Jordan Payson’s Blog Post
14 kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, lies Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years incarcerated. Robben Island originally opened in the 17th century to house the Dutch political prisoners and later for individuals who suffered from leprosy. In the late 1900’s the South African government used Robben Island to exile political prisoners fighting the apartheid movement. Prisoners on the island received a metal bucket as a toilet, a blanket, a small table and plate who would be housed in a 6-foot cold cell. Our guide, an ex-prisoner on Robben Island explained that the guards further tried to humiliate and break down the prisoners by limiting outside contact to sometimes 1 letter and a 30 minute visit every 6 months. It came as a shock to me when I heard that prisoners who were sentenced for political crimes were housed in maximum security while other criminals had more freedom in medium security. While housed in maximum security, Mandela and other prisoners talked politics inside the grim walls. Our guide explained that political prisoners of the anti-apartheid movement and other resistance groups would rally together and share their ideals.
While imprisoned on the island, Mandela and many other political prisoners worked in the limestone quarry. Even though the tour guide explained the work at the limestone quarry as dehumanizing and exhausting, Mandela took that time and used it a space to teach and be taught by his fellow prisoners. All learning had to be taught in secrecy, as getting caught would result in being punished with solitary confinement and days without food.
Robben Island was in use for 400 years before being closed in 1991 for the use of political prisoners. It wasn’t until five years later in, 1996 that the medium security prison was officially closed. After the end apartheid, Robben Island opened up to the public for tours and truly showcased the life on Robben Island. Mandela and many other political prisoners used their experiences on Robben Island to further exploit the oppression of African Americans in South Africa during the Apartheid Era. In 1999, UNESCO declared Robben Island as a World Heritage Site, which stands as a constant reminder that those in power during apartheid tried to break the power of those who fought for freedom and democracy in the face of oppression.
As for my own personal experience on Robben Island, it is almost impossible to imagine how Mandela and many of the other prisoners remained sane under the horrific conditions. As the tour guide spoke to us; she mentioned that after visiting Mandela’s cell we would be making our own “walk to freedom” to conclude our visit on Robben Island. Even though many of us will never experience jail as a prisoner, we are all bound by Mandela’s fight for equality.