Sunday, March 6, 2011

.....Robben Island

You are allowed to smile,” the guide, once a prisoner in this large cell, assures us. There is a scatter of nervous laughter but the weight of the walls dowses it quickly.

It’s not that our tourist group to Robben Island is a particularly taciturn bunch. On the boat over from Cape Town there was a lot of laughter and a general sense of holiday fun.

Though this 11km stretch is famous for its cold, its treacherous currents and its sharks, we were keeping an eye out for dolphins or perhaps even a whale. It was hard to imagine how freezing the water might be on a day this sunny, and no doubt many of the short voyages for the prisoners were as balmy and beautiful as this - but that would have been cold comfort for those wrenched from their homes; dislocated not only from family and society but the very continent, too. The sense of well-being and freedom which so often comes with a boat ride dims however, when we reach the wharf, a stolid, bare structure. Against the walls are huge photographs of tattered prisoners being herded onto this same wharf although then it was ringed by guards and dogs. We clatter onto

the island and pass under a squared arch which proclaims in block capital letters in both English and Afrika

ans “Robbene Iland. Welcome. We Serve With Pride.”

We begin by being packed onto a bus for a tour of the island itself. Our first guide is a young, pretty Black w

oman. To some extent all bus tours are slightly surreal as foreign worlds spool past the windows, but in this situation the

sensation is particula

rly marked. The bus is redolent with the smell of sunscreen and younger children clamour for snacks while the guide begins the story of the island.

Rows of empty, fenced, dog kennels slide by in our peripheral vision.

Condensed, the history seems to be one of unmitigated wretchedness. For much of the past four hundred years, Robben Island has served as a place of banishment for political and royal prisoners ranging from local chiefs hell-bent on defending their homelands, to those collected from as far afield as Malaysia, India, Ceylon and Indonesia. Petty criminals were often included in this mix. In 1844 it was decided that Robben Island would serve well as a leper colony and lunatic asylum. The conditions over the next sixty years were ones of appalling squalor, neglect and abuse. Later in the twentieth century, it was again resurrected as a prison. Yet over all these hundreds of years, the accompanying tiny communities were busy building houses, scouring out roads, erecting churches and schools, creating a splash of normality on this flat, featureless sliver of land.

The bus carries us down past the lepers’ pitiful graveyard, past the now largely quiet houses and the pretty churches. It is hard, on this summer’s day, to imagine work gangs of convicts being transported from prison through these domestic streets to their forced labour beyond. Perhaps they were taken via back roads. I can only hope so.

There is one stop where we all tumble down the steps of the bus into the harsh brightness. Because the island is largely limestone, the reflection from the sunlight is dazzling. In the quarry it is literally blinding. Naturally, convicts were not issued with sunglasses and many have suffered long-term damage. Nelson Mandela hashad several eye operations and photographers are cautioned not to use their flashes when taking pictures of him.

We take our own photographs of the lighthouse with Table Mountain, picture perfect, beyond. The rocky shoreline is strewn with seaweed and the usual detritus that fetches up with the tides. Drinks and crisps can be bought in the dim interior

of what used to be the guards’ bar. It is desolate, largely stripped of furniture and outside big barbecues lie rusting. It’s a struggle to imagine this room filled with the cigarette smoke and boisterous laughter of white men and their wives on a Friday night.

Back in the bus, we are carried past ruined tennis courts and a golf course which is home to a scattering of deer these days. The indoor shooting range is deserted. And then we are in the quarry. We are not allowed off the bus but sit silent in the hot stillness while our guide tells us how prisoners laboured here eight hours a day, every day. There is still a guard tower

but we have to paint in for ourselves the guards with their rifles and their dogs rimming the quarry. Here the dust not only burnt into the prisoners’ retinas but corroded their lungs, too. The only respite was a couple of caves carved into the far wall where the prisoners went to eat and to relieve themselves. It was also the only place where talking was permitted and it became a classroom. “Each one, teach one,” was the motto and the educated leaders taught the illiterate to read and write using cement bags.

“The University of Robben Island,” the guide tells us brightly and we laugh but uneasily. She gives us another example of Island humour:

“Who has their driver’s licence?” the guards would ask. Those who raised their hands were given the duty of pushing the backbreaking wheelbarrows.

The quarry is strangely small for the mythology that now surrounds it. Dry grass browns in the unrelenting

glare. Fresh water is desperately scarce on the island. A few rusted tools lie discarded in the white dust. Despite the shelter of the bus, the heat still beats through. We are told how temperatures plummet in the winter months, the wind whipping straight in

from the Antar

ctic. The pettiness of apartheid pursued prisoners even here. Under the colour coding so specific to the regime, African prisoners were given only sandals, short pants and canvas jackets. Indians and Coloureds were allowed socks, shoes, long pants, underpants and jerseys.

Then we are off again, jolting along the burning roads, our well-sprung bus softening the jolts of the numerous potholes, to the prison itself where our guide passes us on to an ex-prisoner. He takes us into the communal cell, large enough for fifty or sixty people, where he lived for four years. This is where he invites us to smile and we are grateful because we do not know the etiquette of visiting a prison.

The paint on the walls is peeling, the floor is cement, the glassless windows are stoutly barred and on each of the steel bunks is a flat pillow and a thin blanket. The nervous laughter is a release but still we cannot smile as he talks easily of the punishing daily routine which began at 5am and continued with rigid austerity all the long days. We hear of beatings and solitary confinement and reduced rations although how they could reduce such meagre fuel is hard

to imagine. Again apartheid separated the prisoners in that Africans, such as our guide, were given only a fraction of the rations of others and it was not until 1971 they were allowed any bread at all.

As to be expected, the prison was highly systematic, divided into different blocks and we clatter from one to another but a number of us quickly become disorientated. All the corridors look the same w

ith walls painted grey past a man’s head height. At the barred, unglazed windows we see that the walls are a foot thick. The dimensions of the corridors make the ceilings feel low and the floors are cement or stone. Everything is white or grey. The doors are huge iron affairs with locks straight out of the eighteenth century, looking like props off one of the prison movies we watch for entertainment. But their weight and their coldness are real. There are several tour groups and dislocated tourists tried to sort out which one they belong to as the voices eerily echo, and yet are muffled at the same time.

I lose my own group at the solitary cells. We all gather around Nelson Mandela’s cell of course and it becomes alive for a moment with the flashes from cameras but really it is as stripped and imperso

nal as the ones flanking it and facing it. In such a way, the system too tried to strip these men of their identities but this is the first time I smile voluntarily for in each cell there is a box with a glass front attached to the wall containing one item belonging to the inmate. Beside it is a written explanation from the prisoner himself, explaining the significance of the object. In one box lies a cement bag, so vital to the spread of literacy. In another there is a belt woven from the bits of net and rope scrounged from the rocky shoreline. The ends are encased in worn leather from a broken

shoe and the buckle is fashioned from a discarded bit of metal. It is a thing of beauty and I want to spend time going from cell to cell, reading each message, absorbing the significance of each object. But this is a tourist visit, pace has to be maintained and there is only time for quick glimpses into cells as we scurry past.

We are ushered down the oppressive corridors and out into the exercise yards which a

re enclosed by soaring walls topped with rolls of barbed wire and guard towers. The feeling of claustrophobia which began in the communal cell is by now stifling. The prisoners had been permitted to play tennis and they used this as a way to spread messages in balls which were hit over the wall to inmates on the other side. Messages were also spread in food and in a number of other ingenious ways. It is impossible to silence men who will speak out no matter what the consequences. We are shown the tree behind which Nelson Mandela used to bury the book he was writing. When it was discovered one day, he lost the privilege of study for four years.

I snatch a few minutes with the guide.

“How can you bear to come back here?”

“I am not ashamed. The guards, most of them, do not come.”

“And how do you feel about them?”

“We have forgiven them. You have heard of our Truth and Reconciliation?”

It is hard to believe in forgiveness, standing in that barren yard but my guide smiles

and his face, his whole talk, are free of bitterness.

“What is the reaction of visitors?”

“Many are interested. Some do not like it. They say it is lies that we are telling but -” and his hands gestures to the walls, the wire, the tower, “how can we lie? It is all here.”

“Why do they come if they refuse to believe it? What are they expecting?”

He shrugs and shakes his head. “That I don’t know.”

At this point it must be noted that not all the guards were bad. Some befriended the men they watched and the tour ends in a brief speech of reconciliation. Ex-prisoners have made their peace with the past and some even live on Robben Island now. Our guide also expresses his gratitude to Amnesty International for opposing and thus finally halting the hanging of political prisoners. But for their efforts, Mandela would have been executed long ago as so many before him.

The trip back to Cape Town is wild for the wind is up and the boat bounces over the waves, the spray drenching the passengers. They laugh and shout above the noise of motor and

waves. There is a sense of exuberance, which is perhaps fitting as we speed away from th

e isl

and and its suffocating past. Some think the prison should be raz

ed to the ground. There was even one idea of setting up a casino on Robben Island. But like the concentration camps of Germany, it should be preserved as it is. In the volatile history of Africa – indeed of the world - it serves to remind us not only of man’s inhumanity but of his extraordinary courage and humanity as well. .

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