By Jide Ajani
It was a visit that evoked emotions of many kinds.
It was also a visit to one of the most popular prison facilities in the world – Robben Island Prison.
And one of the inmates who made the prison to attract global attention was prisoner 466/64, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela, referred to as Madiba or Tata (Father of the nation), who was later to become President of South Africa, spent 18 of his 27 year jail term in Robben Island prison.
He never gave up.
As we made to board the ferry from Table Bay, Cape Town, the tour guides and handlers were screaming, ‘let’s go to jail, you wanna go to jail, come on, come on, let’s go to jail.’
From the boarding lounge was a bold inscription ‘GUNS ARE NOT ALLOWED ON ROBBEN ISLAND’.
A 35-minute ferry ride that Friday morning of October 11, 2013, took us from Table Bay to Robben Island.
The bold inscription on the walls of the docking area on the island, THE HUMAN SPIRIT CANNOT BE MENACLED, and the other, THE TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT, are testaments to the struggle and the never-say-die mentality of Mandela and his other freedom fighters during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Even the very voluble and rambunctious President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, as well as the father of the immediate past president of the same country, Mbeki, served various jail terms on the island.
For an island that was purely a colony for lepers, the conversion of same into a prison facility came in 1961. It was a maximum security prison for political prisoners until 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed in 1996.
A prison tour guide, Kolekile Mahlahla, who himself spent eight years as an inmate there, knows his trade very well. He knows the history of the prison from inception, though he was hauled in there sometime in the late 1970s. His own story was one of betrayal – a supposed friend he had met on one of his sorties, in and out of South Africa for insurgency training, sold him out during interrogation.
Narrating the story of what the inmates of the facility experienced – a story of immeasurable punishment both physically and mentally – Mahlahla was very graphic in explaining their suffering.
A few of the tourists, made up largely of journalists from different parts of Africa, could not but try to cover their water-filled eyes, a display of emotive response to the tales of woe as retold by Mahlahla.
Before the ferry ride from Table Bay, Cape Town, to the island, we had been warned to wear winter jackets because of the type of weather we would experience. Indeed, a few of the journalists whose clothing appeared inappropriate because of exposure to the wind were left at the mercy of the elements.
So, when Mahlahla told his audience that the inmates slept on the cold bare floor for years before beds were introduced, many curled in horror at the experience.
Yet, being determined inmates, there were moments of triumphs.
Take, for instance, the agitation of the political prisoners that they needed both to be allowed to watch television and the need not to allow criminal inmates to prepare and serve them food. Both causes were worth fighting for.
The reason why the political prisoners wanted to serve as cooks was simply because it was only the cooks who had access to every part of the prison including, of course, Mandela’s cell, located in the ‘B’ Block, which was out of bounds to everybody except a special class of warders.
The only way the political prisoners could have any form of communication with Mandela was if one of them served as a cook.
It was Mahlahla (the tour guide) who schemed his way into the kitchen, disguised himself as a common criminal prisoner (it was easy for him because all the criminal inmates were also scattered about the prison but did shifts and, therefore, did not know one another very well) got the apron and a food table and proceeded straight to Mandela’s prison block where he had a chat with Madiba.
It was a proud Mahlahla who, afterwards, went back to his prison cell to meet other political prisoners whose daily lamentation was their inability to commune with Madiba.
As his fellow inmates were talking about their feelings and how they hoped one day they would speak with Mandela, proudly, Mahlahla told them, “I have just spoken with him; I was with him some moments ago and Madiba is doing fine”.
That was how, he said, “we were able to communicate with Madiba while taking turns to disguise as cooks”.
The second agitation was perfected when they discovered that some officials of the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent had scheduled a visit.
Deliberately, Mahlahla continued, “we staged a hunger strike just days before the visit and we knew that such an action would further embarrass the apartheid regime. Sensing what the backlash would be, the prison authorities quickly acceded to our demands which included being allowed to watch a feature film once a week and also to ease the punishment of our brothers from the South West Africa Peoples Organisation, SWAPO, who were kept separately in D Block and were put through pain.”
For Mahlahla, Robben Island cannot be described as his home but the island was home to him for eight years. Because of his political background, even his modus operandi of guiding tourists round the prison benefitted from the knowledge gained during training in those heady days of Umkhonto we Siswe, the militant resistance wing of the African National Congress, ANC.
He told his own group of tourists (there were many groups on the tour; and that happens all day and all year round) that once any member of our group sighted another group exiting through the gangway of the ‘B’ Block, we should all head in. He said because of the importance tourists attached to viewing the inside of Mandela’s cell, tour guides and tourists almost always clashed, sometimes leading to unwholesome developments. To avoid this, he admonished that once any of us sighted another group filing out, we should head in. His strategy worked.
It was during the struggle to take photographs of the cell of Prisoner 466/64 that it dawned on most of us why tourists and tour guides clashed. It was a scramble to get the best shot. Through the metal doors, a cluster of Blackberry Android phones, iPhones, iPads and digital cameras squeezed through the iron doors to take shots of Mandela’s cell. It was an awesome experience.
Only President Barrak Obama of the United States has ever been allowed to step into that cell as a tourist and take photographs from inside. This happened during his visit to South Africa last year. Immediately after his tour, the door was locked again and the key returned for safe keeping – only God knows where.
The prison is described as a heritage site.
Kept neat all year round, there is a general convenience area for each of the prison blocks. In all, it was an experience that was at once educative and emotive.
(This report by Ajani has been re-modified from its original version to commemorate Mandela’s death)