Robben Island

Saturday was an intense, emotional day. It started off far too early for a Saturday morning. A van picked us up at around 10 a.m. to take a tour of Langa, the township we’re currently staying in. I had been dreading the tour. I don’t think the people who live in the township want their lives to be on display, and I had a feeling that would be the general effect. I was somewhat right (more on that soon!) but the tour was still better than expected. We started off at the Langa Civic Center, which was pretty neat. They have a stage for performances and a pottery studio. In the pottery studio, artists craft the most beautiful bowls, mugs, and plates. The paintings on the ceramics were beautiful.   They even showed us the plates they had made for a Leadership program at Georgetown. The center also had a store. I didn’t have enough rand on me to buy anything, but I will definitely be going back before I leave Langa. They had beautiful artwork, jewelry, mugs, sculptures, and more.


The tour then went to a museum for pass laws and the resistance against them. This was also interesting, and I was starting to think I was going to love the tour, if we continued to focus on the history of Langa. Sadly, we didn’t. We instead walked through the township. I was fine when we went to a braai (barbeque, but really grilling) restaurant, and when we bought fat cakes (essentially fried dough). I didn’t mind learning the history of each area of the township. I enjoyed learning that the area I am living in is so nice it’s considered the Beverly Hills of Langa, because that gave me some context to put my homestay experience in (also because SOCAL). I liked seeing the new flats with solar panels. But I really hated going into one of the old flats. It had a historical context—these were once single-sex hostels for men forced to leave their families to work in the area, and now several families live in them and share certain spaces, like bathrooms and kitchens—but people still live there! I could see a woman doing dishes, and a few other residents walked in and out. It was at this point the tour seemed to turn from being a historical backdrop of our current lives, to being a show. When tours go through NYC or LA, the only people gawked at are celebrities. You never go into people’s homes to look and say “Oh look, this is how people here live their lives!” The only parallel would be the Real Housewives series, but those people sign up for that kind of gawking. I can’t be 100% sure, but considering several people seemed surprised or confused to see the Americans in their flat, and since we stayed in the communal area, I assume they were not asked.


After the tour, we went to Robben Island. I went three summers ago, and I did not expect to be as touched emotionally as last time, since I assumed I knew what I would be told. I was, of course, completely wrong. Our guide was a former political prisoner. He was recruited to the ANC at the age of 15 (fifteen!!! Makes me feel very slow in life). He joined a rather militant, young faction. He was angry. He wanted to destroy white people—all white people—but his training taught him that whiteness wasn’t the enemy. His training taught him that blacks were complicit in the system, too, as guards, police, leaders of the Bantustans, and more. He engaged in a few assignments, including blowing up a government building. Several were injured. He was charged with being a member of a banned organization and terrorism. He was in prison for 10 years, eight of which were on Robben Island. He was active in the prison soccer league, Makana (note: I recently watched a really good documentary on soccer as resistance in the prison system during apartheid. If you’re into that stuff, let me know and I’ll try to find the name of it!). He was considered a sort of leader in the system. He could discipline prisoners for talking too much to people they shouldn’t trust, etc. This was a power granted to him by the other prisoners, not the prison. One day, when his father was coming to visit, he was called into the warden’s office. His father had been shot 8 times by security police.


At this point in his story, the tour guide had to collect himself. As someone pointed out during a class debriefing, it was the first time all 24 people in my group were silent for a period and for the same reason (we have a bit of a problem with talking during our lectures). This is why Robben Island will always be powerful for years to come, even after several visits. The size of the cells will remain the same. The soccer field will look the same. The boat ride will always be sickeningly choppy. But every time you come, as long as you get a different guide, you will get another piece of the puzzle, one more horror story. I don’t condone violence. I don’t entirely approve of what my guide did. But how can I understand what he was going through? How can I judge his actions? I’ve told his story rather clinically, but when you hear him tell it, you’re on his side. You can tell he is a good man, who did commit a terrible act of violence, but only because he thought it was necessary. Still, it is this complexity that makes post-apartheid SA so fascinating. In the aftermath of apartheid, there was a Truth & Reconciliation Committee, which, as one of its functions, held amnesty hearings. Many of the people who came forward for amnesty were fighting for liberation, but had committed actions they wished they had not needed to do. I have no idea if my guide came before the committee, or if he wishes he hadn’t had to blow up a building, but I could tell he knew he needed to and would rather not have. I think his character can be summed up in the fact that, when he was released, he asked one of his former guards and his family over for dinner (and no, he didn’t poison him!)


The physical presence of Robben Island is in itself an interesting case study for apartheid. The views from the islands are gorgeous. The waters are crystalline. Table Mountain is just in the distance.  The city of Cape Town can be viewed easily. Imagine the pure psychological torture of being stuck on that island for years and years, so close to the land you love or lust for, but cut off indefinitely. The Island is also an interesting case study for post-apartheid reconciliation. People still live on the island. Many of these people are former prisoners. Many are former wardens and guards. They live in seeming harmony (which actually seems to make it an exception among post-apartheid South Africa…). I can’t imagine.


I still haven’t had time to process the entire day. Last night (I’m writing this on Sunday), we went out in Cape Town. It was a good way to unwind after such an emotional day, but it also meant I couldn’t think about it alone or anything. Hopefully, tonight I can process and reflect. I don’t think the day will yield some big conclusion or idea, but it was certainly a day that changes your perspective, even if just a little bit.





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