The sign at the ticket office said that all tours for the next two weeks were sold out, weird for winter in South Africa. But sure enough, the ferry was packed with tourists and locals alike as we made the short trip to one of the most infamous prisons on the planet and where living legends like Nelson Mandela spent most of their adult life: Robben Island.
Not unlike Alcatraz in San Francisco, the unique position of Robben Island just seven miles off the coast of Cape Town has lent itself naturally to being used as a prison, first by the Dutch in the 17th century and much later during the apartheid era. It was in the 1950s when the government converted the island into a maximum security prison and between 1961 and 1991 more than three thousand men were incarcerated as political prisoners. Amazingly the last political prisoner was freed only in 1991.
The views of Cape Town and the iconic Table Mountain from Robben Island were gorgeous, some of the best possible. It’s such a strange thing to think that the prisoners on this small island were treated to these tempting panoramas, so close yet so far. Flocks of noisy seagulls greeted the boat as we docked at Robben Island harbor and buses whisked us away as we started a well-choreographed tour.
As the bus drove past former solitary confinement cells and work mines, it slowed and we entered what looked like a post apocalyptic town. Houses, community centers and even a church all made up the former village for prison guards and other employees. Some buildings are still used and weeds cracked the foundations of the ones that had been deserted. It was creepy driving through the town which could have been the set for a made for TV movie about the end of the world. But that wasn’t the creepiest thing we saw that day, not by far.
The island isn’t pretty per se, instead it’s a rugged rock in the middle of a stormy sea. I couldn’t shake the dichotomy of peaceful, idyllic and beautiful Cape Town in the distance. Robben Island doesn’t seem to belong to this place; it’s for a much rougher, less kind place. Yet there it stands as it always has; today though it’s the legacy of the island that is helping the entire country heal.
We were split into groups and assigned to another guide to lead us through the prison itself. The tour guides are former prisoners themselves, another discordant but endlessly fascinating part of the Robben Island experience. I wanted to sit down with him and ask him a million questions, but instead stood back and let him share his story in his own way.
It’s always a psychic jolt to walk through a former jail, whether it’s ancient or modern, but it seemed to hit harder at Robben than anywhere else I’ve been. Maybe it’s because the history of apartheid in South Africa is so recent and so very well known around the world, and its most famous former resident Nelson Mandela is a godlike hero to most. Whatever the reason, it was personally sobering to think of the scores of people who were imprisoned not for theft or murder, but for political reasons. For their participation in a movement that yes undermined the government, but which eventually led to equal rights for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity.
Towards the end of the tour, I had built up a colorful past in my mind for our guide. I thought that surely he was working here as a way to come to terms with his own confinement and to grant forgiveness to those who so unjustly held him there. I saddled up to him on the way back and asked him why he was working there, waiting for a profound Tutu-esque statement of reconciliation. Instead he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I needed the money.” My heart sank a little, but I couldn’t hold it against him. I wanted him to be something he wasn’t, I wanted to believe in a great cosmic goodness to the work being done on the island that obviously isn’t there for everyone. He didn’t see the island as a great symbol, just a horrible prison where he spent a decade and where he now takes hundreds of tourists around every day.
It doesn’t matter though if that is all the island means to him, it means more to others and it meant more to me. I won’t even pretend to understand the history of apartheid and how it has shaped the national consciousness of South Africa, but as an outsider I was touched. I was touched by the cruelty and senselessness some men can inflict on others and I saw that we as humans can get past anything, no matter how bad it is. Even if that means working at your former prison.