Robben Island

I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.
Nelson Mandela

SignalPoint_RobbenIslandRobben Island.  Beginning in 1658, the name was feared by those sentenced in the colony to serve time for crimes against the Dutch Company.  Located only 7 kilometers offshore, the land mass in low relief served several functions over the centuries.  It is the place where lepers were sent to be cured, and mentally and chronically ill patients were kept.  It served as a training and defense station in the Second World War II, and is best known as the site where political prisoners were incarcerated during the Apartheid era.


The compound returned to a prison in 1961 when the Apartheid government decided to place Black “revolutionaries” in isolation from the general population. The prison became internationally notorious for the harsh conditions imposed on the inmates. Efforts by the Red Cross in the 1960s improved conditions, somewhat, from what had been imposed on them, but the population continued to be separated into Coloureds and Asiatics (non-white, but not Black), and Bantu (Black) prisoners.

RobbenIsland_DietAs is the case with prisons, in general, the buildings are stark and bleak, affording only a minimalist’s idea of haut decor.  Prisoners were afforded one set of overalls for their needs, and these served to cover the prisoner’s needs during summer and winter, and transitional weather patterns.  The weekly diet for each prisoner, after the intervention of the Red Cross, consisted of Mealie (corn) porridge, Mealie rice, soup, fat, meat (6 oz for Coloured and Asiatic, 5 oz for Bantu), sugar, and coffee. As you can see, Coloureds and Asiatics were allowed jam, while Bantu were not.

Robben_Island_GroupCellThe prison was built to accommodate general population criminals in gang dormitories and isolation cells for “special” inmates, who generally were political prisoners.  In theory, dormitories were designed to accommodate about 40 prisoners sleeping on bunks.  In practice, up to 140 inmates were crammed into each group cell, without beds, but given thin sleeping mats.  Only after the Red Cross intervention in the 1960s and 1970s did inmates get decent blankets and better mats.

Robben_Island_CellPolitical prisoners of the Apartheid government were kept in single cells, like the one opposite, generally for 23 of a 24 hour day unless assigned to a work crew in the Lime Quarry.  Nelson Mandela, the head of the anti-Apartheid Black movement, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, is the island’s most famous prisoner.  Following his return to South Africa from a conference in Ethopia, Mandela was arrested and charged with illegal exit from the country and incitement to strike. At first, he was sentenced to five years of incarceration, but during this time he was charged with sabotage in the Rivonia Trial.  Statements he made in court during the trial ultimately resulted in a life sentence in Robben Island’s maximum security prison.


High security political prisoners were given the job of quarrying limestone from an outcrop of Pleistocene eolianite (wind-blown dunes) that had served as the building stone for the island over the centuries. These rocks stand some 30 m above present sea level, and the first building to be constructed from it is the Robben Island lighthouse, commissioned in January 1865. But, the quarried rock in the late 20th Century was used for road metal and fill. In effect, quarrying limestone was the most dreaded job because the site offered no shelter from the heat, no toilet facilities, no water, and no relief.

Lionel-Davis-Lime-Quarry-4-05Lionel Davis, on the left, was one of the political prisoners who quarried along side of Nelson Mandela.  In 1964, Lionel and other National Liberation Front operatives were arrested, charged with “conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage,” and sent to Robben Island.  We met Lionel in 2005 when our CBB class was allowed to undertake a field exercise in the lime quarry.  He was our “guide” to the site, and served as a tour guide for years.  Lionel told us about the heat and light reflected off of the surface, resulting the burning out of tear ducts in several inmates.  Mandela being one of them. He spoke of the guards who were stationed in the “hole” with automatic weapons ready to shoot if an inmate showed any sign of distraction.  Daily quotas of quarried rock must be attained before all of the inmates could return to their cells.  He talked about how the guards would dump the pails of feces and urine inside of the “hole” when they left but the inmates remained.  Lionel retired a few years ago, completed an M.F.A, and now is a Cape Town artist.

RobbenIsland_ExerciseYardNelson Mandela was moved from Robben Island to the mainland in 1984 and finally released in 1990, becoming a symbol of the strength of the human spirit.  The prison and island was transformed into a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, acting as a focal point of South African heritage since 1999.  Today, there are a dwindling number of tour guides who served prison sentences on the island during the latter half of the 20th Century.  But, the sense of cruelty and ruthlessness imposed by the Apartheid government on a group of revolutionaries who attempted to topple the White-only government still pervades the island and prison grounds. This World Heritage Site is a testament to the struggle for civil rights and a reminder of the sacrifices made by others for the benefit of many.