Robben Island – Right of Admission Reserved


My eldest son Samuel has a habit of seeing detail no one else sees.  When shown a picture he would often pick out something the background that no one else noticed and wonder about it.  We once enjoyed a day in Windermere in the Lake District in England together.  It was summer 1994, because I can recall a pull out special in The Times Newspaper which talked about how Windows 1995 would soon be launched and “would transform the world.”  There was no time to read a newspaper that day with the mountainous to climb and lakes to jump into.


When it was time to go Sam grabbed an empty drinks bottle from the car boot and filled it with dirty, green lake water because he had enjoyed the running, paddling and picnicking so much, he wanted to take the experience home with him.  I think there is something in all of us that in our happiest moments, wants to take the experience, bottle it, and bring it home and cherish.  Of course, all that Sam ended up with was the detail of some filthy brown tepid water.  Sam would also wonder about things quite literally, so when his mother used to encourage him to play properly by saying “stop it, your dad will hit the roof when he comes home, if he knew you were doing that!”  He would wonder out aloud, “Why would dad want to hit the roof?”

The smallest details are important and can create quite deep and profound emotions.


So here I am, 18 years later on another sunny day by the mountains, an island and the Atlantic Ocean instead of a lake.  I am at the docks in Cape Town, for my “Robben Island experience”, the kind of thing you would want to bottle and take home with you.


These days Robben Island is just another stage, on the global tourist trail.  You travel the island via a 40-minute tug journey.  A large grey building has been built to house the jetty and just like my sons often did, one small detail caught my eye.  A tiny sign on the side of this huge grey wall said, “Right of admission reserved.”  My initial response was quite strong, was that not what all the years of struggle were about creating a new country out of the tribal and colonial past, the stinking corpse that was apartheid, where the right of admission was no longer to be reserved for anyone?

Cape Town docks is a labyrinth of colorful buildings, old warehouses long since acquired by the developers and turned into malls to provide that oh so samie, shopping experience which was as unvarying, as any mall, in any major developed city, anywhere in the world.  In the middle of it, this blunt grey building, dwarfed by the malls, seemed out of place in the midst of the docks, and the sign, “right of admission reserved” seemed equally inappropriate and equally out of place.

How could such a sign as this possibly relate in any way at all, to the years of struggle for the new, South Africa?  Of course, this grey building does sit aptly in this shopping, theme park, as like the Lake District in my home country, it is an essential part of the tourist trail.  And like the Lake District in my home country access is weather permitting, dependent on two creaky old ferries, the new replacement one being broken down the day I visit.

This experience begins, like so many these days like many others, with airport style baggage and body scanners.  Robben Island was once the home of terrorists, the South African government, would only ever admit to having one political prisoner.  All the rest were terrorists.  I can remember one visitor to England, from south Africa in the mid 1980s telling me proudly and loudly that Mandela was a terrorist, Biko a crook and Desmond Tutu had more faces than the parish clock, they should never be free to wreck South Africa.”

Despite three years studying politics and international relations, I am still not clear what a terrorist is?  I think Dipu Moni the Bangladeshi foreign minister said it well last year when I saw her give a speech at the House of Commons during an enquiry into the roots of violent extremism.  When faced with the same events we have different perspectives about people perpetrating acts of violence, she told us, “If we don’t like them, we call them a terrorist, if we do like them we call them a freedom fighter and if we are not sure about them, then we call them a guerilla.”

The right of admission to Robben Island was once the reserve of terrorists but not anymore.  Just who are the terrorists in South Africa today that this place requires an airport style security check?

Is it the Boermag, a white Afrikaans group, who want to turn the clock back and create a Boer republic?  Whose leader, Tom Vorster is in court this week for among other things, a coup plan in which he and his acolytes, included blowing up Parliament, the SABC, the SA Reserve Bank headquarters and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange all on the same day.  There is something deeply symbolic about Robben Island, so blowing up the prison there would be every bit as symbolic as the twin towers were in New York.

There the Boermag links with the Riviona trials that convicted Mandela and others end.  Normally, to reserve the right to go to prison there has to be evidence, or at least an admission of guilt to gain admission.  Legend has it that the court record records show that many of the witnesses at the Riviona trials only spoke Afrikaans and did not understand any of the indigenous languages at all.  Yet, they still gave evidence that they heard Mandela was inciting treason even though they did not understand a word that he was saying.  Rather like the chief witness in the recent Pussy Riot trial, only seeing the crime on you tube after the event.


This of course another distasteful act in the name of “freedom of expression and right to protest” in which the right to trample on the feelings of others is reserved over all other rights.  I suppose they are lucky with the sentences they were handed down and not being sent of to some Siberian Gulag where more meritous stugglers for the right of expression were sent.


The boat trip to the island lasts about an hour and you get a wonderful view of Cape Town.  The journey was long enough for you to realize that “clear blue water” was being created between you and the mainland.  I wondered what the weather was like when the prisoners were taken across.  Did they get the same views of the country they were leaving behind in bright sunshine?  Was theirs the other Cape experience a journey of mist and fog to Robben Island?  Who knows?  The answer was soon apparent, when you arrive at the island docks; huge black and white pictures show the prisoners being “disembarked.”  The prisoners are in Khaki shirts and shorts.  A senior officer barks at them close by.  He has no personal need of his own weapon.  Heavily armed soldiers are standing in the background.

The visit includes a bus tour, led by a humourless tour guide, trying to deliver a script written by John Cleese.  Her perspective is one of near religious adoration of the struggle heroes and offered very little critical perspective beyond her set script.   She tells us that the name Robben is Dutch for “Seal Island.” Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long north-south, and 1.9 km wide.  We are told to note that it was here that Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa and former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, alongside many other political prisoners, spent 27 years imprisoned during the apartheid era. Among those political prisoners was current President Jacob Zuma who was imprisoned there for ten years.  We were warned there would be several quizzes on the way round.  Most of the coach remained unsure as to how to respond to this guide.  African presidents seem to love their extended job titles, and Mandela’s is rrefreshingly modest in comparison to most.  The best I came across recently was “First Secretary and President of the ruling Zanu PF party, the Commander in Chief of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, the Leader of State and Government, his Excellency Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe.”  By the way, it is a criminal offence in Zimbabwe to make fun of the president, so I need not say more as he has done that himself!

We learn that since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used for the isolation of mainly of political prisoners, lepers and paupers. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was probably in the mid-17th century. Amongst its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, and the leader of mutiny of the slave ship Meermin. After a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, during the fifth of the Xhosa Wars, the British colonial government sentenced African leader Makanda Nexele to life imprisonment on the island. He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.

We were bussed to Robert Sobukwe house.  For a long time Robert Sobukwe was South Africa’s only official political prisoner, the others were reserved the rights of admission to Robben Island because they were “terrorists.”  Sobukwe was considered so dangerous that he was kept in complete isolation for many years and not allowed to talk to anyone bar very occasional family visits.  He was known as prisoner number one and after he left, the unit he was kept in as solo prisoner was turned into a guard dog kennel.

Next we travel to the Lime Quarry, here most of the stone used to make the islands road network was cut by prisoners.  Long-term exposure to lime can have a disastrous impact on your health and many prisoners suffered particularly with blindness.  The prisoners worked many years in the quarry.  When I visited, it was bright sunshine, you could hear the water lapping on the beech and bird song in the air.  However, come rain or shine, the prisoners worked in khaki shirts and shorts.  It did not take much to imagine that when the cloud came and the wind got up then the place would soon resemble the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland in winter.   It is here that Mandela returned with the other prisoners in 1995.  They created an informal cairn of stones at the end of the ceremony which has been left to this day.  In the picture, you just see a cave at the back of the quarry.  Here the prisoners would sneak off to hold political meetings away from their captors.  It is in this cave that the first constitution of the new South Africa was drafted.  Here the rights of admission to the new South Africa were first reserved.


From the quarry, we are taken to the beach which gives an opportunity to photograph Cape Town and Table Mountain across the water.  This is the spot the many painters come to try and capture the atmosphere the Table Bay and “bottle it” in acrylics or watercolour.  On a day like this, I think that you can see why.

Lastly, we are taken to the maximum-security prison.  Where the right of admission was reserved for those that apartheid called terrorists and most of the rest of the world called political prisoners.  Here we are introduced to prisoner number 93178, Uvsumzi Mcongo.  Mcongo was the 931 prisoner to arrive on the island, he was imprisoned here in 1978, hence 93178 being his prison number.  On arrival at the island, prisoners were held 50 to a cell.  There were no beds or blankets, just sisal mats to sleep on.


Mcongo tells us that the Group Areas Act still applied in prison which meant you still had to carry your pass book at all times.  If you were found without it, you were put in solitary.  It was not unusual for dogs to be let into the solitary cells or for prisoners to be taken to the quarry at night for a beating as additional guidance.

We were treated to a half an hour lecture on what conditions were like at the prisoner.  Mcongo is more critical of the struggle and is able to depart from his script. Mcongo soon started to call me the journalist because I kept taking notes.  The main meal was a kind of thin porridge with one teaspoon of sugar in.  However, everything including the coffee tasted of salt because it was made from seawater.  The only meat the prisoners had was pork fat as the warders took the rest of the meat.

Education was one of the main privileges open to prisoners.  People were grouped according to education level.  Many enrolled on courses with UNISA.  The literate prisoners would start by teaching the illiterate prisoners how to read and write so that they could read political books and move onto higher studies.  Mandela was reputed to have a secret library buried within the prison grounds, which has still to be located and recovered.   Communication with the outside world proved difficult.  Occasionally the press was allowed in to see at first hand conditions in the prison.  The prisoners developed codes in Arabic through which they passed messages to the outside world.  Few of the Afrikaans speaking guards if any knew Arabic as a language.

Finally, we are taken past Mandela’s simple cell.


It overlooks an inner courtyard.  As you can see it is quite spartan.

I am amazed to think that such a moral and intellectual giant emerged from such a simple room.

Perhaps all politicians should be reserved the right of a spell in a cell on Robben Island before admission to high office.

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