There were two key moments that went straight to the solar plexus on a visit yesterday to Robben island, the maximum security prison thirty minutes ferry ride from Cape town’s bustling Waterfront harbour where many black Freedom and anti Apartheid fighters were incarcerated, in Nelson Mandela’s case for eighteen of his twenty seven years in prison. His tiny cell in the block where ANC and black leaders were kept, the fourth barred window on the right as you stand in the courtyard, is distinguished from the others only by the presence of a bucket and bed roll.
But the first shock was the enlarged black and white copy of the feeding instructions for prisoners, I won’t call it a menu, that not only showed the paucity of the daily diet but distinguished between Coloureds and Asiatics, who got slightly preferential treatment, and Bantu prisoners. In my head a harsh Afrikaaner voice came echoing straight out of the film Cry Freedom, scornfully addressing ‘bantu’ Steve Biko, who was of course murdered by the regime. That somehow rubbed home the pernicious nature of institutionalized and legally enshrined Racism, creating a hierarchy of human value even within the twisted ideology, with the Negro at the bottom.
Then there was the first glimpse of the prison proper. So far, on a beautiful, sunny day, the ferry bouncing through the surf, the thing that had struck was the powerful presence of the city of Cape Town receding into the distance, and above it dominant Table Mountain, that for Mandela and I’m sure many other prisoners had always represented the visceral hope of freedom. Then had come the twenty minute bus tour around the tiny island. Nothing much to see, except the lime quarry where, pointlessly, prisoners were made to endure hard labour and break rocks. The tor of a thousand stones was there too, laid by ex convicts at a reunion in the 90’s, redolent of the pile of stones laid by 5000 Afrikaaners when they revolted against the British. The lighthouse too, that at only 18 meters above sea level sits at the centre of the island. Also the mournful lepers’ graveyard that showed how Robben island was first established as a place of exile and attempted quarantine. But it was getting off the bus in front of the barbed wire fence that the human reality of it was brought home by the voice of a new guide and a former political prisoner, Seepu Mimosi, who himself had spent five years imprisoned here.
I think a Zulu from Durban, Mr Mimosi then went on to describe how he and five others had been arrested, four kidnapped by the security services from Lesotho, and tortured, one of their number dying in custody, before he was sent to the island. So he led us through the gates, describing too how not only their own resistance to constant attempts to break their spirits with torture, mistreatment, malnutrition and solitary confinement, but the influence of outside pressure from the likes of the Red Cross and Amnesty International had led in the seventies and eighties to improved medical care, diet, excercise and limited sport facilities too. It was, in defiance and awareness, a journey back to human dignity and walking passed those cells, the Censor’s office, the Guard rooms, punched by the brutal sparseness of it all, I was ashamed not to have read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The title itself represents the astonishing internal journey he and others took to emerge from such treatment not only intact but offering vision and reconciliation to the World.
I don’t know if the likes of South African journalist John Matison is right or wrong to suggest the vision of the Rainbow Nation was never a reality, or that President Zuma has morally bankrupted South Africa. What I know is that the destruction and dismantling of Apartheid in the way it was defeated was an utter triumph of the human spirit. Its positive human effects, for everyone, since in the end both prisoners and warders become the victims, is all over South Africa today and shared by visitors to Robben Island from right around the Planet. Therefore, with the forces of Brexit and now Trump’s election calling to an older atavism, maybe South Africa does have something unique to teach the World. As we left though, among the private yachts day tripping into the bay and all the sparkle of tourism, Mr Mimosi commented ruefully on attempts to bring in new, young tourist guides. He was renting a house on the island, to do his job, and you could not help wondering if his experience will somehow always make him a prisoner to the island somewhere and a terrible struggle. But it was an extraordinary thing to be guided through by a man who had actually been there.
The photos show Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, former prisoner and guide Seepu Mimosi and the frieze in the harbour ‘Freedom cannot be manacled.’