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Robben Island

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Robben Island – A Glimpse into Apartheid

Entrance to  Robben Island

Entrance to Robben Island

If you are planning a trip to Cape Town, South Africa for either business or pleasure, a tour of Robben Island is a must see. Robben Island gained notoriety as the brutal prison that housed political prisoners who were Freedom Fighters seeking an anti-Apartheid government throughout South Africa. It ceased being a prison in 1996 and earned spots as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as a South African National Heritage Site. Robben Island’s most-famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was held there for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.

I visited Robben Island on my first trip to South Africa. Make no mistake. This is not a trip to Disneyland. At times, the tour was emotionally draining. But what helps make this tour so authentic are the guides, all of whom are former political prisoner from the Apartheid era. Their stories are absolutely heart-wrenching. Our guide, like former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, was held at Robben Island for 10 years.

The tour of Robben Island took us throughout the prison as well as onto the grounds. I believe it was Winston Churchill who first was credited with saying “History is written by the Victors.” Labeled as “terrorists” by the oppressive South African government, the men were not allowed to have any degree of self-worth. By definition, prison is not supposed to be a vacation paradise.  However, as I progressed through the tour, seeing everything from the cells to the shower room, I can describe the conditions in one word, medieval.

Robben Island

Limestone Quarry at Robben Island

One of the more moving stories shared by our guide was his description of how he and his fellow prisoners would have to pound, by hand huge limestone boulders until they became dust. After pulverizing the boulders in one section of the prison, the guards would move the prisoners to another area where they’d resume this laborious task. Mandela was quoted as saying his eyesight was permanently damaged as a result of the reflection from the stark-white limestone boulders and the bright South Africa sun.

Setting aside the physical aspect of hard labor, can you image how mindless this activity would be day after long day? I just broke down crying as the guard described his experience with this form of punishment . In fact, I’m tearing up now recalling that day. I just don’t understand how humans can be so cruel to other humans. But then, that is why it’s inconceivable and why it should be a top priority on your “must-do while in Cape Town” list.  Never allow this to happen again!

At the end of the tour, we were given some free time to wander around the island or stop in at the gift shop. I took the opportunity to have a one-on-one talk with our guide. I asked him how he was able to get through each day without being angry, bitter and even violent. How was he able to come here every day to work in a place with such harsh memories? I told him that I was mad just seeing this place of brutality. He calmly said, “We’ve had some counseling. But in the end, you have to forgive.” Okay that did it. More waterworks.

One fun highlight of the tour was sighting the African Penguin walking around the grounds in their natural habitat. Robben Island is the third-largest colony for this species, which may sometimes be referred to as the Jack-ass Penguin due to its donkey-like bray.

South African Penguin Sitting on its Egg

South African Penguin Sitting on its Egg

Tours leave four times a day from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront via ferry and take about 30 minutes.  This three-and-a-half-hour tour is time well-spent.



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