- Campus Life
- Financial Aid
The cell in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 years. Photo by Dan Connell
By Rachel Goldberg
The water glistens as the sun begins to peak through the white sky. The mountains of Cape Town shrink in the distance as the boat approaches its destination: Robben Island, once a prison for political activists during the apartheid era. Nelson Mandela spent 18 years here.
Isolated from society, Robben Island stands approximately seven miles away from our departure point at the luxurious Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a mere 45-minute boat ride. But it provides a stark contrast of light and dark, beauty and unspeakable violence.
Arriving on the island, we know we will leave in two short hours. After a winding bus tour over cobblestone roads we stop in the gift shop for a quick bite and a refreshing beverage before the walking portion of the tour. We admire the stunning view while chewing our baked goods and chips and snapping numerous pictures of crashing waves and rolling landscape.
Twenty-five years ago political prisoners brought here by boat had a very different experience--and some never got the chance to leave. One who did get out in 1991 escorted us around the jail and told us what it was like.
First, prisoners were stripped of their identity and given a number; that number was now their body and soul. Eight hours a day they spent digging limestone under the searing sun without sunglasses or protective masks. During summer days the intense heat was enough to drive a person to their breaking point, says our guide. The cells were crowded, there was inadequate bedding and food, and they were brutally tortured and harassed.
The beauty of the island is striking: the waves crashing against the rocks, birds gracefully flying overhead, and a picturesque view of Cape Town in the distance. But the beauty fades as the facts of its brutal past are told first hand.
Ntando Mbatha takes us through the gray halls of the prison where he spent seven years of his youth. Standing in his old prison cell, he shares his story of fighting for a proper education during the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising. In the following years, after going abroad to join the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) which today heads the government, he endured tear gas, beatings, and brutal interrogations until he eventually landed on Robben Island.
Despite his past, he says he is thankful. He feels blessed to have leaders like Nelson Mandela who taught the country the meaning of reconciliation.
"Though we suffered so much in this prison, we bear no grudges," Mbatha says.
"We want Robben Island to reflect the triumph of freedom and human dignity over oppression and humiliation," said another former prisoner, Ahmed Kathrada, a close confidant of Mandela, who is now the Chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council and is quoted on a commemorative plaque here.