I STAND in the Robben Island Museum at the V&A Waterfront. It is packed with tourists. I hear German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Hindi. It's the Tower of Babel.
I'm on my fifth trip in a decade because I love the journey there, the waves crashing against the boat, the wind, the mountain beyond, and I want to remind myself of the past. What better way to do that?
You have to check in at the museum 45 minutes before the ferry departs.
There is a long line. While you wait, large screens display flickering images from that grey past. I see old John Vorster with his distinctive black-framed glasses and booming voice that reminds me of Darth Vader.
Goodness, up pops former state president Nico Diederichs, speaking in pure ministerial Afrikaans about how black people should know their place. Vorster appears again and warns that black people shouldn't push white people too far; there will be trouble. He had been patient long enough.
There are glimpses of policemen descending on crowds of black people with dogs and whips; beatings ensue, and the dogs bite the protesters. PW Botha's finger appears, and Bishop Tutu asks for humanity. It's almost surreal, like a morbid art installation.
A whole different era floats towards me; I remember everything. Despite the human suffering playing out before us, tourists are laughing and talking loudly, unaware of what's going through my mind.
A young black man in front of me also looks at the screens with disgust. I ask him where he's from. Gauteng, he tells me. It's his first visit. He is shy. There is something old-world about him, as if he could be a character in Cry, the Beloved Country.
As the tourists' rude noise swirls around us, he and I are the only two connected to our divided pasts. For a moment, the dogs bark again, crowds run, guns fire and I become hesitant.
I wonder if he realises I was there, saw what happened; his parents were probably exposed to the humiliations. The foreigners laugh at their own absurdity, and to me the inappropriate laughter mimics the sound of glass breaking. Did they come without context and tick it off a checklist like Disneyland?
“Look! Mandela's cell,” they boast back at home while wars, earthquakes and floods hum as background noise. Events in the world's history and present are now a symbolic TV that is constantly on, and humanity flicks from channel to channel with lifeless eyes.
The doors open and I have to show my ID and the ticket I booked online. We walk past sleeping seals and board the boat.
I sit upstairs and gaze at the waterfront. Yachts, more seals, large seagulls everywhere.
We set sail. Typically Cape, the sun has been shining and now the mist banks roll in. The waves get bigger and a crew member shows us how to put on our life jackets.
I think of my late friend Theodore Yach, who completed 108 charity swims from Robben Island to the mainland — a record.
We pass buoys where more seals sleep. A random scene in the middle of the sea. Small black birds float in the water and stare at us with one eye. Within 40 minutes we are in Robben Island's Murray's Bay Harbour. It is named after a Scottish trader, John Murray, who had a whaling station there until 1820.
One moment the sun was shining, then the fog came.
We disembark and are led to our buses. Let me mention that the buses are uncomfortable with no air conditioning.
You can now take off the old jacket that grandma knitted for you. The buses growl and bark, and we set off.
The tour guide, Kent Tsupe, is a warm man. The first recorded landing on Robben Island by Europeans was in 1498 when a group of Portuguese sailors sought shelter there and spent the night in a cave.
We are taken along the island's narrow and winding paths to the graveyard of people who died of leprosy, the limestone quarries, Robert Sobukwe's house and the old army and navy bunkers.
Let's stop for a while at the limestone quarries. The sharp sun reflects cruelly on that limestone, even if it's cloudy. It pierces your eyes. The dust it generates when you chip at it is also severe.
When Madiba had to work here, the dust damage to his tear ducts prevented him from crying. He underwent surgery in 1994 to correct it. Then he could cry again. On this island, no tear could leave his eyes. Not even when his mother died in 1968.
There are two churches on the island: an early Anglican example of the Cape Gothic style built in 1841; and the Good Shepherd Church, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and constructed in 1895 by leprosy patients. The stones were quarried on the island.
It's challenging to capture all these places from inside the bus if you're not sitting by a window. Grab a window seat or you'll struggle like I did.
Of all the previous tours I've undertaken, this guide was the best. We stopped at every significant place and told us about each one in an entertaining way. I'm particularly impressed that he took his time at the cottage that was the home for six years of Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress in 1959.
All the previous guides rushed past that house. Sobukwe's life was made hell by the apartheid regime, and he symbolised everything that posed a threat to them.
His role in liberation history is easily overlooked today. The ANC drives the liberation narrative. Our tour guide knew a lot about Sobukwe and suggested we buy the book Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better by Benjamin Pogrund. It's available on the island.
Although we saw a lovely old tortoise and various birds, it was a prison experience. It's not a vacation island — the atmosphere is subdued, the grass somewhat yellow; a sense of abandonment hangs over everything.
If you long for the smell of sunscreen and the sound of an ice-cream truck's bell, visit Santorini. Here, the ground sighs with sadness beneath your feet.
There's a chance to stop and stretch your legs. This is my only critique: the snack bar is so simple and tired; it feels like something out of the movie Bagdad Cafe set in a remote desert landscape. Yes, it captures the desolate spirit of the island, but goodness. There are chips and Coke, a snack here and there, and a man with a tired face serving you who seems to have longed for home for years.
From there, we are dropped off at the maximum-security prison where thousands of freedom fighters were imprisoned. We meet our second guide, Sparks Mlilwana, a man who, at the age of 17, served about five years here as a political prisoner. (Just in passing: a tourist blatantly left his empty NikNaks packet on his seat.)
As Sparks begins to tell stories of the island, he starts like an aeroplane on a runway. First softly, then louder, and there he goes, soaring into the air. That's where the humour ends.
He tells us that many of the approximately 10,000 political prisoners released across the country as apartheid crumbled fell into poverty. Marriages shattered and relationships with children were strained. Many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and there was little help for them. That's why some came back to the island to work as guides to survive. He says the last of the former political prisoners are dying. There are few of the old guard left.
He tells of how guard dogs would bite them if they didn't work quickly enough in the quarry. The wounds sometimes led to amputations of arms or legs. In one cell, there were three showers for 60 people. You had to get up at 4am and be done within a certain time, otherwise you were whipped.
There were no windows in the cell he took us to, the one he was in. The rain and wind in winter made it unbearably cold. People died from pneumonia. The food given to prisoners was generally insufficient in quantity and of poor quality. Black people didn't get bread, but if you were coloured or Indian, you did.
The clothing and the lack of shoes are a painful story for another day. One can only process so much at once. The food was mostly maize porridge, rice, perhaps a smidgen of fish or meat, but so little that you were always hungry. If a guard was angry with you, you would go without food all day.
Every day, everyone had to undress and jump around to loosen hidden objects on or in their bodies. You had to bend over naked and expose your rectum to the guards. I thought of Madiba and his friends Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki and how undignified it must have been for everyone. For a moment, I looked down in shame. I must be strong and fade into the grey.
The tour ends with a visit to Mandela's cell. Here, tourists go wild trying to get photos of themselves in front of the door. I can barely make it out.
A few people stand in front of the bars. They laugh enthusiastically for the camera.
We go back to the boat. The journey to Cape Town begins. We departed at 1pm and at 5pm we sail into Cape Town harbour. Would I recommend it to local residents too? Yes, definitely. The holidays are almost here; make a plan to reconnect with our country's history.
On our voyage back to Cape Town, I thought about the obvious: the sacrifices of the people on Robben Island, and a tweet from Adam Habib, the former vice-chancellor of Wits.
He writes about Durban falling apart: “Congratulations to the current political administration of Durban and that of the past decade. You have destroyed this city and betrayed our liberation. You represent the weakest of South Africa. Hang your heads in shame, and may our citizens socially and politically marginalise you.”
- What to take: You will stand for extended periods and do a lot of walking. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Use sunscreen; my face got badly burnt. Bring a light sweater or an item you can put on if the weather suddenly changes. The sea breeze on the boat can get quite cold. Bring a water bottle; you'll get thirsty. If you wear sunglasses, take them along.
- Remember to book online in advance; the tour to Robben Island is extremely popular. Book here.
Watch an interview with Nelson Mandela in his Robben Island cell:
The singer Miriam Makeba speaks at the UN in 1964, the year Mandela was imprisoned:
♦ VWB ♦
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