Thursday, 10 July 2014

Robben Island: A pilgrimage for Nelson Mandela

When you think of South Africa, you think of Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president, someone who fought against apartheid and was jailed for his belief that blacks and whites should be equal in his country. And then you think of Cape Town and you think of Robben Island, the island where Mandela and so many other political prisoners were held. Having just finished reading 'Long Walk to Freedom' on my 18 hour bus journey from Windhoek, I was eager to visit this place that Mandela started his autobiography and the place where he spent most of his adult life.

Having read a lot about visiting Robben Island, not all good, I was not expecting much. Having read about being rushed around the island and not having time to explore, I still wanted to visit this place shrouded in so much history. I had visited the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at enquired about availability. The horror stories about week long waits for tickets were false and I was there during the summer in February and could have left that afternoon if I wanted. Granted, if you were a larger group then you may have to wait a day or 2 (and in Cape Town, that is no hard thing, read about it here) but as I was looking for 2 tickets, it was very straightforward. I paid R500 for the 2 tickets (approx USD50) for an 11am sailing. Ferries run at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily and it's recommended you are at the Gateway 30mins prior to departure. Realistically there are 2 boats that go across at the time and you could be on either. TIP: Try to get there earlier and get the first boat as then you can look around a bit before going to the prison for your tour.

As a result of  going through some fog en route. 
Robben Island is about 9km off the coast of Cape Town and was used as a metal health asylum and as a leper colony in previous times. It is most well known for having been the site of internment of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid regime and served as a maximum security prison until 1991. The boat trip over was all part of the experience. Seeing the seals that gave Robben Island it's name swimming next to the boat and the island being shrouded in a low lying fog giving an eerie, and damp, trip into the harbour.
Our guide giving the ANC salute

The tours are run by former inmates and the inmate running our tour was arrested as part of the Soweto uprising and was housed in the D block. He talked of his experience in the prison and of the strong solidarity among the political prisoners, something that Mandela touches on in "The Long Walk to Freedom". Touring the prison grounds, seeing censored letters and the famous garden where the first draft of Mandela's autobiography was hidden and getting a chance to peek into that famous cell, adorned with a wreath and a memorial candle, all added to the poignancy of the day. Yes, you are herded around in a big group, yes there is not much time to explore on your own and yes, it can be irritating if you are used to slow exploring but these reasons are not enough to warrant you passing up this opportunity. Having read the book, and seen the mild undercurrent of racism that still exists in South Africa, and indeed all across the globe, it gives you a strong feeling of what these people were fighting for. They were fighting to be considered as equals, to be given the basic human rights that the white people were given. Simple things like interracial relationships were illegal under apartheid, black people were only allowed live in certain areas and in the case of District Six, were force ably removed if the area was reallocated to a different racial group. Education, welfare, even park benches were segregated. Mandela talks about how this segregation even continued within the prison walls with differing uniforms and food for White, Blacks and Coloureds.
Mandela's cell

The garden where the first draft of
'Long Walk to Freedom' was hidden.
Cell block D


















Following the tour of the prison we boarded buses to travel around the small island seeing the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow inmates conducted their physical labour and held meetings and taught fellow inmates, stopping off to admire Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain towering over the city. A sight that was so near but yet so far for the inmates. A view that tempted more than one inmate to attempt to swim to the mainland. Once again the guide on our bus was fantastic giving insights and facts about apartheid, even going so far as to explain to the whole bus that if Puncque and I had been together during apartheid, we would have been breaking the law!
Under apartheid laws this would have been illegal

















Rows of letters between the
 Irish government
and the Irish Anti Apartheid movement
Coming back to the mainland we took some time to walk around the museum at the Gateway. For me, there was a huge surge of pride as we wandered around an exhibition on the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. To feel that my little country on the edge of Europe had a role to play in the anti apartheid movement. From the brave 10 women and one man who picketed Dunnes Stores for nearly 3 years when they refused to handle South African goods, to Nelson Mandela being given the freedom of Dublin city and him choosing Ireland as his first European country to visit after his release.




Mandela receiving the freedom of Dublin in 1990
At the end of the day, when you attend a major tourist attraction be it Robben Island, Ankor Wat, the Louvre or Maccu Picchu you will battle with crowds, you will have the things you are allowed to do dictated by the people who run that attraction. Is this a reason not to visit it? Not at all. If you miss out on these places you will be missing out on a piece of history, an amazing sight or an experience of a life time.


NOTE: Today I went to the world premiere of Blood Fruit, a documentary about the Dunnes Stores strikers and their role in the Irish anti apartheid movement. It was an amazing story that finished with a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu congratulating all involved in the making of the documentary.

QUOTE FOR THE DAY: "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Miriam Beard

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