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AFRICAN HEALTH EXPERIENCE –May 26th, 2007

ROBBEN ISLAND: Monument to the Freedom Struggle
Today the Delegates on Nursing visited Robben Island, located approximate 7.5 miles off the coast of Cape Town. Departure to the island is by ferry from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Waterfront. The ferry ride is ~30 minutes; from there we embarked on a bus tour of the island that took us to historical locations.

In 1961, the Prisons Department built a maximum security prison on the island with the intent to exile, imprison, isolate and banish hard common criminals as well as political leaders against the Apartheid Regime, such as Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC), and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) leader.

During the bus ride our tour guide shared with us some of the brutalities the prisoners endured. The political prisoners endured more brutality than the common criminals. The Apartheid Regime used them as an example to intimidate and deter the other prisoners from organizing, rising up and resisting the totalitarian authority. Beatings, mental abuse, hard physical labor in the lime quarry, extended time in solitary confinement, and inadequate food, bedding and clothing were brutal tactics used for many years to break the spirit of the men held captive on the island.

Other hardships mentioned by our tour guide that the prisoners endured was the difference in treatment between the Africans compared to Colored people (non-white, non-black, Indian, Asians, etc.). The prison uniform for Africans was a shirt, a pair of shorts, with no socks, shoes or underwear. However, the prison uniform for the Colored was a shirt, long pants, socks, shoes, and underwear. Food rations for Africans were smaller by comparison to the Colored whom also received bread with their rations.

Another hardship mentioned by the tour guide was when we visited the lime quarry where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were forced to work long hours breaking rocks. The prisoners were initially told by their captors that they would only work in the lime quarry for a few months. But, this was not true. The captors decided to use the quarry as a form of cruel punishment; a few months turned in to 13 years of hard physical labor. The prisoners worked in all weather conditions without proper protection from the elements. On hot days the only protection they had from the sun was a small space carved out in the limestone where the prisoners would seek refuge. This was the same space where they would eat their food and use the restroom because they were not allowed to leave the premises of the lime quarry. The guards were instructed to shoot to kill anyone seen walking away from the area.

The little hole carved in the limestone was a place for the men to meet, to speak freely, to educate one another, and to boost the spirit that rides within them during this time. It became a holy place of communion.

By 1971 the political prisoners were further isolated to keep them from influencing the other prisoners. Eventually, hunger strikes, legal action and worldwide demands brought about improved conditions to the prisoners of Robben Island.

Even though there were many hardships, there were many stories of inspiration. One story of inspiration that moved me personally is the true story of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, PAC leader. He was imprisoned for leading a march on the 21st of March, 1960 against the “anti-pass laws” – laws that forced Blacks to carry an identification card certifying their status to be in areas reserved for whites. Africans were accosted by the police in these areas and if caught without their identification card they were immediately arrested and taken in for questioning. Often times they would be beaten in order to extract information about anti-Apartheid movements. On the day of the anti-pass march, over 60 people were murdered and many others wounded as the police opened fire on the unarmed marchers. As they tried to flee, many were shot in the back.

Soon after, Sobukwe was arrested and sentenced to incarceration for his role as an anti-apartheid leader. Initially, he was to be released from prison in 1963, but the government, in fear of his influence, passed a law known as the Sobukwe Law, which gave the government power to detain and imprison a subject without trial. Sobukwe was seen as a huge threat to the Apartheid government insomuch as they sentenced him to solitary confinement on Robben Island. He was not permitted to speak to anyone. According to our tour guide, as the prisoners would pass by Sobukwe’s confinement area, they would remove their hats out of respect. Sobukwe would give them a sign as he watched the prisoners pass by him. He would pick up African soil with his hands and allow it to slowly filter through his fingers. Then he would make a fist. This message was to let his African brothers know that “We are the Sons of this land”.

As the years slipped by, Sobukwe’s vocal chords were weakened from non-use. He grew ill and in time developed cancer from which he would never recover. He died at the young age of 54 on February 27th, 1978. The day of his death is celebrated as “Sobukwe’s Day”. To the African people and to me, Sobukwe is an inspiration.

“You have seen by now what education means to us: the identification of ourselves with the masses. Education to us means service to Africa. You have a mission; we all have a mission. “ – Robert Mangliso Sobukwe

The final stop was the maximum security prison and the main quarters of Nelson Mandela. We were dropped off by the bus and greeted by a former prisoner of the island. He took us step-by-step the process by which a prisoner arrives on the island as a man with an identity, but only to lose that identity to a number.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in exile. In 1963, he was brought to trial for his affiliation with the ANC. He was held captive on Robben Island for 18 years from 1964 to 1982. Thereafter he was sent to Pollsmoor Prison, on the mainland. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The following year the remaining political detainees were released and in 1996 the common criminals were transferred to the mainland prison. By 1997, Robben Island became a living museum to symbolize freedom, the transcending power of forgiveness and a place of political pilgrimage. Nelson Mandela along with other former political prisoners visited Robben Island. They visited the quarry where they spent many years chipping away at the limestone. According to our tour guide, without a word, Mandela broke away from the group, picked up a limestone, walked a few feet and dropped it. Witnesses saw what he did and began to follow suit. The pile of rocks is near the entrance to the quarry and to this day it remains a symbol of freedom.

“Today when I look at Robben Island, I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid. It is true that Robben Island was once a place of darkness, but out of that darkness has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls…“ – Nelson Mandela

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