Robben Island, in the place of pain and suffering



I’M fortunate that my arrival on Robben Island wasn’t the same as that of retired chief justice Dikgang Moseneke when he first went there as a 15-year-old political prisoner in 1963.

In his memoir My Own Liberator, Moseneke paints a rather frightening and gloomy picture of his arrival there in the hull of a roaring diesel-powered ship known as the Dias.

“The ride to the island was very rough and unstable. The boat leapt up and crashed hard onto the waves and the swell moved the vessel violently from side to side. My stomach rose high into my chest and many of my comrades threw up into brown paper packets,” writes Moseneke who was sentenced to 10 years on the dreaded island after he was convicted of plotting to overthrow the apartheid regime.

“I feared the boat would sink. We would certainly drown because we were chained. The thought that I would die manacled got my heart throbbing even harder. I hated the thought of dying fettered…The turbulence lasted only 30 minutes or so and then everything turned placid. We could hear the engine running and finally the revving slowed. The Dias was docking at Robben Island.”

I was apprehensive about visiting Robben Island. The stories I had read and heard filled me with much anger. I wondered what walking in the corridors of this infamous dumping ground of some of the country’s best minds and freedom fighters would do to my soul.

But there was no way I was not going to go to Robben Island. At least now it is a museum and the brutes that once terrorised people here are no more. When we were growing up, this name was mentioned only in hushed tones. It was a frightening name by all accounts. We knew the names of some of the people imprisoned there, but what they or the place looked like, we could only imagine.

At least today it stands as a monument of the triumph of the human spirit against the brutality and cruelty of the apartheid jailers that tormented the likes of Moseneke, Robert Sobukwe, Johnson Mlambo, Jafta Masemola, Raymond Mhlaba, Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners.

Visitors to the island get there from the mainland on the V&A Waterfront in the same way that Moseneke and other prisoners were transported there to begin serving their sentences. Only, the boat ride is free of the beatings, lashings and swearing that political prisoners endured before the island was turned into a museum after the demise of apartheid in 1994.

The tour of the island takes about three and half hours including the ferry trip to and from the Island.

Docking on the island I was struck, even though the prison has long ceased to operate, by the stark and gloom around the place. It appeared the rulers of the time chose this spot perfectly to build their prison to ensure maximum isolation and to prevent possible escapes.

It is a necessary but heavy tour to take conducted by guides who are themselves former political prisoners who relive the horror they were put through here on the island. While the main attraction is the cells where political prisoners like Mandela were imprisoned, the tour route also includes the graveyard of people who died from leprosy, the lime quarry where the likes of Moseneke endured long spells of hard labour.

“The working place was a quarry pit. It was located about four kilometres from the prison,” writes Moseneke in his memoir.

“Every working day we had to walk escorted between the prison and the quarry. The rows of four formed a snaking column of human beings moving in the same direction…The work was treacherous and not for the faint-hearted. Massive slices of blue slate had to be cut out of the pit. Prisoners were required to drill a line of holes into the edge of the fixed rock and to plug the drilled holes with tempered steel chisels.”

The tour also includes a brief stop at the lone house where PAC founder and leader Sobukwe was imprisoned, kept there even after the expiry of his sentence by special decree of parliament.

Besides the physical assault and hard labour, prisoners were also subjected to emotional and psychological torture which included the withholding and heavy censorship of letter, abrupt ending of visits and being denied information about what was happening on the mainland.

One of the most interesting stopovers on the tour is the large, communal cells where political prisoners slept on thin mats on the cold floor. The tour culminates with a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell. It is a moving experience that leaves one with nothing but the utmost respect for those who came out of Robben Island alive, unbroken and ready to fight on and lead. As I stood on the deck of the boat pushing through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean towards Cape Town, I wondered just how powerful and emboldened those who were imprisoned there must have felt as they sailed towards freedom. – Mukurukuru Media

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