The Africa Journals
The Long Walk to Freedom*
Dis die Eiland! Hier gaan julle vrek!’ (This is the Island! Here you will die!)
Afrikaaner guards to Nelson Mandela when he arrived on Robben Island in 1964
Robben Island is to Cape Town as Alcatraz is to San Francisco. Both are places where dangerous men were imprisoned, both vantage points from which their respective spectacular cities could have been seen if those men could see through thick walls, but always a reminder of their lost freedom.
|Robben Island, 22 acres, with Cape Town in the background.|
Wind-swept year round, guarded by dangerous seas and—in the case of Robben Island—great white sharks, neither is a place a man would choose to live.
Kgotso had lived on Robben Island for a number of years, though not of his own volition. So, when he was asked to return to the prison voluntarily, he didn’t need time to think it over. It was a resounding “NO!” That was his answer the second and third and fourth times also.
|The boat take will take us to Robben Island. There is an eclectic assortment of boats that operate as ferries for this trip.|
Situated 5.5 miles from Cape Town in Table Bay, across the always turbulent water near the tip of Africa and its infamous storms, the one-story concrete prison was unheated and un-air conditioned. The guards were mostly poorly-educated Afrikaaners, raised to regard the Indian and Coloured prisoners as beneath them, and the blacks as not even human.
|The Tablecloth covers Table Mountain.|
|Cape Town from the sea.|
|Invented by a South African, these peculiarly-shaped structures form a hardy breakwater as they lock together more tightly the more they are pounded by the ocean.|
|They also make a nice sleeping platform for a tired seal.|
|And for cormorants.|
|The entrance to the South African National Heritage Site, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.|
Eventually, Kgotso changed his answer to “yes,” and became one of the former prisoners who are now employed to tell tourists about Robben Island prison and its famous prisoners, predominantly Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 of his 27 years in prison in Cell 4, B Section for crimes including four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the state. He had previously been convicted of “statutory communism.”
This is how Mandela described the cell where he was held:
It overlooked the courtyard and had a small eye-level window. I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. The width was about six feet and the walls were at least two feet thick. Each cell had a white card posted outside of it with our name and our prison service number. Mine read, “N. Mandela 466/64,” which meant I was the 466th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964. I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and that small cramped place was to be my home for I knew not how long.
|Room formerly used to assemble prisoners. Tourists look at the thin straw sleeping mat issued to prisoners.|
|Kgotso, a former prisoner now employed as a tour guide, talks about the prison.|
|The wooden doors were closed at night.|
|He slept on a thin straw mat. Cots were not allowed until many years later.|
|Looking out. Prisoners were allowed one no-contact visit and one piece of mail twice a year.|
While in prison, Mandela became a leader of men. He successfully lobbied the prison administration to issue long pants, such as the Indian and Coloured prisoners wore, to black prisoners rather than shorts. He won them the right to study and read, and eventually, in 1977, the abolishment of manual labor in the island’s limestone quarry as well as in the prison courtyard where they were forced to sit and chip rocks for many hours each day.
|Prisoners were finally given cots in 1973.|
Breakfast was mealie pap porridge (like grits or polenta) made from ground corn. Baked-until-black mealie mixes with water was “coffee.” Lunch was boiled mealies. Dinner? More mealie pap, occasionally with a piece of carrot or cabbage or beetroot. Every other day, the mealie pap contained a piece of gristley meat.
Quite often, the prisoners did not receive their full quantity of food as the kitchen was rife with graft and smuggling.
Blacks received one teaspoon of sugar daily, Indians and Coloureds, two teaspoons of sugar as well as a quarter loaf of bread with a slab of margarine. Mandela worked on that inequality and soon all prisoners were allotted one and a half teaspoons of sugar and the blacks were given bread.
South African Apartheid authorities offered Mandela release from prison several times if he renounced violence He refused, saying, “Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts."
|Guard tower with Muslim shrine.|
Visitors to the island are bused around the area and various sites pointed out. Their tours concludes at the prison. From there they must walk to the pier, a trek that symbolizes Mandela’s long walk to freedom.
|The quarry where Mandela's eyesight was permanently damaged by the glare of the sun off the white limestone. Also visible is the Isivivane,|
|In this cave at the quarry, prisoners could briefly escape the sun. It also was used as a place to eat their lunch and as a toilet. Prisoners also buried books here and the literate slowly taught the illiterate.|
|The island once had a hospital for lepers. This is their graveyard.|
|Boarding a boat for the trip back to Cape Town was dicey as the seas had become much rougher and the loading ramp bounced up and down.|
|Not until we were back in the somewhat protected waters near the Cape Town harbor did I dare remove my camera from its waterproof bag. The seas were exceptionally rough with spray cascading over the third deck.|
|The clock tower in the V&A harbor where we were to meet. Brian and others of our group returned on a later boat. I went back to the ferry terminal nearby and when I returned, everyone was gone. Once again I had been abandoned by Brian.|
|This map of South Africa shows Cape Town's location on the southwestern coast, as designated by the red arrow.|
|This map of Cape Town (red arrow) shows Robben Island off its coast (blue arrow). At the tip of the peninsula (south) is the Cape of Good Hope.|
* Nelson Mandela's autobiography is titled The Long Walk to Freedom.