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.