Time flies really fast. It seems like it was yesterday, those days when I lived with my parents in Cape Town devoid of any worry in the world. I used to be vocal in my disapproval of apartheid. I would usually make small gestures in trying to improve the lives of my disadvantaged contemporaries. My days were enjoyable, and I vividly recall basking in the sun on the beautiful Clifton beaches gazing at the sea towards Robben Island. To my embarrassment, I cannot recall if I ever contemplated very much in relation to the residents of the island-prison. Robben Island for a long time was a place of suffering and deportation for the political dissidents of South Africa. I am confident that on no account did I ever imagine that someday I would take a boat across the Table Bay to visit the island. I never thought that I would see the threatening signs and the small cells and stroll in the lime quarries where prisoners labored in the blinding pallid heat.
Many years after I left this beautifully-situated metropolitan, I came back, much older, a little bit wiser and definitely pleased to discover a new South Africa. A lot has changed, yet sorrowfully I was to discover that numerous things were yet to improve. Of course, the prisoners have left Robben Island, and the whole site currently enjoys its new status as a Museum. It has been categorized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Robben Island currently hosts scores of tourists, both local and international, on a daily basis. Nevertheless, on the nearby miserable Cape Flats, numerous people continue living in the squalor that they have suffered for generations. Therefore, when one visits South Africa, one should think about reflecting on the previous lives of the prisoners at Robben Island, and also the hard, daily life of the present day still-disadvantaged populace. This was not a typical tour, but it was moving and interesting. The visit provided me with an opportunity to have discussions with numerous people with reference to South Africa’s tribulations and future expectations. Ultimately, this visit granted me a far deeper perceptive of this multifaceted land.
Robben Island is a low-lying island, situated at the access to Table Bay. From Cape Town, it is 14 km away, and one may reach it via a thirty-minute ride on a stable, modern ferry. Visitors to the island may choose a variety of options for self-guided or guided tours. Tours to the Maximum Security Prison are carried out by former political prisoners who narrate stories as well as answer questions in relation to their individual experiences while in prison. This was an astounding experience for me as well as for the other visitors. Questions come fast and thick. All manner of questions were asked, such as; what were you given to eat? Where were you working? For how long in a day? What about religious services, visitors, clothes, hygiene and health, news from outside the prison, books? Were you able to study? Were the winters cold? Did the authorities torture you? Were you housed together with criminal prisoners? The questions were endless. My guide Mr. Derick Basson was incarcerated for five years at the age of 18. He answered the queries with dignity and devoid of bitterness or exaggeration. Several people in the tour group shed tears. I contemplated again of my carefree days when I used to take a break on the beach across the bay.
In a visit to Robben Island, visitors are usually interested in viewing the reception office, the loathed censor’s office, the prison’s court, the courtyard, the cells, as well as Nelson Mandela’s cell. Mandela occupied this tiny cell for 18 of the 27 years he spent in Robben Island. There are documented archives, videos, cell stories, prison songs and an assortment of artifacts. These are nondescript objects with influential stories that relate to them.
There are other sites that one may visit on Robben Island other than the Maximum Security Prison. In actual fact, the entire island bears testimony to its four hundred years of legendary history. The unwilling populace in history included leprosy sufferers, slaves, religious and political leaders who resisted colonialism. African leaders who opposed to British expansion in the country, the mentally distressed as well as French prisoners of war, also inhabited the Island prison. Afterward, it became the place of imprisonment for common criminals as well as a political antagonist of apartheid in Namibia and South Africa. Other, more voluntary inhabitants included the keeper of the lighthouse, his family and, certainly, the prison staff.
At the end of my visit to Robben Island, I studied the guest information booklet. The booklet titled “Welcome to Robben Island” wraps up with the following:
We trust that you will leave Robben Island with the feeling that you have shared great learning experience with us. You have participated in a pilgrimage which, we hope, will inspire you to help make the world a better place (Barbara 80).
The visit to Robben Island was truly an inspiring and moving experience.
Critical Analysis of My Relation to Robben Island. Like the majority of museums worldwide, Robben Island depicts a place for the perpetuation and display of objects perceived to be of eternal value. But as a place designed to encourage a hope sensibility, Robben Island exceeds that. It fits into a class that may be regarded as governance museums. These are museums concerned with upholding sensibilities instead of simply displaying valued artifacts. In such museums, the artifacts are intentionally mediums for influencing consciousness. In the event that we consider museums beyond symbolic sites, then Robben Island may be regarded as figurative governance site. This means that Robben Island would serve as an example of figurative site that is designed to form sensibilities. These would be sensibilities that are expected to promote a preferred future by encouraging specific mind sets and consequently operating across the populace. Expressed in a different way, it would mean that the Robben Island management is seeking to form the South African’s identities as part of citizenship education.
Robben Island, as a prison, was designed to be a place for nurturing a hopelessness sensibility amongst people who resisted, or posed resistance against apartheid governance. It is essential to note that apartheid, in the Afrikaans dialect means separateness. It is this fundamental judiciousness of separateness among persons with perceived racial differences that fortified all the policies of governance that were endorsed by the apartheid government of South Africa. This is depicted by the following quote from Theme for English B;
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you. (Chris and Lex 2).
Seen in this perspective, the system of separating the political opponents of the apartheid system at Robben Island should be regarded as consistent with a wide-ranging dogma of governing by means of separateness. In this regard, by isolating the leadership of the resistance movements the apartheid government endeavored to defeat the spirit of the populace by devastating the struggle.
If the event that this analysis is acceptable then conceivably it is pertinent to describe the Robben Island Museum as an establishment founded in a heritage of deliberation that has worked to convert collective and private hopes into a communal hope. This may be achieved by means of extending the collective memory. The deliberative grounding is intensified by the actuality that the emergent hope through the engagement and debate that exemplified the life of the prisoners on Robben Island resonates with an intensely embedded and fundamental value of African culture.
The visit to Robben Island has made me a different person in that I am currently more conscious than before of the plight of people around me. This is expounded by the following quote from Theme for English B;
I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like the same things other folks like who are other races. (Chris and Lex 2).
The habitual stereotypes or generalizations I had in regard to the plight of prisoners, both criminal and political has greatly changed. I am now increasingly sensitive to events that occur globally, as well as their implications on the future. The contribution that is made by the uncelebrated individuals in regard to pursuit for good governance will always be of paramount significance to me. In the event that this conclusion is acceptable then it may provide a new significance to the phrase that is frequently utilized in regard to the tip of the African peninsula whereby Cape Town is situated, namely the “Cape of Good Hope.”
Barbara, Hutton. Robben Island: Symbol of Resistance, Johannesburg, Mayibuye Books, 2000. Print.
Chris Anderson and Lex Runciman. Open Questions: Readings for Critical Thinking and Writing, Bedford, St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.
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