Robben Island is known by most people as the place where Nelson Mandela and many other black men were kept prisoner for their beliefs. If you want to learn about South Africa’s history, a tour over this island of sadness is a must. A boat takes you there from the V&A waterfront. On the water you can enjoy the views of the iconic Table Mountain. It’s a pleasant trip before diving into a dark history.
A 45 minute bus tour takes you over the island. You’ll hear about its history, from army base and leper island to being a prison. And that’s where the bus tour ends, the maximum security prison. This is where political prisoners were kept, separated from society so they wouldn’t spread their ‘evil’ beliefs. The best thing was that the tour here was led by an ex-prisoner, who could tell what it was like from personal experience.
It feels weird to stand in front of a man who’s been through so much, just for what he was thinking and it made a lasting impression on me. It also made me feel uncomfortable. Suddenly history becomes reality and the distance disappears. Before I came to Robben Island I had read Nelson Mandela’s book. I can highly recommend it as a big chunk of the book plays right here. Entering the building is seeing what Mandela has described. It all comes to live.
Mandela’s book, Long walk to freedom, was partly written here on Robben Island. In secret, Mandela wrote about his experiences, hiding the documents and burying them in the yard. Now, I got to see exactly where the manuscript had been buried. Flashes from the book came back into my memory. How the men had had to work in the quarry, how they communicated with each other, and the different parts and circumstances in the prison.
But it wasn’t just Nelson Mandela in here. There were dozens of men here. All kept here because they wanted change. All kept here because this change frightened certain people. The conditions were harsh and the imprisonment seemed endless. And now I was staring one of these people right in the face. This man has lived through it. This man knows what it was like. I can walk around and listen to stories for hours, but I could never really imagine being in here. It’s another place that shows how unfair life can be.