A visit to Robben Island

Mandela's cell

In my final Cape Town days I made it to Robben Island, a long held ambition to visit a place of great historical significance.

The island – where Nelson Mandela and many of those who fought for civil rights for blacks and coloureds were imprisoned – serves not only as a popular tourist haven but as a constant reminder of South Africa’s troubled past.

The prison is untouched from when it was closed in 1990. Above the entrance a sign reads “We serve with pride”, an irony not lost on anyone.

After a 45 minute boat ride from Cape Town harbour we were first taken on a bus tour around the island. We visited the lime quarry where Mandela and many others toiled for days on end for no other purpose other than to be worked to the bone.

After the bus tour a former prisoner took us on a tour of the cell block culminating in a visit to the prison cell where Mandela was held for nearly 30 years in the most basic of conditions.

The prisoner’s name escapes me but he had spent seven years in Robben in the 1980s for colluding with the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was lively in conversation but physically frail and the effects of his time in the prison will have had long-term effects.

Afterwards the boat takes you back to the main land via a trip to the inevitable gift shop. Robben Island may be located somewhat away from mainland South Africa but that does not affect the popularity of these often sold out tours. It underlines the enduring legacy of Mandela and the ANC’s struggle for equal rights in South Africa.

Having visited the island, going back to work my finals days in the Vrygrond settlement was sad in many ways, and not just because I was leaving. For all the pain and suffering endured by so many to achieve an end to apartheid in many ways it still exists in this country.

Many people are stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty and have little chance to escape from it when they come from a township like Vrygrond which affords so few opportunities to its people.

The kind of projects set up here by the group I volunteered with have undoubtedly helped. But what does it say about South Africa when the poorest of the poor rely not on their own country but on the goodwill of foreign students and foreign organisations?

I leave South Africa believing that whilst it may have broken free from political apartheid, cultural and social apartheid will carry on for generations to come.

In this respect it has been an eye opening experience, one I will cherish and never forget. With some luck I hope to return one day.


2 thoughts on “A visit to Robben Island

  1. I’m not surprised at Hugh Connell not earning enough to make journalism pay!
    He seems to be one more of the `bleeding heart’ brigade who make do with half the truth and expect to get away with it.
    Pity Hugh didn’t mention that unlike many states in Africa,-(1946-date) where black leaders were unseated by over 2400 coup detat and subsequently assassinated or killed. Nelson Mandela served his 27yrs for sabotage. During this time he was well treated even when taken ill with TB hospitalised and cured and then in 1992 released to lead our new dispensation. One of the first people he wanted to see and thank, was the Transvaal State Prosecutor Percy Yutar,who had prosecuted him at his trial for changing his charge to one of sabotage instead of Treason which carried the death penalty. Mandela now 90yrs and fortunately lasting well.
    The other side of the coin is a land riddled with endemic violent crime where since 1994, 245,000 people have been murdered of all races and over 3000 farmers killed or maimed maimed. (South African Institute for Race Relations)figures just published not mine.
    A land, where only the new ANC politicians grow fat and rich and where as you correctly stated, the bottom of the rung is still impoverished, many unemployed and still waiting for the ANC service delivery which was promised in 1994. An organistion, whose leader of its Youth League Julius Malema still espouses old fashioned communism and the Freedom Charter, which didnt stop him spending R400,000 or (35,471.00 British Pounds) on a party, celebrating with champagne at 100 British pounds a bottle. He owns several luxury houses and due to ANC connections tender options for his companies in multi million rand enterprises.
    Since I was born in North London in 1931 and still fortunately retain my London sense of humour, I’ll end this with the phrase-
    Pardon while I larf!
    Yours in the pensioner’s struggle,

  2. Pingback: Two stories that highlight South Africa’s continuing divide « Hugh O'Connell's Blog

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