Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
They’re just buildings, when it comes down to it. Concrete and bricks, wood and metal.
They are mostly empty, husks leftover from the old days. There is nothing visually appealing about them.
It is not for the buildings that tourists make the pilgrimage to Robben Island. It is for what they represent.
So what do they represent? Probably different things to different people.
Oppression. Courage. Fear. Hope. Inhumanity. Humanity. Any of these things? All of these things?
However you look at it, Robben Island is a symbol of the worst and the best of human behaviour.
It was the prison where the South African authorities sent those who dared challenge their cruel and racist rule during the Apartheid Era.
So many freedoms had already been removed from the population of the country. For those who tried to reclaim their right to expression, their ultimate freedom was taken.
These political prisoners, locked away on a small island off the coast of Cape Town, showed how the government tried to quash even the slightest call for equality.
Yet the dream never died. The hope that justice would prevail was enough to motivate those who were thrown into cells to continue their campaigns for as long as possible. Actively, if they could. Passively, if that was the only option.
These captives were carried forward by the knowledge that they were right. Surely good ultimately triumphs over evil, even if it takes years?
For Nelson Mandela, the best known of these prisoners, it took 27 years behind bars until he saw this evil vanquished.
He spent much of his time on Robben Island before being moved to two other prisons in South Africa before his release.
While the story of this island is much bigger than just one man, seeing his cell is a significant moment for any tourist who visits the island today.
I would like to say that a visit to Robben Island is full of significant moments but, alas, it was a disappointing experience for me.
Perhaps the expectations are just too high. Although I don’t think that is the main problem. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the visitor experience is run well.
It starts with a boat journey from Cape Town across to the island. This is pleasant enough but I should have been wary of what was to come by the number of people onboard – more than 100.
When you arrive on the island, the group is then divided into two coaches. Neither had a spare seat, which means there must have been about 50 people on each.
They set off in different directions. I’m lucky to have got a window seat on my coach because much of the tour around Robben Island is conducted from the bus.
We stop briefly outside significant buildings and the tour guide gives a brief explanation.
At the old quarry, where a pile of stones sits in the middle, people crane their necks from their seats to get a good view.
These stones were put here spontaneously by former political prisoners at a reunion in 1995 – the different colours representing the new South Africa.
The only stop the coach makes when you can get out is at a shop where you can buy some food and drink. While I appreciate this because I’m hungry, there is not much to see here except a view back across the water to the city. There isn’t enough time to wander anywhere independently.
The tour of Robben Island is done in two parts. The coach ride is the first. The second is at the prison buildings itself where you are walked through the compound by a guide.
This is better. You are able to see things up close and take a few moments to think about where you are. The problem is that you are doing this in a crowd of 50 other people.
Standing in a cell where a prisoner spent years, I try to imagine how his solitary life would have been. What did he do month after month with just these four walls and a small window?
It’s hard to picture it. I can hardly see the four walls, bunched together with the other tourists. Not all of us can fit so we take it in turns to go in, squeezing past each other in the doorway.
I want to let my imagination run free but it is encaged.
I had been looking forward to meeting our guide. Every one of the people who gives a tour here is a former political prisoner. They can speak as an authority – as someone who has lived, not just studied, this island and the repression it once accommodated.
Again, I hate to say it, but I was disappointed. The problem was not with the guide himself, but with the size of the group.
It was sometimes hard to hear and, if you were towards the back of the crowd, the guide often would have started talking before you caught up with him at the next stop.
There was also no intimacy to the relationship. This was a man who had suffered unjust hardships and has so many raw experiences to draw on – but he’s not being given the opportunity to express them in the best way possible.
To hear the stories of Robben Island directly from the mouth of a political prisoner should be a very special moment. Yet something in lost in the retelling.
What is missing is the emotion that comes from a genuine connection between the storyteller and the listener.
You can’t see his eyes, which would tell half the story; you don’t feel like you can ask a question without disturbing the rest of the group; you feel like even the guide himself knows he is broadcasting rather than conversing.
Unfortunately there is only one way to see Robben Island and that is with this tour.
So would I recommend it? The short answer is ‘yes’ because nothing can take away from the significance of the site and to see it for yourself is a step towards understanding the inhumanity and humanity that we are all capable of.
But I would warn you to not have high hopes for the experience. You may be lucky to be in a small group and have a more intimate visit but that’s certainly not guaranteed.
This should be one of the highlights of a trip to Cape Town. There is a good reason why so many people want to travel to an island that most of its inhabitants longed to leave.
Sadly the authentic experience is being repressed, unable to break free and share itself with the world.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of South African Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.