Robben Island Roundtable

Last Sunday our group visited Robben Island, where many anti-Apartheid activists were jailed until 1991, when the last prisoner was released from the island.  In 1995 former political prisoners decided to turn the island into a museum, and since then ex-prisoners have returned to the island to serve as tour guides.

On our visit we first took a tour of the island by bus and were surprised to learn that there are actually still people living on Robben Island today (including former guards and prisoners). There is even a now defunct school on the island that closed when enrollment dwindled to just 18 students. We then visited the maximum security prison and our tour was led by a former political prisoner.  Our guide had been convicted of treason for smuggling arms from outside South Africa into the country and had been imprisoned on Robben Island for seven years. During our tour we were struck by both the cruelty of the Apartheid system and the ways in which the struggle against Apartheid is commemorated. Over dinner, some members of our trip discussed our response to the visit and questions it raised about historical memory and race relations in South Africa today.

Participants: Margaret (MZ), Anisha (AS), Emily (EU), Rachel (RB). The discussion has been condensed and edited for the sake of clarity.

AS: The first thing that was really weird was that the wardens who have returned to the island don’t do the regular tours like the political prisoners do; they do special tours.

RB: But do you think you would want to go on a tour led by a warden?

MZ: So I asked the guy who was giving our tour what the current guards did and he said that in his knowledge some of them ran the boats, some of them did hospital administration, some people did program administration, and that the only time that the guards gave tours was when somebody from that era requested it. But the whole idea that the prisoners banded together and decided to create this museum was interesting.

The Courtyard of the Maximum Security Prison (Brown/TYG)

EU: What struck me was that a lot of my mixed feelings about the museum were because there was a lot of co-opting of history in that it is known as “Nelson Mandela’s Island” in many ways. Yes, he was a representative of the movement, but there are always choices made when we remember something so closely tied to one person.

RB: I thought it was really interesting that when we went to a talk today [Monday] at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and a woman who had just written a biography of Nelson Mandela spoke and she said “he is now as erroneously deified as he was erroneously vilified during Apartheid.” That was an interesting way of framing it, in that it causes you to forget about all the other people who were involved in the anti-Apartheid movement and just to honor him. And yes, their pictures were in the cells, but really everyone goes to Mandela’s cell.

EU: It was Mandela’s story.

AS: The other thing that was interesting is that it’s dehumanizing to Mandela himself if you forget that he was in prison for 27 years and he’s a person who has been in prison for 27 years and hasn’t seen his wife or his kids.

EU: I don’t remember the exact quote on the buses, but there was something along the lines of “it’s not a long journey when it’s for freedom,” but it is a long journey. It’s a long journey when your father or your husband or your brother is in prison. Or when you’re in prison. It’s 27 years. That is the five year-old whose father comes out of prison when they’re 33. That is a long time. And even though it’s for this greater struggle, you can’t forget that these are people and that kind of commitment was not just Nelson Mandela’s commitment, it was the commitment of many many people.

MZ: There’s also this fact of – for example our tour guide smuggled guns across the border, and if you smuggle guns across the border even if you’re doing it for political reasons, you’re not getting off jack free. So there’s really completely one side of history if it’s the prisoner’s telling the story.

RB: And I think that’s also how we view the South African apartheid is that we forget about the violence. And I thought that was an odd thing about the museum; it didn’t give a lot of context about apartheid. He [our guide] didn’t say why he was on trial. Somebody had to ask him why he was put on Robben Island.

Watch Tower on Robben Island (Brown/TYG)

AS: In the end one thing to remember when we are memorializing or even talking about Robben Island is that it was a prison first. So whatever uses it has come to, there is still the stain of it actually having been a jail.

EU: This also speaks to a larger effort of the country of South Africa both to remember and forget apartheid. It’s very similar to the experience I had recently in Berlin where there is a very conscious effort to memorialize a very shameful past. And there’s a way to do it, but there is also selectivity in that narrative and selectivity in what you are choosing to portray. One of the things I thought was interesting about our tour guide was that the amount of choice given to him in coming back was limited. That the government did nothing to resettle him or help him reintegrate into the community; did nothing to give him some economic footing to stand on.

Also there are definitely certain motives in telling the story of Apartheid and trying to make it an “us and them,” which is a very false distinction. Nelson Mandela was elected in our lifetime. And I think what you forget is that Apartheid is not just laws, it’s also a way of thinking and a way of living. It’s the reason why we still see a segregated community here, but it’s also the fact that our parent’s generation would have been raised being told that there are inequalities for a reason and there’s inferiority, You don’t just blink and forget that when a law is signed. So you still have millions of people living in South Africa who are tied to these same ideas and we can’t just pretend – which I think the museum tries to do – that that doesn’t exist. Racism doesn’t go away with laws.

AS: I think that also ties into a problem with just memorializing in general which is as you said “the goal is to remember and to forget” but in the attempt to forget what you are actually doing is remembering. So that’s another thing that’s problematic about this, and Holocaust Museums and WWI memorials. In WWI memoirs too the authors are often like “I was writing this to forget, but instead I now have this memory.”

Moving the discussion to the other end of the table: JR (JR), Zoe (ZR), Emma (EG), and Rachel (RB).

Cells in the Maximum Security Prison (Brown/TYG)

JR: I was thinking about how it’s weird that we associate Nelson Mandela so closely with this movement, but I was also thinking about a counterargument to that. Isn’t it important to at least get some sense of the history? And applying one person to this idea makes it a little more accessible to the population.

EG: I think it’s kind of interesting that a lot of times with museums that are testaments to the Holocaust or things like that will end with a section that brings it to today and asks “Where are we now?” or “What have we learned?” and what the next generation can do. This very much was just like a relic of history and there was no attempt to bring it into today even though the Apartheid was very recent and it still influences so much of South African politics today.

ZR: Also from what we learned in recent meetings there isn’t really a mandatory need to learn the Apartheid facts [in school]. I was especially shocked at how on the bus we were quizzed on the years of Nelson Mandela’s prison terms and no one knew. That raises really interesting questions about what role the public education sector has in ensuring that historical memory remains.

RB: I was interested in the idea of bringing it to today because the thing is that in some ways it wasn’t that long ago. But I agree, that in some ways compared to the Holocaust Museum or Yad Vashem, it felt almost older.

EG: It really does have this ancient, almost timeless feeling. Even though it’s still very much a part of today. It’s not really even history even.

ZR: I guess it must be really difficult for a nation that is trying to become “the rainbow nation” to become post-racial to then be continuing to talk about something that is inherently within their society and not something that they are looking at from afar.

RB: I was really interested when our tour guide – we were asking him about the warden’s living with them – and he said “oh on Robben Island we have a post-racial society. We have no racism.”

EG: I think that the warden-prisoner relationships were one of the most interesting aspects of it, because that’s really where the Apartheid dynamic plays out. It’s the black prisoner and the white wardens, and I think that it was almost underplayed in terms of how did they get to the point today where they can coexist. It feels like there was no proper reconciliation and redemption. They were just kind of released. And I feel like that’s an emotional process so it’s hard to understand, but I wish we could have explored it more.

ZR: It’ just interesting because it’s like a tradeoff that you have between forgiveness and justice. Can you have them both at the same time? They chose forgiveness at the expense of someone like a prisoner having justice over the warden that probably victimized them. And I don’t really know if there has ever been an instance where forgiveness and justice have been reconciled in a post-conflict society, or how they can be reconciled.

EG: Yeah it’s so interesting seeing them today. UCT is one of the most diverse schools in the world and it’s so crazy to go from one day spending the day at UCT and the next at Robben Island and seeing how in just our lifetime people have gone from citizens jailing one another to learning together in classrooms.

An Incongruous Mural in the Maximum Security Prison (Brown/TYG)

ZR: But also is there a difference between being post-racial and being completely mixed? Because I feel like as much as this may be a post-racial society in the way they want it to be, it’s very much like there are neighborhoods that are predominantly one race or the other.

RB: I agree and I think that if you have to say you are post-racial you still have a lot of racial tensions. You don’t need to point it out if it’s already there.

EG: And it’s so funny that the label post-racial is constantly applied and yet there is no country that I have been to where I have ever though this much about race. A student I was speaking to today was like this whole idea of a rainbow nation is a complete lie. And so it’s sad almost going from Robben Island to the outside world. It feels very much like a bubble that’s a little bit disconnected from today’s society. It’s literally an island.