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  • David Scherer

DESTINATION: Raindrops & Redemption - Visiting Robben Island



The beauty of South Africa cannot be denied. It's blessed with a rugged coastline speckled with mossy stones, endless stretches of highway driving through a kaleidoscope of wildflowers, and of course the notoriously expansive bush lands where countless groups of foreigners hop into topless jeeps and caravan out to gaze in wonder at the landscapes and wildlife before them.

But like many places, the timeline of human history hasn't been the best mirror. South Africa has always been beautiful, but it hasn't always been a beautiful place to call home for many of its residents. The history of apartheid is well-known the world over and its effects still resonate through South African society despite its demise more than two decades ago. A look at any modern society will show you the formal removal of a system of discrimination and oppression isn't the same as eradicating racism from society. Formal structures are but a small part of the mechanism of oppression and we've yet to truly see a society which has truly reached a point of racial harmony - there's always someone whom the "haves" need to keep as "have nots", even if keeping them there isn't an official or even conscious decision.

When I came to Cape Town I wanted to take in and enjoy what is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nestled along the Atlantic coastline and stretching upward into nearby Table Mountain, it does indeed provide a visually stunning backdrop to a world class city. I did not want that beauty to serve as an excuse to forget this land's history though, so I made it a point to seek out and plan visits to sites within the city that tell the story of the struggle for freedom and equality that the people waged and still wage to this day. Sadly, just about my entire trip was washed out due to torrential rains that covered the city for days on end. As luck would have it the rain finally ceased on the very last day I had in Cape Town, and this was the day I had a ticket on the ferry to the notorious Robben Island - the sliver of land out in the middle of the ocean just off the shores of Cape Town that held famous South African activists Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe as political prisoners of the apartheid government for years and years.


My ability to visit Robben Island on this trip essentially ended up being pure luck. Tickets for the ferry boat out to the island often sell out so I made the decision months ahead of time to purchase a ticket on the very last day of my trip. As luck would have it this ended up being the one day my entire trip to Cape Town where the weather didn't prevent me from leaving the hotel.

I was staying at the Westin Cape Town which provides a free shuttle bus to the V&A Waterfront, which is where the ferry to Robben Island departs from. There are multiple departures per day but I selected the very first one and consequently showed up prior to the ferry terminal even opening.

Though the rain had stopped a dense fog persisted, blanketing the coastline and surrounding areas. Iconic Table Mountain remained hidden behind a veil of mist, still unseen despite days on end searching the horizon for it. As the minutes ticked away on the nearby clock tower, a diverse group of folks started to gather outside of the building. A collection of nylon fanny packs and monochromatic windbreakers milling about as they spoke in hushed, reverent tones.

Eventually the doors were thrown open and the first wave of visitors was allowed to enter the building. There's a small holding area where you can mill about and read the history of the island and it's occupants, with an understandable focus on Nelson Mandela as the island's most famous prisoner. There's a good ten minutes worth of reading material, which worked out well as that's exactly how much time we were allowed inside the building before they opened the turnstiles to start taking tickets and funneling people down toward the boat.


Seating on the boat is on a "first come, first serve" basis, so this is one of those times where paying attention to when they open the gates makes sense, particularly if you have a strong feeling about whether you'd like to be seated upstairs, downstairs, inside, or outside. I ended up taking a seat on the upper deck which was entirely outdoors. By now the fog had receded a bit but still lingered around the edges of my vision as if I had just woken from a deep, fitful sleep.

The loading of a small boat shouldn't take very long in theory, but as with most forms of group transportation you have your early birds and the inevitable stragglers, the latter of which had us sitting on the shoreline for a good 15 minutes. I spent the time looking out into the slightly choppy waters of the Atlantic. A scan of the horizon showed not even a sliver of land out in the distance, so it wasn't hard to imagine the isolation felt by those like Mandela whom were condemned to the island for years without even an opportunity to view another slice of land.

Eventually the stragglers appeared and the crew began to prepare the boat for the short trip out into the sea. They skittered to and fro, loosening and pulling lines of rope up from the dock while others quickly demonstrated the proper use of the life vests. The boat creaked as it backed into the water and turned in the bay, lazily aiming toward a yet unseen point in the distance as the waves undulated beneath the deck.


As we left the safety of the shoreline and headed out into the open ocean, the waves began to rock the boat a bit more heavily. Droplets of salty seawater blew into my face mixed with a gentle mist-like rain as gusts of wind heaved the ferry from side to side. I began to feel the beginnings of seasickness rising in my belly, so I closed my eyes and tried to focus my thoughts on the destination ahead of us.


It was far from a pleasant boat ride, almost as if Mother Nature had conspired with history to provide us with a somber, arduous journey. Considering what Robben Island represented - with decades stacked to the brim with pain and suffering, racism and strife, tears and tribulations - the 45 minute ride from harbor to harbor almost felt like a metaphor for the history of the island.

As our ferry caught sight of land in the distance the weather began to change. Though we were just approaching the beginning of the afternoon it suddenly looked like the dawning of a new day. The sun fought to illuminate the approaching shoreline, revealing the silhouette of trees and buildings still a bit too far in the distance to clearly make out.


And then suddenly, as if God himself swatted his hand through the sky, the clouds disappeared and the misty rain dissipated, revealing a brilliant blue sky and green speck of land.


We were the first boat to arrive that day, so the harbor was quiet. Though largely functioning as a tourist attraction, the island does still hold a small contingent of residents that make their home on this speck of land. We passed a few fisherman along the docks as our little boat pulled up to a wooden pier. They barely registered the passing of our ship, silently gazing into the water waiting for the telltale ripple of a fish's nibble.

Disembarking was accomplished much more swiftly than embarkation, and I noted tha there were two small buses idling a few dozen meters off in the distance near the entrance of the harbor. We were given the opportunity to run in to to use the restroom prior to boarding, though I spent my time wandering about and peaking into the various buildings that hugged the walls of the tiny enclave. A few tourist offices shuttered and locked, a path leading off to the far side of the harbor that promised the intrepid trekker a view of the notorious South African penguin, and a solitary souvenir shop staffed by a single family.

One bus was loaded with folks and was already headed out on the scheduled tour, so I made my way to the remaining bus to make sure I wasn't left behind. I did stop and take note of the gateway through which the first bus passed as it made its way out into the interior of the island. I couldn't help but see the irony in offering a heartfelt welcome to those who arrived on these shores in years past, many of whom were stepping foot for the first time on the land that would serve as their prison for years to come.


I took a seat on the remaining bus and noted that it was very lightly loaded, a benefit to having wandered a bit instead of immediately hopping onto a vehicle. The bus came with a driver (who'd have thought!?) as well as a separate tour guide.

Our guide as a Cape Malay Muslim woman who's father had been a prisoner on the island. South Africa was originally a Dutch colony and Cape Town was used as a resupply station between Europe and the Dutch colonial holdings in Asia. The Cape Malay were originally Indonesians, Malagasy, and Indians who were enslaved by the Dutch East Indies Company and brought over as laborers. As time progressed the slaves were joined by other Southeast and South Asian dissidents as well as Muslim religious leaders whom the Dutch wished to place in exile. While much of South Africa's racial dialogue focuses on the indigenous African and colonial European dynamics, there are large South Asian and Asian populations that were brought over by the Dutch and British over the centuries, and these communities were impacted by the apartheid regime as well.

Our first stop was a section of the island that had been cordoned off into cells. The fences that surrounded the compound were much lower than the originals we were told, though I didn't think that fact detracted at all from the feeling of being caged while we walked around.


Several rows of cells were lined up on plain slabs of grey concrete. The cells were remarkably tiny, putting many cells I've seen in the United States in the luxurious category. Each cell was open air and floored with bricks. Chain link fencing was used for the door, allowing the jailers to see inside while still ensuring the captives were secure.


If this all looks rather familiar it's because it is - these are dog kennels. History and the informational plaques on the wall may call them cells for prisoners but these are the same things I've seen used to hold dogs at the pound or shelter. I'm a bit of a bleeding heart liberal, so I wouldn't view this as acceptable even for actual criminals. But political prisoners fighting a racist regime? Horrifying.


Also within this compound was the house that held Robert Sobukwe, a South African dissident and founder of the Pan African Congress. While organizing and protesting against the Pass Act, an apartheid era law requiring all black and "coloured" (Indian, Chinese, Arab, and individuals of mixed heritage) South Africans to essentially carry passports to move outside of their approved areas domestically, he was arrested and charged with incitement. Sentenced to three years in prison, he served his time but was not released by the apartheid government. The General Law Amendment Act was passed with a clause stating the Minister of Justice had the discretion to annually imprison Sobukwe if he was a danger to the stability of the apartheid doctrine. Consequently he was placed in solitary confinement on Robben Island for several years after his prison term where he was provided with a small house, books, newspapers, and food.

He was allowed to correspond with the outside world, though it was heavily monitored and anything considered incendiary or political was removed. Dozens of personal letters cover the walls inside the tiny house he called home for years, so you can wander around the space and catch glimpses of his state of mind in each room. While many of them are cut to tatters to remove information or covered with black marks, I did find one untouched letter to his wife.


With heavy heart and thoughtful minds, we boarded the buses again.

Our next stop was a small building on the shoreline of the island. It was a multi-purpose affair, combining restrooms as well as a small cafe that sold snacks and drinks. I quickly hopped into the cafe to grab an espresso and then spent the remainder of the time wandering the shoreline taking in the view.


The mainland has a beauty and charm all of its own, though this island really seemed to bring me back to the time I spent in Ireland. Lots of vibrant greens and swaths of browns. It really was a bit surreal to find such a beautiful place with such a horrible history.


Our next stop would be out last today - the Maximum Security Prison. Tours of this facility are lead by former prisoners who volunteer to share with groups their experience and the history of the buildings. Our volunteer's name was Ben and he spent two years as a prisoner on the island.


He met us as we exited our bus and walked us over to patch of gravel next to a sign featuring a photo of prisoners aboard a ferry boat on their way to freedom on the mainland. Over the next few minutes he detailed his time in the prison and his feelings while held in captivity. When prompted by a question he declined to elaborate on what he was accused of doing to land on the apartheid government's list of dissidents, though in the grand scheme of things I don't think I really needed to know.

His grasp of English was less than perfect, and he was far from a polished public speaker. This was hardly the professional presentation you get on so many tours - it was raw, real, and reflective. No practiced speeches and zingy one liners, just a man tearing open his chest and showing you the beating heart of his soul.

After his introduction he walked us into the prison and took us to the room where he spent the majority of his confinement. The cells were communal for the most part and only the most "dangerous" detainees were placed in solitary cells.


He mentioned that the bunk beds were only brought in toward the end of the island's use as a prison and even then not everyone had a right to a bed. During his tenure he simply had a mat that he'd lay down at night. The mat was simply some threadbare padding wrapped in what appeared to be burlap. I couldn't fathom sleeping on something like that for one night let alone years.


We were released to wander around a bit, heading up and down desolate abandoned halls and creepy, horror movie-esque community bathrooms. Just like the community cell that Ben had showed us before, the other cells were decorated with various types of artwork created by the occupants of the cell. A mix of cynical and .... homesick?


In the dining area posters were hung showing what prisoners were provided to eat. The type of meals provided depending on whether you were considered black, coloured/asiatic, or white.


Of course the prison's most famous resident was future South African president and Nobel Peace prize winner Nelson Mandela, and we'd hardly heard anything about him by this point. The tour's commitment to authenticity didn't seem to stop it from having a theatrical flair, as I soon discovered that Mandela's cell was saved for last.

The cell has no special markings, nothing noting that it once held one of the most famous men of the last century.


In a sense it was almost anticlimactic. For so long I had linked Robben Island with Mandela and here I finally was and it almost felt like Mandela was an afterthought. Upon further reflection I suppose the set up is exactly as it should be though.

Mandela went on to become quite famous, and the prison does include a lot of informational postings about his life at the prison. At the end of the day this prison should stand as a testament to ALL of the people whom lost either years of their lives or their entire lives here on the island. While it could have, it did not become a memorial to just one man.

It's a memorial to mankind.


Our time on the island was coming to an end and we were asked to head back to the bus to catch our ferry back to the mainland. As we funneled out of the building that housed Mandela's cell we walked through the prison yard nearby and under the now unmanned watchtower that oversaw the prison.


The ride back to Cape Town was just as tumultuous as the journey out, though the weather remained good almost the entire way back. As the waves rocked our boat from side to side a murmur arouse from the crowd as we approached the shore. For the first time in several day the sky was clear and the glory that is Table Mountain could be seen dominating the coastline as we sailed closer and closer, a line of yachts and buildings encircling its base like a belt.


You could feel the excitement in the air as I'm assuming most of the folks on the boat had also been trapped at their respective hotels for the past few days and, like me, were seeing this icon of Cape Town for the very first time.


As we approached the dock people started to queue up to get off the boat. With the weather having improving so drastically people were vocally expressing their desire to go as quickly as possible to the Mountain. With the torrential rainfall and high winds the cable car had been closed for days, and rumors spread quickly that it was now fully operational.

I stayed back and let everyone else fight over who would be the first person to reach the hop-on, hop-off buses parked up the dock. I was still trying to sort through my feelings about what I saw out on Robben Island. Historic sites, particularly ones where the story is so traumatic and divisive, can be difficult to grapple with. I am neither black nor African, and though Asians were treated as "other" under the apartheid regime that doesn't mean I am any closer to understand the experience that black South Africans endured under the heels of colonial oppression.

At the end of the day I think the most we can ever hope to do is to walk into places like Robben Island with an intent to understand the things that happened, recognize the ramifications of those events in our current world, and work to remedy those ramifications as they manifest across the globe today. Apartheid has been tossed into the ash heap of history but that doesn't mean that racism is dead. It continues to live on in the hearts of some people and it is so deeply routed into our global system of governance that many times people don't even recognize the privilege or disenfranchisement they experience in life on a daily basis that's rooted in these concepts.

Robben Island is a beautiful speck of land in the middle of the Atlantic with an ugly story to share. I would encourage a visitor to Cape Town to enjoy the vistas from Table Mountain, the gorgeous stretches of beach along Camps Bay, or to indulge in the world class cuisine available across town. Along with all of that fun, you owe it to yourself (and humanity) to get on the boat to Robben Island and be reminded that not too long ago the South Africa you've been falling in love with looked very different.

And there's still a lot of work to be done in South Africa and where ever it is you call home.

#southafrica #capetown #africa #robbenisland #nelsonmandela #island #boat

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Next Trips:  Jamaica, Iraq, Sudan.

Hello! I'm David - world traveler, food aficionado, gay dude, and storyteller.  This is where I share amazing sights, delicious dishes, LGBT travel advice, & my favorite stories!

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