Robben Island —Fortress of Freedom

Today Robben Island is one of the most important destinations for any visitor to Cape Town. Mandela’s incarceration on the island lasted 1 7 years. He was then transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and then moved to Victor Vester Prison. He was eventually released in 1991 and became President of South Africa in 1994. Mandela carried with him into prison a legendary reputation. Before being captured he was known as the Black Pimpernel, an adaptation of the French Revolution hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, who audaciously evaded capture. He was imprisoned with such notables as Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada among many others. Since the declaration of the island as a museum in 1997, the old guard tower now watches over the cultural and historical heritage of the once forbidding fortress. For many years the island symbolised the oppression and terrible conditions facing inmates in the prison but now ‘ as a World Heritage site ‘ it stands as a beacon of hope and a reminder of what has transpired since the birth of democracy in South Africa. Robben Island is known the world over as a place of exile, isolation and imprisonment. For nearly 400 years colonial and apartheid rulers banished those they regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted of society to this rocky 575-hectare outcrop in Table Bay. The island’s rebellious inhabitants included slaves, political and religious Muslim leaders who opposed Dutch colonialism in East Asia, Khoikhoi and other South African leaders who resisted British expansion in South Africa, leprosy sufferers, the mentally disturbed, French Vichy prisoners of war and most recently political opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia. Robben Island is an llkrn boat ride from the Cape Waterfront with its natural beauty and breathtaking views of Table Mountain, and has become one of the most important cultural experiences for visitors to Cape Town. The Robben Island Museum aims to maintain the political and universal symbolism of the island by promoting it as a forum for critical debate and lifelong learning. A variety of tours are offered on a regular basis. The principal tour includes a return boat trip across Table Bay, a visit to the maximum security prison, interaction with an ex-political prisoner and a guided tour of the island. Robben Island is, in fact, the summit of an ancient mountain, now submerged and linked by an undersea saddle to the mainland. Its climate is Mediterranean but it is also mercilessly exposed to the stormy Cape weather with its gale-force winds and periodic extremes in temperature. The island is a haven for many animals and plants. Many of the 132 species of birds use the island for breeding. Among these, the endangered African penguin, an endemic South African species once on the verge of extinction, found a safe refuge on the island. Travelling from the Cape to the island affords visitors the opportunity to see marine animals, including the large Cape fur seals, Southern Right and Humpback whales and the Dusky Dolphin. The island is also host to 23 mammal species including bontebok, springbok, steenbok, fallow deer and eland. Some evidence suggests that the Portuguese may have used the island as a prison as early as 1525 and certainly the British and Dutch settlers have used it as a place of banishment since the mid-1600s. Most of the present buildings were erected when the island was used as a training and defence centre during the Second World War. The island now features a small village around the maximum security prison that includes a post office, general stores and even residen tial areas. The Robben Island Museum now hosts youth camps and brings together pupils from around the country and neighbouring states for an annual Spring School, a seven-day celebration of the South African heritage that is a tribute to the human spirit. After his release from Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, received a significant number of gifts from the South African and international community and appreciation of the role he played in the struggle for peace, freedom and democracy in South Africa and the world. In accepting the gifts, he indicated that he did so on behalf of the people of South Africa and expressed that they should be displayed for the benefit and appreciation of the nation, at or near his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape. Today they are magnificently displayed in the Nelson Mandela Museum in the Bunga Building in Umtata, the focus of which is his long walk for freedom. Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July, 1918, at Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata, Mvezo was a place apart, a tiny precinct removed from the world of great events where life was lived as it had been for hundreds of years. “Nature was our playground,” recalls Mandela. “The hills around Qunu were dotted with large smooth rocks which were transformed into our own roller coaster … I do not remember a moment when I was lonely. “I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicised, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. I had no singular revelation, no single moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebellion, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.” Looking to the future, Mandela says: “We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”

May 2006
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