Truth and Reconciliation on Robben Island

Today’s slide show: Robben Island

Eugene, a former Robben Island political prisoner turned museum guide

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa—Packed like schoolchildren into a rickety bus, camera-toting tourists listened intently to our escort, Nozuko, as she spoke into the microphone.

“We’re not only preaching reconciliation here on Robben Island, we’re practicing it,” she said, introducing the tour of South Africa’s notorious political prison, now a museum and a World Heritage Site.

You get real bang for your buck on Robben Island. Its most famous guest, Nelson Mandela, served much of his 27 years behind bars here. Not only will you soak up some rays on a deluxe ferry ride from Cape Town, but a former prison warden will be your gracious captain. Once on the island, visitors enjoy a comprehensive tour of the prison yard and its cells, guided by an energetic former political prisoner. Reconciliation you are promised, and reconciliation you get.

In the post-apartheid period, South Africa has become a hot destination for vacationers. In fact, although world tourism is declining overall, it is on the increase in South Africa, as Westerners flock to Cape Town’s golden beaches and the lush game parks in the north of the country.

The island is a “must-see” for any visitor who wants a taste of South Africa’s brutal history.

As the bus coughed to a start, we slowly made the island rounds, starting with a drive-by of the site of a leper community that was once banished to the island. Then we rumbled by an old army barracks. Nozuko asked which countries her passengers were from: Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Ireland. She thanked us for all our respective governments did during apartheid to help her people by imposing economic sanctions. Finally, 12 South Africans of all races proudly raised their hands when summoned.

“I want to thank you, because there are now 12 more guides on this bus. Tell me, please, where were you during the ‘dark days’? Share your experiences with our guests.”

A baby cried. Throats cleared. Legs crossed and un-crossed. But nobody responded.

“Um, I’d like to ask the South Africans on this bus why you won’t answer,” I announced.

Nozuko’s nostrils flared, and she let out a deep sigh.

“This is now a democratic country, my dear. We don’t force anyone to do things they don’t want to anymore,” she said, exasperated by my ignorance.

Nozuko quickly changed the subject and continued to provide a concise outline of the history of the brutalities of apartheid and the liberation struggle, making sure to mention several white South African figures who fought apartheid. The bus turned a corner and lurched to a sudden stop in the center of a large, white crater.

“This is where Nelson Mandela spent his days breaking rocks, while Thabo Mbeki was adopted by England, where he was studying at Sussex University,” she said, subtly jabbing at the country’s current president. He is widely viewed as being out of touch with the people of South Africa, despite a massive door-to-door campaign in the weeks preceding the April 14 national elections.

The bus’s engine revved again, and in a moment we were deposited in front of the main prison, where I met Jennifer and Hope, a thirtysomething black couple from Pretoria, the nation’s capital, as we were waiting for Eugene, our new guide, to take us to the cells.

“This is my first time to the island, and it’s a bit emotional for me. I think of what happened before, and at one stage I never thought we could come to such a place and visit it as a museum, it was so unrealistic,” Hope told me. “As a nation, we’ve managed to achieve something we never thought we would in our lifetime. Now you’re free to say what you want. There are no barriers. Whatever you wish to do, you can if you have the capability.”

The visit for Hope, a 37-year-old marketing executive, was a reminder to what older generations sacrificed for his freedom.

“It’s important to know the conditions our leaders had to live in and compare it to our own situations. We should be more reconciliatory, not be prejudiced. Our leaders suffered more than we have, and this was a reminder that we must never let it happen again.”

“It’s like we are free. No, not like. We are free,” added Jennifer, who approached me with a smile after discovering we shared the same name.

South Africa’s top political and social satirist and an active AIDS educator, Pieter Dirk-Uys, would agree with Jennifer and Hope.

“On Valentine’s Day, I was doing a show at a huge mall in Pretoria that was a right-wing [white] fortress in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were about a million people of every kind there: white, black, gays, straights, all kissing,” said Dirk-Uys with glee, after the opening night of a new show that mocks the transition of the past 10 years. “I stood there for an hour just watching people in amazement, and no one did anything, no one turned around. I think that’s a sign of enormous reconciliation in South Africa.”

Despite real gains, such as whites and blacks mixing in business settings, there are still social rifts, according to Dr. Fanie Du Toit of Cape Town’s Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, which runs the Reconciliation Barometer, a project that tracks social reconciliation in South Africa. But the biggest challenge to reconciliation may be closing the country’s ever-widening economic gap.

“We have been able to start the reconciliation process, and that’s a luxury, but a lot remains to be done,” said Du Toit. “There need to be tangible results in the new [democratic] system, and it has been dented by the slow delivery on a number of levels. Poverty’s back has not been broken, and inequality is therefore worse than ever.”

Eugene, who leads our group into an old prison block where about 40 men slept, tells me he needed a job. So, he returned to jail to give paying tourists a history lesson.

“Even if I went to the sea for a swim, I had to go to the blacks-only portion of the sea. At an early stage you learned to fight for survival. I was fighting in the streets and ended up here as a terrorist, locked away with no access to a lawyer,” Eugene told our solemn group. “Some never made it home like Steve Biko [the Black Consciousness leader who died in white custody]. They beat you up, messed you up. In common parlance, it’s known as torture. Some of us fought, and that’s why they labeled us terrorists.”

After a tour of the grounds where Mandela exercised and the matchbox cell where he slept, we headed to our shining, white ferry and then back to Cape Town. I was told to look for a man called Christo who runs the Robben Island gift shop and served as Mandela’s personal guard in the time of apartheid.

As I entered the narrow shop at the harbor, I saw a balding, mustached white man standing behind the till chit-chatting with a tall black man by his side, clearly a friend.

“Excuse me, are you Christo Brand?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure! And this is my friend Thulani. He works as a guide on the island. I used to be his prison guard!”

“No, really,” I said. “Do you know where I can find him?” I assumed he was pulling my leg.

Christo scrunched up his face in disappointment at my disbelief. Thulani took one look and me and said he was late for an appointment.

“Yes, Thulani was my first former prisoner to invite me to his place for dinner, one week after his release from prison,” he boasted, as Thulani high-tailed it out the door. “We’re buddies. We hang out and do things together, and I always tell the tourists, ‘Hey! I was his warder!’ “

Christo told me his story. Only 18 when he was first assigned to Robben Island, he was quickly won over by Mandela’s kindness and accompanied the future leader when he was transferred to a mainland prison in the 1980s. Christo mailed Mandela’s letters, smuggled in his favorite hair oil, and arranged for weekend trips out of prison. It was part of Mandela’s strategy to be kind to his oppressors, which clearly helped in the negotiation process with the apartheid government in the 1980s, leading to his 1990 release from prison, the un-banning of the ANC, and, eventually, democratic elections in 1994. Christo says he still talks to Mandela to this day.

As we’re saying our goodbyes, two men stop by to talk business with Christo in Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of the apartheid government.

When the men leave, Christo laughs and translates their conversation for me. The two men run the Nelson Mandela Art Gallery next to his gift shop and are planning to hold an auction to raise money for the fight against HIV/AIDS. They want Christo’s personal treasure, Mandela’s tennis racket from his days in prison, to sell. He agreed.

“Yah, but don’t worry, I have another one,” he whispered. “I’m going to keep that one for myself!”