Robben Island holds a piece of history that seems so recent, yet occurred more than two decades ago. The island captures a shadowed part of history, which includes the apartheid movement and years of civil turmoil leading into the decade before the new century.
Robben Island is located in Cape Town, South Africa, and is a 1,447-acre mount of land about 4 miles from Cape Town’s shore that lies in Table Bay. It became a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage historical site and museum in 1999, during Nelson Mandela’s presidency of South Africa, according to South African History Online.
Mandela’s life holds a grand legacy with roots stemming from Robben Island, where he spent most of his 27-year sentence as a political prisoner. Today, the island has a sparse population of residents left but is an extremely popular tourist destination within the Southern Cape, according to UNESCO.
During my visit to the site, I was captivated by what I experienced around me. I truly felt the need to capitalize on what I experienced, to hopefully inspire people to begin to verse themselves in other cultures. In person, the island felt unreal; it was truly a living time capsule.
The history begins with the name — Robben Island is Dutch for Seal Island. According to UNESCO, the island began in the age of leprosy, a time when lepers were banished there. When the lepers died, they were buried in graves, and only wealthy families got gravestones.
In 1959, Robben Island was converted into a high-security prison. It remained a prison until 1991, when all prisoners were cleared off the island, thus turning the island into a historical site.
The entrance of the prison was embellished with the words “We serve with pride” in both English and Afrikaans. The sign set the tone of the tour and was the passage into the past. Next to the sign was a visitor center for the prisoners, where family members could visit every six months for 30 minutes only. Also, both parties could only speak in English or Afrikaans, proving communication to be difficult, as there are dozens of tribal languages spoken all over South Africa.
In the surrounding area of the visitor center were the limestone mines. The purpose was for manual labor where prisoners would chip away the stone. Prisoners chopped in such excess that most was never used. The dust created by the stone gave some prisoners lung, eye or other health issues.
One positive outcome of the mines was that, during breaks, men fluent in English or Afrikaans would teach illiterate prisoners these two main languages, keeping many minds sharp, my tour guide said.
The Rivonia Trial was the beginning of Mandela’s imprisonment, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The trial was against Mandela and nine others, who testified for their lives, being accused on counts of sabotage and conspiracy. Since the verdict went against Mandela, in 1962, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the government. Mandela spent 27 years after that verdict between three prisons.
While imprisoned at Robben Island, Mandela was kept in a cramped cell. His prison number was 466/64 and was under the category B, which stood for political prisoner. Robben Island’s sole purpose was to burn the prisoner’s will to live by embedding guilt into them to make their lives as miserable as possible. Wounds would go poorly treated, to intensify the pain. Living conditions were poor and nutrition was based on race. Communication was nearly impossible; letters were allowed only six months at a time and were heavily filtered. A prisoner would never hear of a family death and a family member would never hear of the poor living conditions and treatment, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Through the gloom of it all, Mandela was never phased by his imprisonment. He successfully wrote the first manuscript for “A Long Walk to Freedom,” on Robben Island, but, sadly, his work was found and burned.
Mandela’s second attempt was also taken away. Mandela kept himself motivated with his mad passion for liberation. He raised awareness and began a surge of anti-apartheid movements with his controversial imprisonment. Mandela was freed from prison in 1990 by President F.W. de Klerk following international pressure and fear of civil war.
The following year, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mandela became the president of South Africa and served from 1994 to 1999. During this time, he became a global peace icon and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Also, succeeding the prison’s restoration into a museum in 1991, Mandela later returned in 1995 where he visited the limestone quarry and created The Stones of Remembrance. This monument symbolizes, as quoted by Lionel Davis, “For those who have been in the lime quarry, you would have seen this pile of stones. You will see small and big stones, white and black stones. It symbolizes what South Africans can be, and how we can all come from different cultures and speak different languages.”
Through the rough patches in Nelson Mandela’s life, he paved the way to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, earned a Nobel and became a symbol of peace. Mandela died on Dec. 5, 2013, where his memory lies among the people and among the stones on Robben Island.