As far as I remember, Robben Island, that infamous jail of political prisoners, was first opened to the public in 1994. No-one would ever have heard of this place had it not been for the fact that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated here for many years. Robben Island is a small piece of land, 8kms from Table Mountain in Table Bay. It is remorselessly flat and uninteresting, except to the penguins who nest there in huge numbers. However, having started its useful life as a place where the governing body of South Africa threw its otherwise unwanted persons, it later became a leper colony (not much difference really), and then reverted to a security prison for political offenders.
As a result of the famous Rivonia Trial, Mandela and several of his cohorts were banished there in 1964 to chop up large lumps of chalk for the rest of time. It was with considerable curiosity, therefore, that I made a pilgrimage there to see it for myself in 1994.
It was a day in early May (our Autumn) and the sea was deliciously flat, apart from the occasional enormous swell, as we thrummed our dieseliferous way in the old Susan Kruger – a boat which did not yet bear the legend ‘Winnie sat here’. The bay was deceptively calm and sunny and it looked like a very short distance from the Island to the nearest shore; however, various prisoners over the years found this to be a particularly horrid swim – not only because the distance is totally deceptive, but also because the water is enough to freeze the knackers off a brass monkey. There was no need for sentries, or bars at the windows of the jail, for the sea was a deterrent in itself.
The island consisted of a rather empty harbour, a number of pre-historic motor vehicles which had never left once they were delivered, two rather solitary churches, a street of nice white houses, a large and rather imposing guesthouse, and the usual ubiquitous curio shoppe.
Unfortunately, because the prison was still in use, we were not allowed to see the famous cell in which Mandela was incarcerated. However, this was more than made up for by the amusing remarks of the tour guide (an erstwhile warder of the prison), and a visit to the fortifications made there in case of attack in the Second World War. We visited many penguins, saw a few buck, a great deal of coastline, and then chugged our way back across the harbour.
In (2008) I had occasion to visit again with my daughter, and rather looked forward to the expedition. Once tickets had been exchanged, and a fairly antique boat had been boarded (the famous Tri-maran was not in service for some reason), we made our way across the bay. However, the swells became more and more mountainous, and those of us who were unfortunate to stand in the stern of the boat, had a free shower bath long before we reached the harbour.
Full of expectation, and suffering from severely wet feet and legs, we staggered along the quayside towards the waiting bus. Hey presto – it was the same bus that had carried us in 1994, but this time somewhat dilapidated and down at heel.
We managed to squeeze ourselves into two seats and prepared to set off. However, our guide (no longer the prison warder of previous times) had other ideas. She clambered onto the bus – large and Black and possessed of the ability to speak Afroglish enormously fast and very loud, despite the fact that most of the passengers barely spoke a word of ordinary English, – and proceeded to regale us with long eulogies of Robert Sobukhwe.
Unfortunately, most of the passengers had no idea who he was, who she was talking about, or the history behind that name. In her mind the Pan African Congress must have loomed large, but in most memories of the non-South Africans on board, the name meant nothing. It was a bit like O R Tambo Airport – nobody, other than fervent ANC members, had the faintest idea who he was (nor, I suspect, could they have cared). They all wanted to hear about Mandela, but there was scarcely a mention of such a person.
So, somewhat bemused and overpowered with rhetoric which fell just short of a toi-toi, we made our way slowly into the interior. We saw the two churches and stopped for a brief photo-opportunity through the rather grimy windows of the bus, and then carried on past the street of once-white houses. These had been made much more homely by the addition of washing hanging from every conceivable eave, nook, cranny, and line; weeds grew in profusion in the streets and the occasional deer munched peacefully on the pavement.
Trundling on, and somewhat bemused, we ended in what seemed to be a large chalk-pit with a hole in one side. This, she explained, was where political prisoners were brought to hew stone, and the hole was used both as a latrine and for the storage of rations. Hardly surprising that we now have an epidemic of cholera!
Cameras clicked and flashed and in a few minutes, after a further diatribe about Sobukhwe, we continued to the most glorious rubbish dump I have ever been privileged to see. It was made glorious only by the fact that it had a wonderful view of Table Mountain and two large prefab toilets. She graciously invited us to take photos there and announced that we would be stopping for five minutes.
Having regaled ourselves of the sights (and the interesting smells of the toilets), we climbed aboard the ancient bus and made our way back to the prison where an erstwhile warder herded us into a rather ungainly line and led the way to the cells.
It was almost impossible to make out what he was trying to say because the wind had now freshened, but we followed like sheep to the slaughter. The prison appeared well looked-after and, in considerable heat and humidity, we filed reverently past the famous cell where Mandela spent so much of his time. Having glanced briefly inside, we were then herded into a long, narrow hall which was almost devoid of seats and were treated to a long lecture on the hardships of being a political prisoner.
I must be fair on our guide and tell you that he had himself been a prisoner there for several years, so what he had to say was at least germane and had about it the ring of truth, as opposed to the paeans of praise that had hitherto been heaped upon Sobukhwe. Tired and rather sweaty, we clambered onto the bus once more and made our way back to the harbour. I think we saw one or two penguins on the way, but the gun emplacements which had earlier been a great attraction for me, were no longer considered to be of any consequence.
Dragging ourselves along the quayside, many gazes lit on the formidable tablecloth on Table Mountain, and those of us who know these climes, knew we were in for a bit of a rough passage.
The famous Susan Kruger waited for us, her engines beating away on idle, as we were herded aboard. The attendant warned us not to sit upstairs in the open as he felt it might be a fairly unpleasant trip. Nevertheless, my cousin and his girlfriend chose to sit up there because they felt that inside they may have been seasick.
Once clear of the harbour, we thrashed, crashed, lurched, leapt, churned and crunched through one enormous wave after another. The portholes had become totally opaque, giving the impression that we were indeed like a load of washing inside a machine which was set on ‘maximum’. Water streamed down the steps from the deck, and soon attendants were rushing hither and yon with nice little brown paper bags for people to vomit in.
After nearly an hour of this, even the hardiest of us was eager to see the relatively calm waters of Cape Town harbour. My cousin and his girlfriend eventually disembarked, soaked to the skin despite their raincoats, and we dripped our way towards one of the many bars of the waterfront in search of a restorative drink.
I had to consider that Robben Island, like so much of this wonderful land, had seen better days, and that, all else besides, we had paid a fair amount of money for a cold salt-water bath!