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Robben Island

The cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for his 18 years on Robben Island.

On April 8, 2017, we took a bus tour and walking tour of Robben Island and its former maximum security prison, respectively. At the dock, I read a quote stating the need to remember the brutality of apartheid but also the choice to see Robben Island as a symbol of “the triumph of the human spirit over oppression,” and I felt that these feelings both saturated my experience there.
I learned details on each tour about the history of the island long before Mandela’s imprisonment there. It was discovered in the 1400’s by a Portuguese sailor and a European halfway-point refreshment station on the way to India was established in the 1600’s. While I didn’t know this station was on Robben (Seal!) Island specifically, what I found interesting was that the first political prisoner, a Khoisan (Cape native) person, was brought to the island in 1658. At least one more was imprisoned there (and escaped!) in 1690. Robben Island is deeply intertwined with the colonial and politically oppressive history of the region long before apartheid. In 1815, twelve female prisoners were brought there and an insane asylum as established there in 1861. A leper colony was also forcibly established from 1830-1930; the oppressive history was not only racist but also able-ist.

The conditions of the modern prison were not only built to physically break the inmates (particularly the political prisoners) but also the mind. The apartheid system was enforced within, white prisoners being sent elsewhere entirely and black prisoners receiving smaller rations than colored prisoners. The stone quarry left physical scars on the inmates, including leaving Mandela with the need to take smalls steps for the rest of his life. The social interactions of the inmates were highly policed and prisoners were forced to speak only Afrikaans, a language which many did not speak, to visitors. It is difficult for me to process and express the deeply evil irony embodied in Robben Island: that those oppressed people brave enough to ask for freedom and justice were further robbed of their freedom and basic justices on that island.

What I find most awe-inducing is, in fact, the huge resiliency and humanity of the ex-prisoners. During imprisonment, even, their use of the lunch area in the quarry to continue political resistance through teach each other and discussing strategy all while working in a quarry specifically designed to break their bodies and minds is inexpressibly good. Two other examples of this persistent hope and resistance are that Mandela wrote his long, hope-filled autobiography during his imprisonment under risk of punishment that was realized when guards found pages in his courtyard garden and deprived him of his (few) privileges for four years. Even this did not stop him. Another prisoner’s letter home stated his love and hope that he would see them again. This very human hope is beautiful in the face of evil meant and designed to squash it.

It is so much easer even outside of prison to do nothing or to become cynical than to resist evils in power, and I hope to keep these freedom fighters in mind when I tire of protesting or calling out injustice or pushing for acknowledgement of abuses of power. I hope to sear their stories into my memory and to honor them by fighting for what is right and believing in the achievability of justice no matter where I am or what the state of affairs.

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