time. The island housed prisons as well as homes, schools, clinics and even churches for the guards and their families.
Here are a few of the many things I learned:
- The prisoners were allowed one visitor per year for 30 minutes. Sometimes the guards and the warden would intefere by preventing the visitor from seeing the prisoner. Sometimes they travelled from as far as 1200 km/700 miles to the island.
- They were allowed to write and receive one letter every 6 months which had to be in English and was heavily scrutinized
- Robert Sobukwe, who unfortunately isn’t well known, suffered greatly at the hands of the apartheid government. Since he was one of the leaders who initiated the protests that led to the Sharpeville massacre, they built a special “house” for him on the island. He was also not allowed to speak with anyone, not even his guards and so he developed issues with his voice box. His story is one worth reading.
- The tour of the prisons was led by an ex-political prisoner. He described being arrested, tortured and sent to the island in 1984.
- The prisoners had to work on limestone quarries without protective gear and so many of them damaged their eyes and lungs. Some later died from lung diseases.
Pictures of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell.
Coincidentally, I visited Robben Island the weekend following the shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the United States. As I listened to all the stories of what happened on the Island just about 25-30 years ago, I was reminded that even though we have come a long way, there is still more to be done. I remember going to work after Alton Sterling’s murder and feeling hopeless, annoyed, frustrated and upset. But, I think my feelings intensified after reading all the comments on social media and from news outlets that delegitimized our stance that Black Lives Matter.
Some would say that my visit to Robben Island was ill-timed but I believe that it was exactly what I needed. Despite the desperate attempts by the apartheid government to divide South Africa and to oppress black people, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and many others persevered and continued fighting for freedom. So, despite the constant disregard for black and brown bodies, we have to persevere and keep fighting because Black Lives will ALWAYS Matter.