One of the must do to lists in Cape Town was Robben Island. It took a while to secure myself a ticket for the tour. It is the most popular sites in South Africa. This island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for nearly two decades before the fall of apartheid.
It was another perfect weather on a Sunday and I decided to go for it. At that time, the website where I could purchase a ticket was temporary down. So I went directly to Waterfront hoping if there was any available at all. Although I knew my chances were slim because it’s an extremely popular and most visited site. People would usually buy tickets a week in advance. At Waterfront, I expected the staff to tell me to try again next week. Instead, they offered me that one and only ticket available that day. “What a miracle” I thought. I had to wait for a few hours to board the last ferry. So my time was spent on window shopping.
Being on the upper deck was a pleasure, although crowded. There were probably almost 200 people on board the ferry. While enjoying the view on the way, I managed to capture some good photos of Cape Town. The ferry ride lasted for almost an hour. By the time we arrived, we were divided into small groups and went further on board a bus. This was the starting point of the tour. We drove around the island while a guide explained to us about the history of this place. She explained a lot about Robben Island and its past as a leper island. In the 19th century, the place was a voluntary leper colony. The bus tour also showed us the different types of prisons. One in particular is the limestone quarry, where prisoners would spend hours in the hot sun, breaking up rocks. Our guide also added that they managed to find a way to conduct an informal school of knowledge in a cave used for bathroom breaks.
What I found most interesting was the maximum security prison. A former inmate accompanied us for the rest of the tour. The area consisted of different prison wards. All prisoners were separated in small cells. There were also larger cells that could house a large number of people at the same time.
I finally saw the cell of Mandela with my own eyes. It was a very small room, which is about six feet wide. Mandela used to sleep on a thin mat on the floor. There was also a bucket. which was used as a toilet. The walls were two feet thick without decorations. For eighteen years Mandela was an unfortunate detainee on Robben Island.
Prisoners in these cells experienced a wide range of temperatures over the year. From humid heat in summer to freezing cold winter. With only a single layer of clothing and few blankets, they were prone to congestive ailments.
Another thing I find so interesting was that everything in the Maximum Security Prison was left as it was after the prisoners were released. In addition to this, the stories of the prisoners are written down in the cells.
All in all, the Robben Island tour lasted for 3 and a half hours. If I were to described my personal experience of this tour. That would be painful and amazed at the same time. Imagine being a captive for over a decade and not able to listen to radio, read newspaper or even have a clock to keep the time. You could only see your family every six months.
What amazed me was that the people such as Mandela never lost hope despite the inhumane treatment they received by the prison guards. They were all determined to continue regardless of the unthinkable hardships. They managed to get education, read as many books as possible. Some even got degrees through correspondence courses. Stuffing notes inside tennis balls and passing them along during recreation periods was their way to communicate in secret.
Apartheid was a dark time in South Africa’s not so distant past and for some, it is something that they want to move on from. This island prison is a reminder of the price many South Africans paid for democracy. When it comes down to the place, they are all just buildings. Wood & metal. Bricks and concrete. Nothing very appealing about them. But it is not for the buildings and its surroundings that I came for. It was for what they represent. Hope. Fear. Courage. Injustice. When I look at it, Robben Island is a symbol of oppression….but it is also a symbol of strenght of the human spirit.
Some interesting facts:
– The Dutch settlers were the first to use the Island as a prison.
– The island is the country’s National Heritage Site.
– Since 1997, the place has been a museum acting as a focal point of South African history.
– Was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
– Three of the former prisoners went on to become President of South Africa. Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the leader of ANC & current President Jacob Zuma.
– Robben Island generates its own electricity and obtains its water from 9 boreholes.
The whole island tour consists of a ferry ride from V&A Waterfront, a bus tour around Robben Island and eventually a visit to the maximum-security prison. The charges to visit are 300 ZAR (around 20 euro/22USD) for an adult and 160 ZAR (10.5 euro/11USD) for children under 18 years. Tickets can be purchased either directly at the Robben Island Museum departure point & at the Cape Town Tourism Office at the Clock Tower in V&A Waterfront or online booking through this website http://webtickets.co.za/events/tourism/robben-island-museum-tour/76219