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A Trip to Robben Island

On this, the day that Mandela is laid to rest, I feel compelled to share the experience I was lucky enough to have on Robben Island, just weeks before his passing.

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Cape Town, from Robben Island

I can’t say I was looking forward to visiting Robben Island. Compared to the sunny beaches and lively bars of Cape Town, where all journeys to the island begin, a visit to Mandela’s cell seemed bound to promise only sadness and impotent frustration at the horrors of history. Yet, of course, I had to visit; I wanted to see for myself the place where Mandela spent the majority of those infamous 27 years in captivity. Mandela is all over South Africa. Buildings, streets and squares are all named after him. His image is everywhere. Just weeks before his death, everyone was aware of his ill health; posters adorned buildings, praying for his recovery and churches held daily vigils for him.

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Prayers for Mandela, Cape Town

Robben Island is a remarkable place for more than just its history. It sits just 7km from Cape Town, the majestic sight of Table Mountain clearly visible from its shores. So close, but yet so far. On the day I visited the worst storm since the 1950s was brewing in Cape Town. The sky was grey and the sea was rough as I took a boat from the V&A waterfront, which made its way slowly across the harbour. I eventually arrived at a concrete fortress, where the rain started to pour. Tourists were herded into buses and a drive around the ‘sights’ of the island commenced. First we saw the limestone quarry, where Mandela and others were forced to toil with primitive tools. A small cave to the left had served as both a toilet and location for secretive political meetings.

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The limestone quarry

We then saw the homes of the prison guards and the hospital which remains from the island’s time as a leper colony in the nineteenth century. We drove around the prison buildings, and saw the cells and isolation houses, all decked with barbed wire. The tour was surprisingly ramshackle; the buses were ancient and the guide seemed to have no ‘script’. Her commentary was an angry stream of consciousness, as she described enthusiastically how Mandela and his contemporaries were made to suffer. This surprised me; I had expected a place like Robben Island to have an organised tourist operation, but somehow this lively sermon was far more evocative. When she finished each harrowing anecdote about prison life, she tested us all, demanding that we repeat back to her the names and dates she had told us about. It was clearly important to her that we never forget these horrible facts.

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A prison cell

All of the British people were then asked to raise their hands, and when we did we were thanked for the help our country had given South Africa during its dark days. This continued, with the French, the Germans, the Americans all thanked for their role in ending apartheid. I am too young to remember Mandela’s captivity and release; I have only ever known him to be free. The days of his incarceration seemed to me like something that had taken place a very long time ago. But when I experienced the raw passion of the tour guide, I realised that for many people apartheid is well within living, painful memory. This woman spoke in such a way that you could have believed Mandela was there on the island only the previous day.

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Robben Island Museum

We were then taken to the main prison building, where we were introduced to a new tour guide. Sparks, like all prison guides, is an ex-political prisoner who was sent to the island at the age of 17. He spent 7 years on Robben Island at the same time as Mandela, who he knew. As our group squeezed into a narrow room that was Sparks’ former cell, he explained that 60 men had been forced to share this space. They were given only a rough blanket and made to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The windows, now glazed to protect tourists from the harsh, Atlantic weather, had no glass when the room was a cell. The men had got soaked when it rained, and froze away the winter nights. The black prisoners were given far less food than other cellmates and while white and Asian prisoners were given trousers and shoes, the blacks were given only shorts and forced to live barefoot. Prisoners were treated with brutality, put into solitary confinement for the smallest infractions. Just one letter was allowed every six months. We passed through a courtyard, where in a far corner Mandela once buried the manuscript of his Long Walk to Freedom. The guards discovered this, and destroyed it. Luckily he had made a copy, which survived. We moved on to Mandela’s tiny cell, which everyone filed past in silence.

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Sparks

What I found remarkable about Sparks was his pride; he seemed proud to have been held here, and passionate about sharing the horrors he experienced. It is remarkable that, after such a traumatic period, a man like Sparks would want to return to his former prison, to show others around and relive the pain. But that is what Sparks and his fellow guides do, every day. At the end of the tour, Sparks gathered us around and spoke passionately about forgiveness. He told us that ex-prisoners like himself want Robben Island to be an example of reconciliation and forgiveness. He explained that, like Mandela, many former inmates were now friends with their old prison guards. They feel no need for revenge, only forgiveness, understanding and an effort to make sure that history never repeats itself. I wasn’t the only one in the group that was near to tears; his speech was moving in a way that it is difficult to explain.

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Mandela’s cell

The rain had become torrential by the time we walked out of the prison and headed back to the boat. The sea was even rougher on the return journey, the storm drawing closer, and there was a palpable feeling of silence as everyone sat and digested their experience on the island. It is difficult to reconcile the tales of horror with the legacy of forgiveness. But as I sat on that rocking boat, I saw a rainbow across Cape Town harbour and it suddenly hit me that Robben Island is not the sad, depressing place that I had imagined. It is a place of forgiveness, and a beacon of hope. I felt inspired and uplifted in a way I had not expected. The stories of Sparks and Mandela had made a big impression on me, as I am sure they do to all of those who are lucky enough to visit the island.

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Prayers for Madiba, Cape Town

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