It starts in the hustle and bustle of the Victoria and Alfred waterfront…a crowded array of fine dining establishments and shrines to the branded retail gods located adjacent to the harbour in Cape Town. It is, for most South Africans, a kind of pilgrimage…a disturbing look into the dark workings of an old and diabolical political agenda. It is here, at the waterfront, in an imposing glass building that one queues to board a ferry to the island.
Robben Island…named for the Cape Fur Seal colony breeding there when Dutch occupation began in the mid 1600’s. More recently…during the anguish of Apartheid…it became a kind of obscene Alcatraz for those that threatened the government of the day.
Arrival on the island is somewhat surreal. A metallic, humanoid voice emanating from siren like speakers at the dock assaults the ears of the tourist, barking instructions on where to go in a very stern, prison like fashion. One boards a bus and is driven around while local guides interpret the view. The island is large, with churches and staff homes…there’s even a school building. African Penguins shuffle unsteadily around the rock outcroppings on the coast and dainty Springbok graze the pastures further in. It seems innocently sublime…until one arrives at the quarry. Here political prisoners endured hard labour carving the building blocks of the very prison that would contain them. It is in this stark and lifeless hole that the fires of the struggle against the oppressor were stoked until furnace hot.
The prison itself is the final feature of the tour. One is ushered into the main administrative building and steel doors are slammed. There is a pervading sense of discomfort and discontent. The guides here are ex political prisoners themselves…telling the story of their incarceration on the island. One is shown several courtyards and blocks of cells…including the one occupied by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela himself.
It is at the gate to this one cell that many linger…touching the bars and wondering at the nature of existence in this tiny, lifeless cubicle devoid of joy…and how the man who occupied it went on to become the icon of freedom and forgiveness we know and revere today. The final act is one’s own release from the bleak prison courtyard behind and a stroll to the dock to board the ferry back…a walk…a long walk…to freedom.