“A symbol of the triumph of the human spirit.” Robben Island is exactly that. The island is off Cape Town, South Africa. You can get there by visiting the VA waterfront and boarding a hydrofoil boat. The ride, as long as the newer hydrofoils are working, will take about 20 minutes in some rough waters. If you have a weak stomach, you’ll want to be cautious about this experience. When we went the fast hydrofoil was broken and in dry dock, so our boat ride took one hour in very rough waters. After the Seal experience and knowing we would be in the same waters, I chose to sit right outside in the open air of the boat. Even after it started raining, I held my seat, and boy was I happy. All of the inside seats were in a confined area, and with no windows to boot if you went in the belly of the boat. If you sat in the front covered section you could see out the front, but got little fresh air.
Upon our much-anticipated arrival onto Robben Island, our tour guide of the Island, Nakita, informed us, though rough and rocky, we got a truly authentic experience. The boat we’d taken over to the island was actually a prisoner transport boat in the past.
We began our tour of the island with Nakita by walking through the visitors section. This looked like a sad and lonely area to visit with loved ones and family members. We learned that the prisoners were able to receive 1 letter and 1 personal visit every 6 months. Talk about lonely.
The island itself was known to have millions of penguins years and years ago. But then the people of the island ate them, and their numbers decreased rapidly. The island also was the first place where one ailed with leprosy would be sent, away from their family, isolated from others.
Along our journey we learned about many of the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela who most of us automatically associate with the island. One that really hit home with me was a man by the name of Robert Sobukwe. Politically, Sobukwe was strongly Africanist, believing that the future of South Africa should be in the hands of Black South Africans. Robert was a lecturer at the university, family man, and a leader in the ANC followed by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). His memberships within these organizations, nor his Africanist belief system, were not what got him entry into Robben Island. Rather his political power scared the government with opposing views.
In 1950’s, there was a law that made any black African man or woman carry a “pass book” with them at all times. These pass books were an internal passport designed to segregate the population, manage urbanization, and allocate migrant labor. This law, also known as “the natives law,” required black Africans to carry pass books when outside their homelands or designated areas. These black men and women of Africa could not walk a different route to work, go to a different neighborhood, or really go anywhere outside of their designated work/home combinations included within their passbook without good reason and being checked by the government.
Can you imagine not being able to leave your neighborhood or walk off the path to work for a day without being questioned and showing your passbook? Neither can I!
And Robert Sobukwe did not want to live this type of life either. So he did what any strong, powerful, and vocal person in leadership would do. He led an anti-pass campaign.
Sobukwe organized over 5000 marchers against the pass book law and in turn was arrested for incitement. But here’s the catch: Sobukwe was actually never sent to trial; he was never officially convicted. And he was kept in limbo for years so that the system did not have to call him a “prisoner” as he was awaiting trial.
Because of his in-limbo status, Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement – his living quarters were separate from the main prison and he was allowed no contact with any other prisoners, nor to speak with the guards. He was, however, allowed access to books and civilian clothes because he was not technically a “prisoner.” But books and clothes did not make his time pleasant. The solidarity and lack of communication with people got him to the point that he told a woman named Helen Suzman that he was actually forgetting how to speak.
It is said that Sobukwe would look at the guards, pick up a fistful of dirt from the earth and let it fall back to the ground or in the wind to tell the guards, his black African brothers from the earth of Africa we all came, “You are the son from the soil of Africa.”
Over the course of his 10 years on Robben Island, he was never officially convicted. He was actually offered a job by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Montgomery Fellowship for Foreign Aid in the US. Sobukwe applied to leave the country with his family to take up the employment but was denied permission by the Minister of Justice. As we learned, it takes a pretty powerful person for the minister of Justice to vote against one single man. Robert was not even technically a prisoner, he was in limbo from a free man and a prisoner, he literally was not classified a prisoner.
Sobukwe was released from prison in May 1969, but the government was still afraid of his power among his people. Sobukwe was banished to Kimberley, where he was joined by his family. He remained under twelve-hour house arrest and his banning order prohibited him from participating in any political activity. He was also denied a passport or a job until the day he died from lung complications.
What hit home the most to me was how much power the government had against this one man. One man who was never convicted of any crimes. He organized a march defending his own rights. But the government was scared of what he may say to other Black Africans to get them to rise up against their oppressors.
South Africa has changed dramatically since the 50’s, as I believe the whole world has. But the pass-law was abolished, the political prisoners were released, and South Africa has transformed into a loving country known as the rainbow nation, coined by former Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, in 1994 as his neat description for a very multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country.
Interesting things about Robben Island:
- Robben Island was a maximum security prison. Those who went into maximum security were political prisoners.
- Minimum security was for the people who were thieves, rapists, murderers… you know, those people who need less security… – whaaaat?
- Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were kept busy by being put to work in the limestone quarry. The cave is where many of the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela himself, got bad eyesight from the bright lights and reflections of the limestone quarry.
- There was no real need for the island’s limestone during the time of Mandela. Prisoners would break up the stone and carry it to one end of the quarry one day and then back the next — the work was really just to keep them busy.
- While working the quarry, many of the prisoners learned to read. Even the guards would participate in the secret lessons sometimes. The rule of the quarry was “each one teach one.”
- Once the political prisoners were all released and the prison was shut down, a national convention was held a few years later. Each of the prisoners were asked to come back to the prison and offer tours to visitors.
- One of the former prisoners, and now guide and leader in the ANC, explained that the tour is not a museum to hatred. Visiting Robben Island should provide a lesson in reconciliation.
- Over 1000 people were buried on Robben Island, most in unmarked graves.
- Nelson Mandela clearly describes his cell (which you see at the end of the tour) in his book, A Long Walk to Freedom. It really is quite cramped and nothing I would wish upon my worst enemy.
- There was a reunion at Robben Island. Many of the ex-political prisoners visited the island in which they were imprisoned for years. Many of these leaders reflected on their lives, planned for the future, and ended with a ceremony of the ex-prisoners picking up a rock from the quarry and placing it within a pile, one last time. To date, you see the pile of rocks they left there. And if you visit Johannesburg, as we did later in our trip, you will find rocks outside of Nelson Mandela’s home.
Wine Lands… Wine Farms
Stellenbosch is a town in the Western Cape that feels like you are being transported to a small vineyard town in France or Italy. The views are simply spectacular! All of the little villas on the side of the street are B&B’s, with wineries in the background. While we were in Stellenbosch, we visited a local winery and spa that was amazing. The Close Wine Estate Winery & Spa was where we enjoyed a wine tasting and food pairing with all of the local delicacies. To be truthful, the food was quite as delectable as my favorites in Spain and France. I would even venture to say, since I am on a white wine kick right now anyway, South Africa has some of the best white wines I have ever had. Some of that love may be due to the amazing trip, but either way I can say visiting a winery and enjoying some wine while in South Africa is a MUST!
Fun & Interesting Tidbits:
- Vineyards are called Wine Farms in South Africa.
- In the early 1700’s, one of the world’s most famous wines was produced right from South Africa, so I’d say they’ve been doing this for a while.
- Pinotage was one of the reds I was pleasantly surprised by. It is South Africa’s very own grape variety – a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Pinotage was more dense and had notes of spices, chocolate, and even fruit flavors, including raspberry and blueberry.
- Chenin Blanc is the most planted grape variety in South Africa. The wines hold peachy and floral undertones, but don’t let that make you think the wine is sweet; this white wine is slightly dry and quite refreshing.
Dinner and Drumming
While in Cape Town, we decided to enjoy a themed dinner at GOLD, a dinner and drumming experience. This was described as a taste safari of foods that will transport you from Cape Town to Timbuktu. We received about 15 tastings of very interesting foods. Each came with a description of the ingredients as well as the area of Africa it was derived from. Each of us got some paint on our face as a traditional décor. And every chair had a drum on it.
When the performers came out they were energetic, charismatic, and informative. We all learned to play the drums as well as got an extraordinary show. This evening was so much fun! We all loved Dinner and Drumming, and were very happy to have gotten the opportunity to enjoy the experience.
- When you visit GOLD, the queen actually scatters 24 karat gold on each person. My husband, George, may or may not have tried to collect the remnants scattered on the table… hehe.
- You will have the opportunity to dance with and be visited by the very tall, yet graceful Mali Puppets as they dance around your table accompanied by drummers, dancers and singers.
Is it handicap accessible? NO. Though, in all of the brochures GOLD is in fact considered handicap accessible, their definition of accessibility is quite different than mine and standards in the US. It simply means they have a handicap toilet… on the second floor. All of the dinner, drumming, and dancing takes place – you guessed it – on the second floor. And there are no elevators in this building. So, if you are looking to experience GOLD and are confined to a wheelchair, it will be difficult to say the least.
Now, when I asked if there was a lift or elevator the women of GOLD said no, we have strong men. And they were not joking! If visiting GOLD is on the top of your Live It list, just call ahead, they will literally make accommodations to carry a wheelchair up the two flights of stairs. Talk about customer service!
My experience: So I already mentioned my mom is in a wheelchair. She can walk, just not far, and certainly not up two flights of stairs. But my mom is also a determined explorer. So, what did my mom do? She slowly and with help climbed the two flights of stairs. With tears in all of our eyes, my mom made it to the top. She enjoyed the evening so much that she said to me, “Amanda, do not be upset that it was not handicap accessible. I am happy I climbed the stairs, and I would do it again for this experience.”
Is it child friendly? Of course! What little kid doesn’t want to beat on a drum all night long and not get in trouble for it? Face painting to boot? A match made in heaven for the wee ones. My Aurora the Explorer absolutely LOVED this evening and experience.
So as you can read, we fit a heck of a lot into our few days in Cape Town… but everyone was really looking forward to the next stop – Victoria Falls.
Read my next blog to learn about our lookout from the edge of the earth… literally.
Keep your eyes open for more about the rest of the trip!
Want to learn more about traveling to Africa? Our travel professionals at Roseborough Travel would be happy to answer any questions you have and help you plan the perfect vacation! http://roseboroughtravel.com/