The ride itself was very laid back. It’s just a one hour ferry ride that departs from the ritzy V&A Waterfront area of Cape Town. We felt so lucky to be the last four on the boat, leaving a bunch of slow suckers behind to catch the next. Felt lucky, that is, until the second (much smaller) ferry ripped by us at about twice our speed. It pays to be patient! At least the beautiful views of Cape Town with Table Mountain behind it kept us occupied for the ride.
Upon arrival, we walked into the prison where we were met by a former inmate. This is one very bizarre aspect of the tour. Our guide was a man who spent twelve years in the prison. He was released in 1992 and commenced working there only five years later in 1997; around the time when the (now former) prison opened to the public. I think it’s crazy that you could spend so long as a prisoner of the state under charges like “inciting terrorism”, only to be released and within a few short years be chatting with tourists about how crazy it was that your country imprisoned you in the first place.
We visited Nelson Mandela’s cell, as well as the prison yard. In the back of the yard lies Mandela’s garden, where he hid an early manuscript of his book “The Long Walk To Freedom”.
Our guide talked about various brutal punishments the prisoners were subjected to, as well the racism inherent in everything down to the prison meal plans: “Bantu” prisoners were given much fewer rations than the “Indian/Asiatic” prisoners.
We visited the limestone quarry where many prisoners were to toil for over a decade. They weren’t allowed to leave the site to go to the bathroom, so the cave pictured was both their latrine, their dining hall, and their classroom. The smell was apparently bad enough to keep the guards out, so many of the political prisoners were able to use their time to discuss their ideas and thoughts about the future of South Africa. The cave has since been given the moniker “South Africa’s First Democratic Parliament”.
It was quite a solemn experience to visit a place where so many prisoners were exiled for reasons we now understand to be invalid. Our guide impressed upon us the importance of thinking about what took place on the island, and why it’s necessary to reflect upon and share these stories. Although South Africa has come a very long way since apartheid, some of the same issues facing the prisoners of Robben Island still haunt the country today.