Islands are normally associated with unrestricted freedom. If inhabited, islands represent a lazy lifestyle far removed from society’s rules and regulations. Robben Island though, has a history of deep sorrow, drenched in the coldness that the human heart can bestow on others dissimilar to their own kind.
The story of Robben Island started in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck landed in Cape Town on orders from the Dutch East Indian Company to establish a post where boats could harbour on way to the East. He almost immediately started to use the Island – which is only a few kilometers from the mainland – as a place where troublemakers could be kept away from the growing community.
The first political prisoner, Autshumato, was exiled in 1658, simply because he was taking back cattle that his people believed to have been unfairly confiscated by European settlers. Prisoners were also brought from other countries. Most of them strong-willed rebels that were removed from their societies before they could stir too much trouble.
They were soon joined by ordinary criminals, the mentally ill, lepers and even prostitutes who could spread diseases. Island life became very harsh with no kindness felt or offered. Robben Island had started it’s culture of alienation.
Long before its most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, another great indigenous leader, Makana, was held captive on Robben Island. He was a strong Xhosa leader who fought against the British over land issues during the early part of the eighteen hundreds, but surrendered in order to negotiate a meaningful peace. He was unceremoniously transported to the Island and died there far removed from his people.
During the reign of the Apartheid regime, discrimination against non-white people escalated and basic human rights became non-existent. Many fighters for freedom were imprisoned on Robben Island during those dark decades. They faced an iron hand and human interaction was kept to the minimum.
There is one heart-gripping story where the political prisoners where marched past the isolated house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement. At that moment he was in the garden and when he saw the other prisoners he got onto his knees, picked up a hand full of sand and let it filter through his fingers as a solitary gesture of communication.
Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most revered leaders, spent 27 years in jail, most of that on Robben Island, for his participation in the cause for freedom. When the world community met this remarkable man after so many years in jail, they were amazed. Here was a man whose life had been effectively robbed from him and instead of an angry man, we all saw a generous man emerging with steady eyes and a mischievous smile.
Robben Island that should have killed the human spirit, had only succeeded in producing an emphatic healer of a divided country.
A visit to Cape Town cannot be concluded without getting on the boat from the Cape Town Waterfront and walking in and around the infamous and at the same time famous jail that kept many different kinds of people behind bars over the centuries.