CITY LIFE NEWS
Dawn Kennedy – Jan 28th, 09:15
Early seafarers referred to Robben Island as the Isle of Purgatory. However, for the 45 permanent inhabitants of the island, it’s called home. 021 goes off the beaten track to meet the locals.
This is an island ruled by feathers. Everywhere is permeated by the distinct smell of penguin poo, and the streets are decorated with Jackson Pollock-like white splashes. The roads are deserted, as though the people have been ousted by swathes of circling, squawking seagulls. We pass a grim, grey building with a low asbestos roof and only tiny high windows, with a sign declaring it a “former female insane asylum”. Seagulls have ambushed a deserted house opposite, drawn by some invisible desire to squeeze into this particular space, which has become like a mosh pit for seagulls. Above the scene, a neatly paved street sweeps up to the whitewashed Anglican church, its walkways covered by mother of pearl shells, offering an alternative viewpoint, like a breath of fresh air.
Arriving at Alpha 1, a house perched on a low cliff, with Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles as a backdrop, we are greeted by the supervisor Christo Brand. Brand was the prison guard who befriended Nelson Mandela during his incarceration (not James Gregory as depicted in the movie Goodbye Bafana). When Brand came to Robben Island in 1978 as an obedient, pro-apartheid, 18-year-old white prison guard, Mandela was already 60. Brand has recorded that Mandela was “down to earth and courteous. He treated me with respect and my respect for him grew. After a while, even though he was a prisoner, a friendship developed. It was a friendship behind bars.” This transformative relationship usurped Brand’s racial prejudice. He began to do favours for Mandela, smuggling him his favourite bread and hair pomade and conveying messages. Today, 33 years later, Brand works alongside former political prisoners. He says, “I still work on the island, but now I work with the same people who once were prisoners. And we are all free. We are all equal. It is better for all of us.”
Alpha 1’s stoep is a semi-circular deck with information panels and photos of Robben Island and other UNESCO World Heritage sites in Africa and Brazil that are historically entwined by the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Inside Alpha 1, a sparkling cappuccino machine announces that modern technology, as well as ideology, has reached the Island. Serving the coffee is the radiant Abigail. She’s been on the island for eight years and her clear eyes, sparkling teeth and engaging manner give the immediate impression that the island has had a beneficent effect. She is clearly a people person and perhaps the 2000-plus visitors that frequent the café in peak season keep loneliness at bay. Her two kids attend Sea Point High. Abigail is part of a group of seven women who meet every evening at what was previously the army mess swimming pool, to swim and keep fit. She speaks positively about living and raising her kids on the island, although she says that at the end of a lively weekend on the mainland (“the other side”), she feels heaviness on returning home and anticipates a time in the future when she will need to leave permanently with her kids.
After a delicious coffee, we meet Charle, the postmistress, who has been on the island since 1995. Her husband is a nurse in the clinic. She grew up on a farm in the Free State, loves the quiet and describes her life on the island as “fantastic”. Charle only visits the mainland once a month to shop at Pick ’n Pay in the V&A Waterfront. In between attending to local customers, who come with letters and parcels, Charle confides that the hardest part about her lifestyle is taking the ferry to Cape Town when the sea is rough. All three of her children grew up on the island and were weekly boarders on the mainland. Although content with island life, Charle bemoans the lack of management, saying, “During correctional services time this island was so clean, so neat. We were living as a big family.”
This view is supported by Simon de Villiers, who recalls an idyllic childhood in his memoir, Robben Island (published by Struik in 1971). He writes, “Far from being just a ‘dumping ground for (offenders)’, as one editorial in a Cape Town newspaper portrayed it recently, the island has played host to a great deal of ‘normality’ and even celebration. All the inhabitants on Robben Island knew each other well. There was no crime, and nothing can take the place of growing up in a completely safe environment. I call it an island mentality – the feeling of being part of a special community ran through to everyone.”
Charle laments: “Now everyone is for themselves. We don’t have management at all.” Another sore point, which has been frequently publicised, is the inept management of the island’s animals. Charle confirms that many of the bucks are dying from hunger. Closer to home, she was upset when, after one dog worried the penguins, all dogs were banished from the island and she was forced to get rid of her 10-year-old pet, which was like a family member. Charles confides that the tourists who come to visit Mandela’s cell see nothing of the island. Her favourite part is the western area where the animals roam and which she prompts us to visit.
As we head westward, a van ambles past and an amiable guy offers us a lift. We climb in and learn from our temporary new guide Tobani that the 40km speed limit, aimed at protecting the penguins, is carefully observed, otherwise the offender would get expelled from the island. By all accounts, the islanders are well adjusted, with little evidence of the alcohol or drug problems that often plague other small, isolated communities.
Saying goodbye to Tobani, we head west, on safari. Along the way, we pass ground level billboards depicting images of life on the island in earlier times. These fascinating pictures stand oddly unobserved, as no one seems to pass this way. Walking in one of the most uninhabited square miles within the 021 area, we pass two shipwrecks, metal ghosts reminding us of the harshness of the ocean, which, when roused, spits out ships like watermelon pips. The submerged rocks ringing the coastline have sunk an estimated 22 boats, starting with the Yeanger of Horne in 1611. Nearby, buck bounce across the barren landscape, briefly creating a picture-postcard Out of Africa moment.
For such a small area, Robben Island has worn a considerable number of guises. It was first spotted by the crews of passing ships who landed on the island in the 1500s to replenish their food supplies from the meat of seals – hence its name, which is derived from the Dutch word for seal: robbe. Since then it has been used as a postal centre, sheep farm, whaling station, mental asylum, leper colony, hospital, a garrison, a prison, and now a World Heritage Site.
Its long and chequered history as a place of banishment began in the late 17th century. Sheikh Madura, who opposed Dutch colonialism in his native East Indies, was imprisoned here, and his shrine stands near the prison building. In later years, Khoisan and Xhosa chiefs, defeated in the Eastern Frontier wars, were kept on Robben Island.
From 1846, Robben Island became a hospital for the mentally ill, lepers and chronically ill paupers. In the 1880s, many leprosy sufferers were deported to Robben Island. During the 1930s, the hospital buildings were burnt down and the bunkers and big guns, ubiquitous throughout the island, were built in anticipation of war. The arms were never used in combat, however, and in 1959 the island was taken over by the then Department of Prisons.
The first political prisoners arrived at Robben Island in 1962. They were soon followed by members of the banned African National Congress, including, of course, Nelson Mandela. To step into Madiba’s tiny cell is an initiation into South African history.
After a disorientating and lurching return trip, I’m happy to set my feet on terra firma and fully understand why Charle might limit her trips to the mainland to once a month. However, our adventure does not conclude when we land. As though to ensure that our day ends on a happy note, we meet a jovial tour guide who tells us, smiling broadly, that he spent 10 years as a prisoner on Robben Island. He speaks about the beauty of the island, the fresh air, the ocean and the birds, and rejoices in the current excellence of enjoying a cool beer at Alpha 1. He tells us, with pride, that the prisoners made all the beautiful furniture that now adorns the island’s only guesthouse. He enjoys visiting the island during the day, but reveals that he feels too uncomfortable to stay there at night.
Robben Island is a place where past and present jostle for attention and light and shadow contrast, collide and coalesce. Its story is heard in words by former prison inmates, those who have made it their home, and in the whispers from the past that leave subtle impressions: next to the contour lines of gypsum that are beautiful yet remind us of the forced labour that blinded Mandela, I entered a deserted house with metal doors like a safe, offering protection against a war that never came. It is now crowned by plants growing on its roof, a testament to the vigour of life.