Until I took the boat from the Victoria and Albert waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa, I always visualised Robben Island to be a dark, forsaken island, not much touched by sunlight or positive energy. After all, it was where Nelson Mandela, the former president of the Rainbow Nation, had spent 17 years in solitary confinement, breaking down limestone in a quarry while laying the foundation for post-apartheid South Africa. Surely there could be nothing pleasant about this island?
A 45-minute ride later, we disembarked on the pier of the lush green island. We piled into buses that would take us round the island, which was converted into a museum in 1997, and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. The bus wound its way on the muddy roads, coughing up dust in its wake. On one side were well-maintained colonial buildings surrounded by a canopy of trees; on the other was a jagged beach lined with rocks against which waves broke lazily. Far from a place of exile, this island seemed like a tropical hideaway.
The island's striking natural beauty was its cruel irony, explained our affable tour guide, Yaseen Mohammed. Before it became synonymous with political prisoners protesting South Africa's brutal apartheid regime, Robben Island had served as a hospital for leprosy patients and the mentally ill back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also a training centre for soldiers during the Second World War. When the apartheid regime took over in 1961, they converted Robben Island into a high-security prison, exclusively for Asian, Indian and black prisoners.
"The political prisoners were never allowed to visit this part of the island," said Mohammed, who was an activist with the Pan- Africanist Congress (PAC), a political party fighting for free South Africa, before he decided to live and work on the island. Thus, the prisoners never got a glimpse of the ocean, or of the African penguins that waddled right on to the path of our tour bus. Robben Island is home to the third largest colony of African penguins in the world; it also hosts a variety of other flora and fauna.
The bus took its first halt at the Robert Sobukwe House, a neat block of cells, where the president of the PAC and an important figure in the anti-apartheid movement, spent several years in solitary confinement. Sobukwe was one of the leaders who suffered the worst cruelties under the apartheid regime, and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life after being released from Robben Island.
Glimpse of history
Our next stop was the infamous limestone quarry. The long hours that Mandela spent here in the harsh midday sun, unable to shield his eyes from the blinding glare of the limestone, caused permanent damage to his eyesight. Yet, the quarry was where the idea of reconciliation, which is the founding principle of post-apartheid South Africa, was born. "Mr Mandela said, 'Let's not fight these young English guards because they are also victims of a violent society'," explained Mohammed. In time, along with prisoners, the guards too were allowed to enroll in correspondence courses, and many held multiple degrees by the time they left Robben Island.
The apartheid regime's most discriminatory policies met the firmest opposition behind the high walls of the high-security prison complex that was our final destination. A former political prisoner, who had spent several years here along with Mandela and the current President of the country, Jacob Zuma, showed us the cells, the bathing areas and the communal dining rooms. Food was a powerful weapon used by the regime to foster discontent among prisoners, he said. Asians and Indians were privy to luxuries such as bread, while black South Africans or 'bantus' had to make do with maize gruel.
While most of the political prisoners were allowed to live together, Mandela spent most of his years at Robben Island alone in a narrow and cramped cell with a single window that looked out on to the courtyard. Thousands of tourists visit Robben Island just to take a look at this cell. Invariably, you can't spend more than a few seconds peering in through the bars, before a photo-taking frenzy ensues amongst the visitors.
You may not be able to spend too long lingering contemplatively on Robben Island, but it's hard to grudge the authorities that. What makes a visit to the island so memorable is the honesty and lack of jingoism. Earlier, as Mohammed spoke passionately about Robert Sobukwe's contribution to South Africa, I was struck by a thought. Robben Island was in fact a war zone, where the most momentous battle in South Africa was fought. But the stark simplicity with which the island has been preserved is a testament to the dignity with which that battle was ultimately won.
To get to Robben Island, you have to take a ferry from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront in Cape Town. Ferries operate three or four times a day, depending on wind and weather conditions. A round-trip costs 200 Rand for adults (approx R 1300 ) and 100 Rand (approx R 650) for children under 18. For details, visit www.robbenisland. org.za.