Island of Apartheid

South Africa Remembers a Banished Past on Robben Island
Robben Island at a Glance
Name: Robben Island
Location : Robben Island, South Africa
Date of Inscription: 1999
Why You Should Go There: While Robben Island represents some of South Africa's darkest moments, it also symbolizes the rise of the anti-apartheid movement and the fall of the country's repressive state.
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For the inhabitants of Robben Island, life was no picnic with palm trees. The fortune-cookie-shaped land off the coast of South Africa held a prison for "criminals" of all shades: The first prisoner was a local Khoikhoi leader who was jailed by a 17th-century Dutch governor for allegedly stealing some cows, while one of the last was a man named Madiba, aka Nelson Mandela. When Mandela and other political prisoners arrived for their internment, wardens welcomed them, shouting, "This is the Island. Here you will die like animals [vrek]!" The future ANC president, who spent 18 of his 28 imprisoned years here in a closet-sized cell, called the island, "the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system." Yet, at the same time, it became a petri dish of anti-apartheid activity. Who could expect less when some of the greatest activist minds had nothing to do for years but talk and plot and watch the penguins waddle by.

Besides the maximum-security prison which incarcerated up to 800 prisoners at a time, the island housed a pantry, hospital, mental asylum, and WWII military training defense station. Even during the island’s earlier occupancy, it saw prisoners protesting barbaric treatment. In the 1800s, shortly after England assumed control of South Africa from the Dutch, the island became a dumping ground for mainland misfits, including lepers and lunatics. During this time, the homeless, prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholics, and even people too sick to work were classified as lunatics. The wardens offered no treatment for the illnesses, but instead subjected the unfortunate to brutal violence, rape, and torture. The conditions then were no better than those constructed by the prisoners themselves in 1960. Rebellious leaders wrote petitions to the Queen of England, demanding better treatment, but any uprising was quickly squelched.

In 1991, the island-as-prison was no more. More than 3,000 black male political prisoners were freed (women and whites were kept elsewhere), and the last remaining common criminals left in 1996. The main inhabitants now are penguins, rock lobster, and whales, who come and go as they please.
Practically Speaking
Robben Island is about eight miles north of Cape Town, and four-hour tours run daily from Jetty 1 at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, South Africa's answer to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Tickets cost R100 for adults and R50 for children (roughly $15 and $8 respectively). The Robben Island Museum retraces the anti-apartheid movement and its players, plus offers historical, ecological, and cultural programs. Other fascinating sights are the prison and the infamous "B Section", where political prisoners were kept; the Leper Church, built in 1895 for the hundreds of male lepers; and the Karamat, a Muslim shrine to Hadji Matarim, a religious leader who was imprisoned on the island and is believed to be buried somewhere along the rocky shoals.

Suggested Reading:
In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela doesn’t describe the island’s harshest and most brutal aspects, but he does give a description of daily life on the island and discusses the education "B section" prisoners offered one another while working in the limestone quarry during his 18 years of imprisonment.

Published: 20 Jul 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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