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."
casting his vote in 1994
18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013
description of Robben Island
originally published 10 May 2012