While we were in Cape Town, we visited Robben Island. It was an island that was used to hold political prisoners during the apartheid era from 1948-1994. The island was also used as a leper colony in the mid 1800’s and it also functioned as a medium security criminal prison in more recent times. Presently it is not a prison anymore but it is a museum.
The prison was made of concrete blocks and had tall barbed-wire fences along with 5 guard towers. The inside of the prison and the cells were very basic and musty smelling. In the individual cells, there was a mat for sleeping and a basin for washing and nothing else. It did have an open field where the inmates were allowed to play soccer and rugby sometimes.
It was almost impossible to escape from Robben Island. There were german shepherd dogs that controlled the grounds outside. Also there were guards in the towers with automatic rifles. Even if one did manage to escape the prison, they were faced with a 5 mile swim back to the mainland in freezing cold waters with sharks and seals. There had been many attempts at escape but only 3 were successful in its history.
The political prisoners were put into groups from A to G. Group A had the most privileges and were able to buy outside products such as cigarettes and were allowed to study. Group B was where the political leaders were kept and they stayed in single cells to prevent them from gathering with other prisoners. Group C was for the troublemakers who were put in solitary confinement for up to 14 days. They were only fed sugar and water. Groups D,E,F,G were communal cells were everyone shared a living space.
The prisoners were separated based on skin colour. The “coloured” prisoners, those who were mixed or Indian, had better clothes and fed a better diet than the black prisoners.
The most famous person to go there was Nelson Mandela, the leader of the political party ANC (African National Congress). He was sadly imprisoned for 18 out of 27 years of his incarceration on Robben Island. Interestingly, part of the manuscript for his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom was written on Robben Island and was hidden in the garden. Unfortunately some of it was found and destroyed.
On the island there was a limestone quarry and the prisoners were made to dig out the lime used to make roads. Sadly, the work was hard and the light reflection from the quarry was too great and it damaged their eyes badly. The prisoners worked at the quarry everyday for 8 hours a day. As you can see life in prison was horrible.
The tour was educational and I learned a lot about the history of Robben Island. I didn’t feel very positive leaving the island because of what it stood for but I am happy that is is no longer a prison and that apartheid is abolished.