Today we had the incredible opportunity of visiting Robben Island, one of South Africa’s most iconic museums. Located approximately seven kilometers from Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Robben Island is most commonly associated with its high security prison. Prior to departing on our 30 min ferry-ride to the island, we were instructed to pass through a security checkpoint comprised of full-body and baggage scanners. Before I even reached the island, I was taken-back by the level of security we had to go through. It was then when I realized that Robben Island wasn’t just a museum. It stood for something more than just prison cells and a history of famous prisoners. Its rich history symbolized something far more powerful than means of enforcing the law.
As we embarked on our journey around the island, we were informed of Robben Island’s history as an infirmary for those suffering from leprosy and chronic diseases during the late 1800’s, as well its contribution as a training and defense station during World War II. More recently, however, Robben Island has gained its significant reputation due to its role as a high-security prison during Apartheid rule. Housing thousands of political prisoners during its occupancy, such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, the maximum-security prison served many functions. Also known as “The University”, Robben Island provided an informal source of education for both prisoners as well as guards. Mr. Lionel Davis, our tour guide who had served as a political prisoner on the island, attributed his own education to the prison. He noted that prisoners would enter the island with no formal education and leave with university degrees. Prisoners who were educated, including doctors, lawyers, former students, etc., would take it upon themselves to educate those without a formal education. Those imprisoned would not only educate other prisoners, but guards as well in order to spread knowledge to the people. Education, according to Mr. Davis, was the only way the oppressed citizens could rise up and overcome the injustice of the Apartheid. The spread of knowledge and increased education on Robben Island served as a foundation in the fight against Apartheid.
As we drove around the Island, we stopped in front of a limestone quarry where prisoners would perform physical labor. There in the midst of the dried-up quarry, stood a pile of stones varying in size, shape, color, and texture. This stone montage was created by ex-political prisoners to honor Mandela’s release from prison. The individual stones symbolized the diversity in South Africa and the pile as a whole stood for how the people can come together and build a unified nation. Created by ex-prisoners, this pile showed the efforts to promote equality. Similar to how education was used in the prison to direct change, this stone pile educates those coming to the island and shows the continuous efforts to transform the nation.
Amidst the scars, these ex-political prisoners are taking the steps towards learning from the past to strengthen the future. In doing so, they are partnering with former guards and working together as tour guides at the Robben Island museum. As a visible form of reconciliation, both former guards and ex-political prisoners come together to serve on the island to educate their community about the prison’s notable history. Despite their past contradicting roles while the prison was operating, guards now live side by side on Robben Island with former prisoners. This can be seen as a significant step towards forgiveness and reconciliation in order to build a brighter future.
After our tour of Robben Island, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. James Mathews, poet of Poems From a Prison Cell, and Mr. Zenzile Kohoisn, former senior investigator of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Coming from Robben Island and witnessing the past efforts of ex-political prisoners, this meeting provided insight into the current day struggle to overcome the lasting effects from Apartheid. According to Mr. Kohoisn, South Africa is still struggling to reform the mindset of the Apartheid in what he referred to as “a place where the narrative of pain continues until we return to the garden of our idealism”. He mentioned that the struggle continues until fairness is restored to South Africa. In working with the Truth Commission, a commission devoted to uncovering past government wrongdoing in order to settle conflict, Mr. Kohoisn has great insight into the legal transition between Apartheid and democracy. He mentioned the lack of accountability and punishment towards figureheads that took part in illegal activities covered up by Apartheid government. He noted that the records of the wrongdoings, often illegal actions performed by Apartheid officials, are recorded in Truth Commission files. These files, however, are hurried in a vault hidden from public access. According to Mr. Kohoisn, in order to completely enter into forgiveness, justice must be served and people must be held accountable. He confessed that South Africa permitted a culture of amnesty and allowed citizens to dodge the law, and that the people must continue to fight to restore order. Instead of “deferring the dream of fairness”, he believes that people must accept the turbulence and further fight for justice. For Mr. Kohoisn, forgiveness is in the future but accountability lies in-between.
From ex-political prisoners working alongside the same guards who punished and tortured them to the hidden Truth Commission files restricting accountability for crimes committed, forgiveness is part of the struggle towards a brighter future. Unity is the vision, however; forgiveness and reconciliation lies in between. How can one overcome such atrocity and corruption and work together towards a unified nation?
Twitter: It was truly powerful seeing former Robben Island prison guards work and live side-by-side with those ex-political prisoners who just years ago had such drastic views. Making headway towards unity while passing through extreme emotions of forgiveness and reconciliation. #SASA