Living History: Overnight at Robben Island

Photo by Lauren Berlak for World Learning.

By Sean Jones

If any place in the world has ghosts, Robben Island does. The five square mile island, notorious for the shipwrecks ringing its rocky coast, has served as a Dutch colonial prison, a leper colony, a World War II fort, and — most infamously — a home to many of the apartheid regime’s political prisoners. As part of their Experiment program in South Africa, participants in The Fellowship Initiative (TFI) are spending two nights here, coming face to face with the island’s tragic but ultimately inspiring history.

Their first stop on Robben Island, after a swell-filled, stomach-turning ferry ride, is the notorious apartheid-era jail. A former inmate walks the Experimenters through a day in the life of a resident of the “F Block” communal cell: all Robben Island prisoners had it bad, but black Africans in F Block had it the worst. Exhibits demonstrated how mixed-race (“colored”) prisoners had better meal allotments than blacks, and were permitted to wear shoes while black prisoners could only wear tattered sandals. Experimenters have the chance to run their hands over the meager felt bedding that prisoners slept upon, and learn how inmates were referred to only by number — enduring beatings if they were ever heard using their names. At the close of the tour, the guide connects his personal experience of Robben Island and South African racism to the modern day USA, encouraging students to take action against the forces of racial exclusion in America’s contemporary political landscape.

Photo by Sean Jones for World Learning.

During a tour of the island beyond the prison, students have a fortuitous encounter with living history — they meet Christo Brand, Nelson Mandela’s former jailer, who later became his close friend. Brand, an Afrikaner who now runs a bookstore and coffee shop on the island, speaks at length with Experimenters about his experience as a Robben Island prison guard. He describes how he ended up working at the prison (avoiding more violent military service), and how he was won over by prisoners like Mandela: “I knew what we were doing was wrong,” he said, and “I respected these [prisoners] because they respected me.” Students do not shy from challenging Brand’s choice to be a prison warden during apartheid, however seemingly forced it was, and they have a chance over the rest of the day to consider the difficult ethical quandaries that Brand and other sympathetic Afrikaners faced during the era.

The deeply inhumane conditions of apartheid-era Robben Island throw the achievements of its prisoners into stark relief. Using the power of their resolve, kindness, and ideas, prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe pushed the fight for freedom significantly forward, all from their cramped cells. They taught each other English in secret during breaks from hard labor, wrote treatises under cover of night, allied with sympathetic guards even in the face of regular brutality, and slowly fought for incremental improvements to prison life — the addition of libraries, running water, and a few more felted sheets per prisoner. Step by step, the prisoners summoned a collective force of will that helped break the back of the entire apartheid regime.

Photo by Lauren Berlak for World Learning.

For many TFI students, Robben Island is bringing South Africa’s history with apartheid into focus for the first time. Many are overwhelmed with anger at the all-too-recent, brutally racist past of the country, and humbled by the slow but steady victories achieved by apartheid prisoners. In the evenings, when students come together to camp in a former group cell and discuss what they learned, they grapple with the meaning of freedom, and the choices of leaders like Mandela in the wake of apartheid’s fall. Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission let too many criminals off easy? Has South Africa fully moved beyond its racist past? Is it even possible to bring about true restorative justice after so much was taken away from blacks during apartheid?

Photo by Lauren Berlak for World Learning.

Many TFI students connect the difficult lingering issues of apartheid to those of America’s civil rights movement — one that continues today through groups such as #BlackLivesMatter. Students are also adopting new heroes, like Sobukwe, who they have never heard of before. Most importantly, through their once-in-lifetime overnight stay at Robben Island, they are gaining a personal experience of what apartheid was, and how it was overcome — an understanding that will inform the rest of their Experiment journey in the country, as well as their academic and professional careers to come.

Sean Jones is director of foundation relations and philanthropic partnerships at World Learning.