Robben Island

On my third trip to Africa in three years, I decided to come a few days early so I could enjoy a long weekend in Cape Town before the grueling speaking tour I’m helping the U.S. State Department with began. After getting a few recommendations from friends on what to do and where to go, I knew the most important place for me to visit would be Robben Island. For those of you unfamiliar with this world heritage site, it’s the prison island where the Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Nelson Mandela was kept as a political prisoner for 18 of his 27 years in captivity.

Oddly, and to my dismay, I can tell you that I didn’t have any profound revelation in visiting Mandela’s cell — which in and of itself has bothered me since the moment I left South Africa.

I didn’t have a, “come to Jesus” moment.

It didn’t spark some creative, motivating, or inspiring thoughts.

Sadly, I just felt like another tourist on a trip.

I have no idea why a person like myself who is immensely fascinated with the history of human socio-political events — couldn’t “feel” what I thought would overcome me on such a historic visit. Maybe it’s the commercialization of it all that got to me this time. The Facebooking, the texting, the iPhones buzzing at the most inopportune times during the tour — whatever it was, it knocked the emotion right out of me.

I was just another tourist.

I bought my ticket at the hotel tourism desk; walked the half mile from our building to where the ferry’s would carry us over to Robben Island; visited the Nelson Mandela Museum that talked about apartheid and the political history of South Africa; and began my tour like everyone else.

A view of Cape Town as our ferry pulled away from the harbor.

There was one thing though that happened which is what prompted me to pull open my laptop and start writing down my thoughts. Somewhere buried in the back of my mind during my tour of the island I began to simply ask myself the “why?” questions.

To a kid raised in the white picket fenced, multi-racial, upper middle class, suburbs of Washington D.C. — it’s so hard for me to empathize with the struggles of what people like Mandela faced for their freedoms, in their OWN country! And I think I’m a minority in my generation who consciously try to imagine themselves in such a position, if only to better understand the plight of those before us as a student of history.

I think the most important thing I learned that day was the fact that the story of Robben Island isn’t just about Nelson Mandela, it’s a 400 year history of captivity and torture by many cultures, creeds, and religions. To paint a picture of white South Africans in the old government as the architects of political prisonery (which they were rightfully the face of for nearly 40 years in apartheid South Africa), would be an incomplete picture at best. The Dutch began using the island in the late 1600's for political prisoners. It swapped hands with the Portugese, British, and then South Africans over the course of nearly four centuries. The island also held the mentally insane, people with leprosy, criminals, and of course, political prisoners. In a weird way, the more I learned about the island made famous by the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the less it became about him, and the more it became about us. All of us — who held, and continue to hold one another hostage because we simply can’t get along. It’s easier for us to just torture one another for centuries on end.

Robert Sobukwe’s image and background before entering the prison camp.

Take, for example, the story of Robert Sobukwe. Famous in South Africa (and only South Africa) he led the 1960 protest march against the “Pass Laws” that required black people to carry a special ID that dictated where they could or could not go in their own country. If you were caught in the wrong part of town without a visiting permit, or without your ID card — you faced imprisonment by the white South African government. Sobukwe was arrested and imprisoned for three years for inciting protests that popped up all over South Africa. Right before his release from prison, so he wouldn’t incite any more protests, the South African Parliament passed the “Sobukwe Law”, which applied only to him. The minute he was released from prison he was interned at Robben Island in solitary confinement. This meant, he was never charged with anything, but at the same time, he wasn’t free to leave the island. He was kept in complete isolation from all the other prisoners, but managed to still earn a degree in Economics from The University of London, until his release to “home arrest”. He died of lung cancer in 1978, nine years after leaving the island, never being aloud to interact with the public again.

Untouched since Sobukwe was released in 1969. This is where he remained in solitary confinement held without charge for years.

The single room hut that Robert Sobukwe was imprisoned in on Robben Island was never lived in again by any other prisoner after his departure. It remains untouched since the day he left in 1969.

We weren’t allowed to go inside the room where Robert was kept, but I couldn’t imagine any greater torture in life than solitary confinement without cause or trial for decades on end. We learned about Robert Sobukwe before we entered the prison camp. The story of Robben Island shifted in my mind from the struggles of one man (Mandela), to thousands of men who’s stories we’ll never know.


Ironically, I visited Robben Island on June 14th, 2015 — this would have been Mandela’s second night on the island 51 years to the day. For those of you who have never been to South Africa, this time of year is winter, where the temperature drops to nearly 40 degrees fahrenheit (4 degrees celsius) at night and doesn’t climb above 50 on some sunny days. I checked the weather on my iPhone before departing the sweltering heat in Washington D.C. this time of year, so I was wearing light boots, thick jeans, a polo Under Armor shirt, and a medium North Face blue jacket — and I was cold.

Cell block 4. The fourth door on the right was Mandela’s cell for 18 years.

The wind was blowing through the hallways of the jail and the open windows in every cell had a light, chilly drizzle coming through them at three in the afternoon. When we visited Mandela’s prison block and peered into his five foot by five foot cell, I could see a straw matt on the floor with a few blankets; a bucket to use as a toilet; and a little green table with a tin plate and mug to eat his rations from. How could someone, who wasn’t even a criminal, accept a life like this for nearly twenty years? I was simply standing there and I felt annoyed by the damp and cold rooms. To be forced here because my beliefs differed with my governments? To be told I’d die here? I can’t even imagine the mental fortitude it would take not to break down, let alone what Mandela did after his release — forgive his jailers.

Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island.

The tour came to an end with our guide, a former political prisoner himself, walking us out on the path that Mandela and others took to freedom when he were released in 1982.

The walk from the prison gates to the dock that Mandela and others took when they were freed.

The history and diversity of the captors who ran the island over four centuries didn’t escape us though as we walked back to our boats. We passed a mausoleum built by Muslims of the 20th century to honor Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura, who was imprisoned and died on Robben Island in the 1750's.

Mausoleum built in honor of the Prince of Madura who died on the island in the 1750's.

A few hundred yards further and a World War II cannon is situated in front of the camp gates, one of many, the British placed on the island to protect the southern African coast during the war. Then, finally, onto the docks where Cape Town lay about 15 km in the distance.

British WW2 cannon protecting the harbor.

We got on our ferry, counted to make sure all the tourists were on board as we were the last ship of the day, and started heading back to the mainland. I wish I could say that I was in a state of deep thought and reflection, but all I could think about was how windy and cold it was getting with the sun starting to dip behind the clouds. The rain was still coming down in a light drizzle and no one was looking forward to the hour long choppy waters back to mainland.

Cape Town in the distance on our return ferry back to the mainland.

Alas, I got on the ferry, took a seat by a window so I could snap a few more pictures of Cape Town at sunset — and sadly, I began thinking about what I was going to have for dinner. I don’t have cell service in Africa, as I live in the U.S., but most of the other tourists pulled out their phones and started Facebooking, texting, taking selfies — without any semblance of deep thought or reflection on what we had just witnessed. No one (my self included) seemed to be in a reflective state of our existence; our shared history as a species and what we did to each other — what we continue to do to each. Maybe I’m wrong and there are two hundred other tourists feverishly writing down thoughts that I hope they remember for at least some prolonged portion of their lives, but if not — I’ve made it a personal goal of mine to look back on this entry from time to time and remind myself that my life was made easy because of men and women like Mandela, Sobukwe, and others who fought, suffered, and died, in worlds as foreign as outer space to most of us — yet integral to our advancement as a species.

I encourage everyone to visit Robben Island, and places like this if for no other reason than to pay homage to those before us who fought a battle that our generation lacks the existential depth or courage to fight. I believe we, both individually and collectively as a generation have the capacity to do great things, but only if we are in constant reflection not just of our higher calling — as is the norm to say — but also in reflection of our shared history. Remember, Robben Island was a prison for 400 years before one man, simply chose to forgive his captors after 27 years in confinement, that made this place a global namesake. It isn’t just Mandela’s story, but our collectively story as a people.

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