Jun 07

Robben Island – Prison for Leaders

by in Africa, South Africa

An iron door sealed us in.  We were locked into a large empty cement room.  A thin, spectacled black man stepped forward.

“You are here for a short visit, but I was locked in this prison for nine years.  I was sent here by the white South African government because I had joined the military wing of the African National Congress.  We lived by a strict schedule.  Lights on at 7am, doors unlocked at 9am, go out for work in the limestone quarries.  Lunch at noon.  Back to the quarries until 4pm, then shower up and dinner.  In the evenings, we would gather in small groups for political discussions.  At night, sleep on the floor.”

Our guide was an ex-prisoner, stepping forward from history to lead tours of his own prison.  He was the ideal person to educate the public about Robbens Island, the South African version of Alcatraz. 

We had taken a brisk 30-minute boat ride to reach the island.  It was a pretty day and we did not mind the spray and swells under bright blue skies.  The boat chugged forward steadily under diesel power.  As the city of Capetown slowly dwindled behind us, so did any possible prayer of swimming home. 

Once there, a bus ride around the island showed that the prisoners were generally locked into cement buildings with iron bars surrounded by barbed wire.  No exit.  No escape.

“Mail was censored.  Prisoners were separated by group based on race.  Political prisoners were kept apart from common law prisoners.  They put us political leaders into solitary confinement.  At first we had 23 hours of solitary per day, with 30 minutes to exercise in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon.  In the 70s we were allowed to work.  Most of us worked in the limestone quarries.  Nearly all the leaders of the black national groups were sent here, including Nelson Mandela, the Muslim branch of the ANC, the non-Muslim branch of the ANC, and the PAC.”

On the bus tour we stopped to see the special separate building where they held Robert Sobukwe for nearly his entire adult life.  Sobukwe was the intellectual leader of the Pan-African movement or PAC.  He had joined the ANC and then broke off to form the more aggressive group to actively start a revolt against the white South African government.  He was jailed for three years.  Just before his release day, the government passed a special Robert Sobukwe law (!) and determined that because of his dangerous ideas, he should be held in isolation on Robbens Island for the rest of his life. 

The walls of Sobukwe’s old cell are now exhibits that show the letters he shared with his wife.  A few are romantic, but most are filled with struggle.  A repeated attempt to get new shoes.  Searching for ways to pay bills.  Desperation for help from abroad.  Seeking new books.  He could not communicate with any of the other political leaders on the island except by cryptic hand signal. 

After a brief investigation, the loneliness had chased all of us back onto the bus.  Then we entered the main prison area and met the ex-prisoner who was in front of us now.

We asked him whether the gathering of all the different political leaders into one main prison had actually changed the course of South African history?  “Yes.  First, because we were all together, the different groups started to negotiate with each other very early.  Mandela started negotiating even back in the 1980s.  Even though the prisoners were separated, we found ways to keep talking.  And second, I can tell you this.  If it had not been for Mandela, it would have turned out differently.  A lot of people were going to die.”  He looked us right in the eyes.  “A lot.”

We struggled to digest this.  The political change in South Africa had taken decades to occur, but in the end it was a peaceful exchange of power.  The new government was democratic and restored order fairly soon.  Change in government often produces a power vacuum and years of chaos as factions fight – such as when the Chinese had overthrown their emperor or as we see today in the aftermath of the Arab spring.  Perhaps by bottling up the faction leaders together, the white South African government had unintentionally done some good for the country.  And Nelson Mandela had clearly made a huge personal difference. 

We filed past the cell where he had stayed for so many years (the picture above is of Mandela’s cell).  It was barely large enough to lie down – perhaps 6’ by 8’.  There was a small window with no view.  He had 4 blankets and a thin mat and slept on cement that must have been bone cold in winter.  No plumbing – a bucket in one corner was his bathroom.  No furniture was allowed until the late 1970s and then only a metal bed, bookshelf and lamp. 

What kind of heart could long endure here?

We stopped at the limestone quarries.  Over the course of decades, the political prisoners had carved nearly a football field of space here out of the side of a mountain.  Each day the sun had blinded them and the dust had filled their eyes and mouths.  Many lost a portion of their vision.  Those who would not work were punished.   It was a pointless task as little of the stone was ever used.

Nelson Mandela and a thousand other political prisoners returned to visit Robben Island in 1995.  They spilled off the boat and wandered down the streets.  They gazed at fences, walls, bars.

Nelson Mandela went to the quarries, to the farthest corner.

He leaned down to lift up a stone bigger than his fist.  As all the other ex-prisoners watched, he walked slowly back across the quarry.  He leaned down again, and placed the stone exactly at the center where the digging had first started. 

One by one, the other prisoners found their stones and did the same, building a mound that is still there today. 

We stared at it the pile of stones.  We saw a painful memory, a farewell, and a testament to resilience and faith.  The prisoners had left the best part of their lives behind in this quarry.  But not in vain.


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