South Africa

12.09.135:45 AM ET

Visiting Nelson Mandela’s Prison

Robben Island is a barren crucible where apartheid’s greatest opponents were honed. It’s not a pleasant trip, but it’s an undeniably powerful one.

“This is the island. This is where you will die.” These were the words which greeted Nelson Mandela on his first day of imprisonment on Robben Island.

I will never forget my first sight of Robben Island. It was 2012, exactly half a century after Mandela’s incarceration. A searingly hot day, an hour’s ferry ride, then this rocky outcrop of concrete and barbed wire. A sinister swarm of black sea-birds waited at the prison port, hundreds of them crouching on the boulders, giving off a foul smell.

I joined a tour given by one of the island’s former inmates, now a guide. A small, dignified man in his late 60s,he had been held here for 13 years for ‘terrorism offences’. Since his release in 1991, when Robben Island ceased to be a prison, this man has devoted his life to showing people around. He told us that he dreaded returning to the island every single morning, but he did it “so that this never happens again."

As we walked around the cell blocks, A, B, C, D and E, our guide explained the different categories, races and offences of the prisoners: “When we first arrived here we were brought off the boat in chains. From that moment we ceased to exist as people. Our names were deleted and our identities erased. We were put into prison uniform—shorts and no shoes for coloureds, trousers and shoes for whites. Each man was given a number: this was your new identity. I am sure you have heard of Comrade Mandela’s number—46664. That was his identity in this place.”

He led us into the glaring white heat of the concrete prison yard. It was in this yard that Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu’s manuscript, which later became the book Long Walk to Freedom, was discovered. The guide recalled: “The guards uncovered it, buried by this wall, but Comrade Mandela had made two copies. They found the first one but the second copy had already been smuggled out. For that crime, he had four years of educational privileges withdrawn.”

He spoke about the kindness of his fellow political prisoners; how they shared their meals and cared for each other when they got sick from the terrible food, hard labour and extreme weather. Robben Island is bone dry, with as little as 2mm of rainfall per year: inmates worked in these conditions month after month with the bare minimum of food and water.

In B block, he showed us where Nelson Mandela had been held: a tiny cell no larger than a cupboard. It had barred windows, a bucket, a small rolled blanket and concrete floor.

Down the hallway were the censorship offices where prisoners’ letters were read and edited, the study offices, and the punishment section. “They did not officially use torture but they used every other method to break us. They denied us water, they shut us in solitary confinement for weeks on end, the isolation could drive you mad.”

I asked him about their studies and debates, and why so many great writers and thinkers had come out of the Apartheid regime. “We had a saying: each one teach one. Many uneducated, illiterate men left this place with degrees and doctorates, they went on to become doctors, lawyers, university professors. Look at President Zuma, Motlante, look at Comrade Mandela. This prison was our university.”

Then he drove us across the island to see one of these vast limestone quarries. “We worked all day in the sun breaking rocks with blunt tools; some of the prisoners went blind from the glare of limestone on their eyes. Many times we went on hunger strike to try and get protection for our eyes—such a simple thing. It didn’t work. The guards told us that sunglasses were not part of prison uniform.”

Like his fellow freedom fighters, this man displayed a total lack of bitterness, despite all the injustice and suffering he’d experienced. As we left the quarry, I asked him why exactly he’d ended up on Robben Island.

“I was protesting with the Congress of South African Students. We were demonstrating against the apartheid regime—but always through peaceful means. I trained in Swaziland, Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana, learning about political freedom, race, equality and non-violent resistance. I was arrested and detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. My charge sheet included ‘leaving the country unlawfully, re-entering the country unlawfully, conspiracy, and furthering the aims of terrorism’. For this I was severely tortured.” He showed me deep scars on his forearm.

“Many of my comrades were killed. There were female prisoners too, I cannot even say what happened to them, their treatment was unspeakable. I was brought to Robben Island with iron shackles on my wrists and ankles. This was in 1985.”

It was shocking to realize that this was less than 30 years ago—how could this have been happening, here in this prison, shackles and irons and hard labour, in 1985? I had heard about the anti-apartheid struggle growing up, of course, but seeing the island at first hand brought it horribly alive. Talking to my guide, I began to appreciate the significance of what these men went through: the beatings, humiliations, and false charges; their thousands of days of imprisonment. I’m reminded of this again as we celebrate the life, and mourn the death, of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The pre-eminent leader in the liberation struggle, Mandela showed the world how to choose forgiveness over bitterness, reconciliation over vengeance, and love over hate.

I wasn’t sorry to leave Robben Island behind; it isn’t a place for humans. It was a rough ferry ride back to Cape Town, and the guide’s final words stayed with me all the way: “Remember, freedom doesn’t fall from the sky.”


Read previous installments in The View From London here.

Emma Woolf is a journalist, TV presenter, and the author of An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.