A History Lesson

May 29, 2011

Today was a long, busy day.  We started out the day by taking a trip to Cape Town to visit Robben Island.  This is the political prison where Nelson Mandela was held in prison.  We got up early this morning to take a long walk to the train station.  We learned that we wouldn’t make it on time, however, and instead hailed a cab and piled in.

When we made it to the waterfront, we boarded the “ferry” to take us to the island.  The security to get onto the ferry was just as hard-core as South African airport security.  Of course, compared to the TSA, security is pretty chill.

The ferry ride was quite the experience: 50 minutes on a small boat on rough seas.  Cape Town is the second windiest city in the world, so the waves were pretty terrifying!  This is the third small boat I’ve been on, as well as the third time I’ve been sea sick.  Good to know!  Plus, it was freezing!  Everyone sort of laughed at me as I was curled in a ball on the bench trying to stay warm.

Robben Island was amazing, though, so the sea sickness was completely worth it!  We started with a tour by bus where we learned the general history of the island.  It began as a place where people with leprosy were sent to quarantine.  These poor, sick people were sent here to die alone, serving a beginning for the pain on the island.  The only remaining structures from this time were a church and a cemetery.


The rest were demolished in fear of infection.  At one time the buildings were used for TB and mental patients, but we didn’t learn much about this part of the history.   The military occupied the island during World War II and built a gun to defend the cape.  Unfortunately, the gun was finished two years after the war ended.  A town was also built on the island which is still occupied today.  The crime rate for this town is zero.  They don’t even have a police station.

Of course, the most well-known purpose for this island was the political prison.  It held many leaders who, at the time, were deemed a danger to South African society.  The most well-known prisoner was Nelson Mandela, the man who revolutionized the country after he was elected president.

Daily life on Robben Island was awful, to be blunt.  Depending on the cell block, individuals either slept in really tiny quarters or in small rooms with multiple bed rolls or benches.


They would go to work, many of which went to the limestone quarries.  There was a cave meant for short breaks.  Prisoners were not supposed to talk, they did not have hats or sunglasses, and guards were told to shoot to kill.  Nevertheless, prisoners still shared information.  That cave turned into the University of Robben Island where the residents taught each other what they knew.  Many uneducated people, upon leaving the island, had learned enough to qualify them for a graduate degree.

The small bits of resistance are key to the island’s history.  Guards were sympathetic and often broke rules to help the prisoners have a more comfortable life.  These small resistances are the foci of the tour.  The Robben Island museum does not focus on the trials that people faced.  Instead they focus on the work it takes for freedom.  Robben Island is a remembrance of the great accomplishments of South Africa.

Beyond this, the day was trivial.  We all got sea sick on the boat home.  We went to Long Street and ate at a cafe then took the train home.

Apparently riding first class and paying the extra 10 rand puts you in a part of the train away from the sketchy people.  Good to know.


About jessinsafrica

Hi, my name is Jessica MacKinnon. I am driven to work to make the world a slightly better place. I was really excited to take that motivation to somewhere I thought really needed improvement. What actually happened, though, was that I instead became a better person.
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