We had pre-purchase tickets to see Robben Island, an island that served as a prison for centuries. It is located in Table Bay, within view of Capetown and Table Mountain. It is now most famous for its role in incarcerating political prisoners during the apartheid uprisings. One of the famous prisoners was Nelson Mandela who spent 18 of the 27 years of his imprisonment on this island.
First step in the tour was to board a boat for a 45 minute ride to the island. The day was beautiful and the ride very pleasant.
We arrived at the island where we boarded the bus for a tour of the village.
We saw the location where Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement. He was a leader of a group in the uprisings and his imprisonment was on the island in total isolation. He was housed in a small buildings in the same enclosure where the guard dogs were housed in kennels. He was not permitted to speak to anyone, including the guards who patrolled the area 24/7! After 6 years or so, he was removed to Kimberly and placed under house arrest.
The highlight of the tour was a visit to the maximum security block where a previous political prisoner gave us a tour of the facility.
We saw the cell Nelson Mandela was held in, as well as barracks where 60 prisoners were held. The conditions were deplorable and apartheid extended even to this horrid place. Food allotments were different, dependant on race, and meager to say the least . Forced to sleep on mats on the floor under windows with no glass thus letting rain and cold in, the prisoners went on a hunger strike and were granted beds in the 1970's.
The prisoners were put to work in a limestone quarry where they performed useless labour moving limestone from one place to another, and digging the limestone from the cliffs. A cave served as the shady spot for breaks, the toilet and the school where the prisoners educated each other. The rock pike has been added over the years by visiting ex-political prisioners in commemoration of those who died while incarcerated on the island.
The heat was unbearable both in the quarry and in the exercise yard.
There were beatings and periods of solitary confinement for failure to comply with strict rules. It was hard to imagine anyone surviving there for long...and impossible to imagine the strength to survive it for 18 years. I stood there looking at Table Mountain and thought that this sight must have seemed so close and yet so far away to those imprisoned here. Freedom seemingly within reach, I thought the prisioners must have felt dispair at the sight. Our guide told me that I was wrong, this sight only strengthen their resolve and was a symbol of hope in his 7 years of incarceration.