Leaving the prison gates in mild conversation after an absorbing tour of Robben Island, our tour guide sighed and asked, “why are humans so cruel to each other?”
Nobody answered. It was one of those frequent moments on this tour where people were rendered speechless. The most prominent response I noticed when hearing accounts of unjust treatment and strife in the prison were murmurs of varying tones. These included murmurs when hearing stories of the mistreatment of prisoners; murmurs when the tour guide shared funny stories of life in prison; and murmurs in the more poignant moments of the tour.
I did not imagine I would be rendered so speechless after my first tour of Robben Island, particularly because I have been exposed to so much information and stories of Robben Island.
Over the years I grew to understand Robben Island as one of the focal points of the liberation struggle against apartheid. Political prisoners from different eras of the liberation struggle were incarcarated there. I've heard stories of people at home in the former Ciskei who bode their time in the prison for taking a stand against an unjust system. I can also recall stories of some who were arrested in their youths. I remember watching a documentary years ago of a former Robben Island prisoner who underwent traditional circumcision in the island. What was most moving about this documentary was that the man only completed his journey to manhood when he staged a ceremony to formerly introducing himself as a man many years after he had left the prison.
Although I later learned that a number of Xhosa and Zulu kings were incarcarated on the island during the colonialism era, my primary interest in Robben Island has been on its role during apartheid.
My understanding of the Robben Island prison was that it was not only place where political prisoners were incarcarated, but also where different generations of prisoners became more unified in their fight against apartheid. I also understood it as a place of personal loss – prisoners lost time away from the family and the world.
My imagined understanding of Robben Island came to life on my visit, but I never imagined how I would also be lost for words after the tour. I absorbed the firsthand accounts of life as a political prisoner on Robben Island. I saw the scarred grounds of the prison, left behind by the hard labour of the prisoners. I realised the extent of the twisted nature of the unjust prison authorities and apartheid government.
My friend who accompanied me to the tour wanted to view the penguins on Robben Island. I couldn't care less about seeing them. I was trying to find myself in the midst of this wind inside my head. I was making sense of what I had just witnessed, suppressing any anger that could have sparked when hearing stories of injustice, and I was also absorbing what our tour guide had told us.
He came into prison as a student in the aftermath of the national student protests in 1976. He told us how he and his fellow youths became angrier at the system after being told of life on Robben Island prison in the 1960s by the senior prisoners. This was a paradox, as the elder prisoners merely tried to make the young prisoners aware of how prison life became much easier in the 1970s.
My first visit to Robben Island put into perspective my duty as a young South African. Just like those youths who were incarcarated on the island, I felt a sense of anger when hearing stories of how political prisoners were treated on Robben Island. But the resilient spirit to fight for what is right is what I have taken out of my first Robben Island tour.
Although this has formed part of my world view in the past while, it is something that has been fuelled even more. Yet I worry about all those who still take our freedom for granted. Pity them, for they do not recognise the struggle it took to get that freedom, and the endless possibilities it allows.