I had the privilege of visiting Robben Island on Wednesday and discovered a history that is broader than I could have imagined.
The tour began with a 25-minute ride on a large catamaran as cabin video screens provided a brief history of the island. Shortly after docking, we boarded a large bus and began the tour, although the outing was both disappointing and enlightening.
The down side was that we spent almost the entire time on the bus and stopped only twice for photo opportunities. Lonely Planet reviewed the trip as crowded buses and “woefully short,” and they were right.
The enlightening and perhaps most impressive aspect was that our guide, Sedick Levy, was a former political prisoner – one of thousands who were unjustly sentenced. Levy told personal stories, shared the hardships of his imprisonment, and humorously described how, when initially offered a job in public service, he was attracted to the position without first knowing that it would mean returning to the island.
The small period of time away from the buses allowed us to wander around one of the many compounds and actually enter an old prison cell. Inside a barrack, the guides described the various ways in which daily life unfolded. Prisoners were beaten, some were placed in solitary confinement for years, and of course many were forced to do hard labor in the lime quarry.
A major focal point of the tour involved the tiny cell that held Nelson Mandela. The mass of people in our group moved slowly down one of the hallways to the infamous space. Most folks stopped to take a picture, and although you couldn’t actually enter that particular cell, others were unlocked and open. With little time to walk around after leaving the compounds and courtyards, we walked to our starting point and boarded the boat that took us back to Cape Town. (Photo: Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, left)
While names like Mandela and Sobukwe necessarily draw attention to the recent struggles of South Africa, the history of Robben Island spans thousands of years. The island was also an infamous home to the mentally ill and lepers and served as a defense station in World War II.
Still, the most moving part of my visit came from Sedick Levy, the former prisoner- turned-tour guide. Throughout the excursion, he spoke of reconciliation, forgiveness and nonviolence against the people who had both hurt and oppressed him for years. His hope was that at the very least, people would recognize the humanity in every person they meet; it was amazing to see this much faith and compassion in a person who had suffered so much. (Photo: Sedick Levy, right)