The views of Table Mountain, flanked on the west by Lion’s Head and on the east by Devil’s Peak, are riveting. But for the political prisoners held there between 1961 and 1994, this spectacular vista from Robben Island must have been a torment. Our tour of the island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned from 1964 to 1982, was one which scoured the inside of my mind.
Even inside the maximum security prison’s institutional grey walls and high windows barred into narrow panes, an iron policy of divide and rule was in place. Prisoners were classified on a sliding scale from A to D, on the basis of their crime, their race and their behaviour. Varying privileges were accorded to the different categories, in terms of food rations and the number of letters and visitors permitted, in a discriminatory system designed specifically to try to break the spirits and comradeship of the inmates, planting the spiky seeds of internal dissent. There were also differences in accommodation: we were shown around a bleak communal dormitory (from 1979, the men slept in metal bunks; prior to that, they were given only felt mats on the cold concrete floor) and also the cells for those prisoners, like Nelson Mandela, who were held in solitary confinement. Mandela – or prisoner 466/64 as he was known to the prison guards, as prisoners were officially stripped of their names – was held in a Spartan narrow cell in Section B for 18 of his 27 years in captivity.
The visit confronts you with the stark realities of Robben Island’s history. The harsh conditions of the prison itself. The slave labour in the nearby limestone quarries, where prisoners were compelled to work in all weathers, with inadequate tools or clothes and non-existent sanitary facilities. The piercing sunlight reflecting unremittingly off the white stone rock, permanently damaging many prisoners’ eyes. The fact that this place existed because of a political regime of institutionalised racism which was in place until as recently as 1994. If it hadn’t been for the illuminating spirit of our guide Ntando Mbatha, the tour could have been unremittingly grim. Ntando had a round, kind face which seemed to glow with a quiet inner serenity, despite the tough conditions of his life, both past and present. He quietly told us the story of the island, of Nelson Mandela, and, eventually, his own story. In doing so, he relit the candle of my positive belief in the human spirit, which had been wavering in a chill breeze of horror since landing on the island.
After joining the first Congress of South African Students on its formation in 1979, Ntando went to Mozambique and Angola in 1981 for military training. He then went back to Soweto, where he operated in the ANC until 1984, when he was arrested and detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. He was held for 6 months before his trial in Johannesburg, during which time he was severely tortured. Ntando describes this period as ‘feeling like 100 years’. He was charged with leaving and entering South Africa illegally, and with being a member of the ANC. These hardly sound like heinous crimes, but found guilty, he was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment on Robben Island. Released in 1991, he returned to his prison as a tour guide in 2005. While he acknowledges it is a hard role to play, Ntando is passionate about telling visitors the truth of his experience and says he is blessed to have served under leaders like Nelson Mandela, who taught the need for reconciliation with their former persecutors for the benefit of all their children and the future of South African society.
There were other nuggets of brightness too in this flat grey prison complex fringed with barbed-wire. The ‘world’s smallest university’, for instance, is a heartswelling testament to the unquenchable nature of the human spirit and its quest for development, even in the most unpropitious circumstances. In a cave in the limestone quarry, so filthy that the guards wouldn’t enter it, the educated prisoners taught the uneducated men to read and write. Above all, Ntando’s compassion and quiet strength were uplifting and illuminating, making for a visit that was challenging and oppressive in some ways, but also extremely moving and memorable. My visit to Robben Island will stay with me for a long time.
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