Any visit to Cape Town should include an excursion to Robben Island. Made famous, or infamous, because it is where the Apartheid government of South Africa past imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he spent behind bars. Of course you all know that he was elected President of South Africa after the end of Apartheid. You may not know that the next two Presidents were also imprisoned on the island.
Our trip was cancelled on the day we first wanted to go. Reason being, the passage from the mainland to the island is across what is called the table channel, and that is a notoriously rough 6.9 miles. We returned a few days later and the trip was on. The boat is a large, modern and comfortable catamaran. Even on this “calm” day we felt like we were on a ride in an amusement park. Barf bags were in every seat, luckily no one needed them.
The trip is highly organized. Your entire boat load is shuffled off into busses for the tour of the island. I had read many reviews, some great, some bad, about this tour. Even though the bus was crowded it was amazingly informative.
After an interesting tour we finally got to the prison. There our bus guide said good bye and turned us over to this gentleman.
He gave us a lecture on life on Robben Island. One tourist asked him if he ever met Mandela. He lit up like a Christmas tree and said, yes a couple of times. Another tourist asked if there were differences in the way Bantus, coloreds or Orientals were treated. His response was simply this. “At the time, there were only two classes of people in South Africa, the oppressed and the oppressors.”
Robben Island is sometimes called Robben Island University, or even Mandela U. After Apartheid became an international embarrassment for South Africa. the UN Human Rights Commission and the International Red Cross inspected the prisons and demanded reforms. One of the reforms put in place was communication with the outside world. Many prisoners used the opportunity to take correspondence classes, mostly from the UK. This is how Mandela got his law degree. There was also a lot of free discussion among prisoners. The ANC debated with the communists about the future of their country. What came of it was that there could only be one front for freedom, and it would be the ANC.
We bounced and rolled back to Cape Town feeling a little different than when we left. I have visited Alcatraz, and it has nothing nearly as evocative of emotion as Robben Island.
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