Postcard From Cape Town No.4: Robben Island

This week, Meggy went to Robben Island, home to Nelson Mandela for most of his 27 years in captivity during the struggle for freedom and the end of apartheid

Just an hour’s ferry ride away from the Cape Town’s Waterfront, you still feel like you’ve been transported to another era. The island was quiet and eerie, and the tour felt more like a tribute than a tourist offering. Hundreds of black geese (I think they were geese) were lined up by the docks, standing, and watching the boats come it.

It felt like a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

From the entrance, we took large buses that toured us around the island.

The view of Table Mountain from Robben Island was said to have inspired political prisoners to carry on, never lose hope, and never stop fighting for the democracy South Africa needed. Many members of the ANC (African National Congress) were thrown in here for high treason. Nelson Mandela was also tried and convicted for high treason; he was supposed to serve just a five year sentence, but ended up spending 27 years here.

This is Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell. Inside are the cot, plate, and cup that all prisoners would get.

They didn’t have toilets for the first 10 years of the prison’s existence. They would have to do all their business inside that orange garbage can, and had a few minutes each morning to empty and clean it, before having to return to their cells.

They had to get up at six in the morning, fold their blankets a certain way, and be seated upright. Otherwise, the prison guards would take them out for punishment.

This part of the tour was given by an ex-political prisoner. He was from the last batch of inmates to be released in the 1990s. Some wardens also worked in the island. When asked, wasn’t it painful for him to be working here, he just answered, he needed to eat.

This is the limestone quarry that the prisoners worked in. Limestone wasn’t needed, but they were made to do hard labour anyway. When the sun was out, it would reflect on the white stone and reflect back on the prisoners. The heat and pain was excruciating.

Nelson Mandela has permanent eye damage from working in this quarry.