Thursday, 10 May 2012

Robben Island

Robben Island is the bleakest place
that I have ever been.

It was a place of banishment
for lepers and criminals
for centuries before it was
a prison for political activists.

You are driven around the island
and your senses are assaulted
by grim grey buildings,
wind-twisted low bushes
and the limestone quarry
where manacled prisoners laboured.

There is no colour, no sound.

In the maximum security jail
a former political prisoner
acts as your guide to the buildings.

It is a great privilege to meet
these men, imprisoned for their beliefs,
who all wear sunglasses
because their eyes were damaged
by the glare of light
in the limestone quarry.

Sobu Sokwe was only 20
when he was imprisoned for membership
of the African National Congress.
He had been on Robben Island for 5 years
when he was released in 1989,
the same year that MasterM was born.

He stood in the middle of the dormitory
detailing with great dignity
the brutal routine of prison.

He also explained how the structure of the ANC
created a community within the prison,
supporting the youngest prisoners,
educating each other
and understanding political developments
in the changing world outside
from scraps of smuggled newspaper.

He took us to Nelson Mandela's cell
shown as it was in the 1960s
with only a bucket and sleeping mat.

It was impossible not to be moved.

All along the corridors there were other cells
and each one had a story,
and the spirit of a courageous man.

Our guide had told us
that the kennels for guard dogs
were twice the size of the cells
and it seemed extraordinary
that human dignity could overcome
such physical and emotional deprivation
and create a new nation
striving for equality and opportunity.

This cairn is at the entrance to the quarry
and the first stone was laid by Nelson Mandela
at a reunion of political prisoners.

It symbolises the foundation
of modern South Africa.

As we were leaving South Africa
the passport officer asked me
if I had enjoyed my stay
and I told him that we had visited
Robben Island on Freedom Day
He was very impressed

"That must have been something...

I am so proud to be South African
it is a wonderful country."


  1. Invictus

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll.
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    William Ernest Henley

    (It gets to me every time. XX)

  2. Oh, Dear God.
    Thank you Alice for this.

  3. That was a really moving post. Your simple prose does justice to a difficult subject.

    And thank you to Brown Paper Packages for the poem. I have never read the whole poem, just a quote, and it is beautiful. So fitting with the sentiments of the original post.

  4. "I am the captain of my soul".

    Perfect accompaniment to a moving post.

  5. I read posts like this and I feel useless, nothing in the greatness of this immense, amazing, horrible yet wonderful world.

  6. Jenny DebeauxMay 10, 2012

    And, do you know, good was able to come out of this on a personal level? Our guide, Ronnie, said that had he not been incarcerated on Robben Island, he would never have been educated nor would he have a job with the Post Office and be studying for a Masters degree. For that he was grateful and knew no bitterness.

    No doubt others were bitter but it was good to hear that Ronnie - and no doubt others - could move on and help create a new South Africa.

    My daughter is married to a South African and I went there with them to visit his parents in Cape Town. What a vibrant place it is! Just brilliant!

  7. Lovely post, Alice. Thank you.

  8. Liz in Missouri (USA)May 11, 2012

    Very moving. How inspiring to know how people still managed to take the higher ground and live with dignity and grace. Thank you for this lovely post - I have never seen photos of this area before.


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