In the Footsteps of Mandela: a Trip to Robben Island

Dec 10, 2013

Official memorial services for late South African president Nelson Mandela will be held this week, in Soweto, in Pretoria, and in the remote village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape province where he spent his childhood. But Mandela’s legacy will forever be linked to another remote destination: Robben Island, ten miles off the shores of Cape Town, where he served the majority of his 27 years in prison.

The Dias is 100 foot, steel-hulled workhorse of a vessel that once transported prisoners to Robben Island. Viewed from its rolling deck, the port city of Cape Town grew steadily distant as rain clouds enshroud nearby Table Mountain. For so many of the island’s wretched inmates, this was the last view of the mainland, and of freedom.

Today, most passengers on the Dias are tourists and groups of school children -- a generation of South Africans to whom apartheid, or the government-imposed system of segregation, is now an ugly chapter in their history books.

With the exceptions of its years as a 17th century Dutch trading station and a British garrison during World War II, this 1,400-acre island has always been a place of exile and misery. Over the last four centuries, it’s served as a leper colony, an asylum for the mentally ill, and a prison for slaves and criminals. Among the earliest political prisoners here were 19th century Xhosa tribal leaders who refused to accept the authority of a foreign power.

Nelson Mandela, another heroic Xhosa tribesman, would later be imprisoned here for resisting an oppressive government. The 6.5 by 9.5 foot cell where he spent almost twenty years of his life has since become something of a shrine, visited by nearly a thousand people a day.

Former political prisoners conduct the hour-long tours of the island. My guide, 56 year-old Patrick Matanjana, was sentenced to Robben Island in 1967 for terrorism. "When you first arrive in prison, they body search you, they take your clothes, they take your money, they take all your particulars, they give you prison clothes," he tells us. "They also give you a number. That number represents your name. My name in those days in the form of a number, it was 7/67."

Prison officials segregated Matanjana, Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other political prisoners in a special block of cells, fearing that they’d influence other convicts. Nevertheless, as Matanjana described, prisoners found ways to communicate with each other, despite high walls between exercise areas and the watchful eyes of the guards or warders as they were called.

"We used to take a tennis ball, and then you cut it, you put a note inside, you make as if you are playing a tennis, puff the ball over the wall," Matanjana said. "Warders are going to say, these people can’t play tennis, they don’t know that you are doing that deliberately. When those ones get the ball, they just take the ball and take the note out, and throw the ball again. Finished. That’s communication."

Similarly forbidden, yet even more important, was communication with the outside world. Prisoners would write letters on toilet paper, wrap them in plastic, and slip them into the mouths of their wives as they kissed during visits. Sympathetic clergy also helped smuggle out information by concealing convicts’ letters in prayer books.

"When the priest says Amen, he closes the Bible, together with that note, the whole information is gone, and he is not going to be searched because he is a holy man," Matanjana explained. "This is what prisoners used to do, because that letter is so important, that letter, it exposes our conditions here this letter must not disappear because our lives depend on that letter."

Conditions were indeed appalling at Robben Island when Nelson Mandela first arrived here. Prisoners slept on the floors on straw mats, bathed in freezing cold salt water, and lived in constant fear of cruel and capricious warders who were hired based on their reputations for brutality. Mandela and others slowly brought about change by drawing the attention of global relief and human rights organizations like the Red Cross and Amnesty International.

Among Mandela’s most ambitious goals was that all prisoners would receive an education. Former inmate Yasien Mohamed surveyed the milky white lime quarry where prisoners spent their days digging. "You are actually standing now on the campus of a university once upon a time," he said.

During Mandela’s early years on Robben Island, inmates were not allowed to study. Still, those who wanted educations got them. "Those who were doctors, lawyers, teachers and journalists enhanced the education of the less fortunate" according to Mohamed. "If you are doing for example mathematics, you will stand while working next to a mathematician and he will teach you mathematics by making like children making drawings in the sand." Eventually, all prisoners were given the right to study.

In 1982, Nelson Mandela was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, then again two years later to nearby Victor Voerster prison, where he was finally released on February 11, 1990. The following year, the government closed down the prison on Robben Island and in 1997 declared it a national monument. In a speech given on the island during that year, President Mandela referred to Robben Island as “a symbol of the victory of the human spirit over political oppression.”

It is for this reason, and no other, that Robben Island guide and former prisoner Patrick Matanjana returned to this place of painful memories every day. "I’m doing this not because I like it," he said, "not because I had to do it. But I’m doing this as a free man so that even the next generation should be in the position to see that uh how conditions used to be, they should know, they should see how their forefathers, their foreleaders used to be."