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Every South African should visit Robben Island

“Go back and get your tickets printed.”

I’ve just stood in line for 10 minutes after being told by an incompetent receptionist that I can board with my e-ticket barcode.

“But the receptionist said I can go through.”

“No.”

Tamryn, pick your battles. I hurry back to the ticket counter and smile brightly to get what I want. I get the dang tickets and return to mean ticket man. I get let on.

“Well that was annoying!”

About five minutes later I am silenced. Anyone who spends more than five minutes around me knows that’s no easy feat, but there I sat – silenced. Madiba took this boat ride, as did Robert Sobukwe, Walter Sisulu and many other political heroes. Their wives and children have also taken these boat rides. I’m frustrated as a result of a 15-minute hold-up to my trip, these men had spent years fighting for freedom – their pleas falling on deaf ears. They were traveling to the island with the notion that they would never return to the mainland. Just for wanting freedom.

After we disembark, with no chains, I hear some groans of sore bums and muscle cramps. I’ve read numerous books on the prisoners themselves and those affiliated with the prisons, I’ve read how prisoners describe walking onto Robben Island for the first time. I look around – I see pictures of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbheki and our current president Jacob Zuma. Madiba and Mbheki are holding hands, rejoicing at the thought of a successful democratic nation; Zuma is positioned next to them. There are other boats scattered around the harbour and more pictures highlighting the dark times on the island. Photos are being taken by designer clothed tourists who excitedly converse in their mother tongue – the only word I can pick up is Madiba.

Photo by www.wokshots.com

Photo by www.wokshots.com

Onto awaiting buses we go. Our tour guide and bus driver, Thabo and Andre, are both incredibly knowledgeable and passionate.

We make our way round the island, stopping every so often to be shown various sites of interest. A moving moment was driving by the famous rock pile; all the political prisoners had a reunion on the island, Madiba set the first stone down and without a word – everyone else followed suit. The pile of stones still stands today.

The final stop on our bus trip (it lasts approximately 45 minutes) is the maximum-security prison. People were buzzed at the idea of being shown around one of the most famous prisons in the world by a former inmate. We approach an aged man who is slightly hunched carrying an air of familiarity with his surroundings. He was imprisoned here, and now it’s his bread and butter.

Photo by www.wokshots.com

Photo by www.wokshots.com

His name is Jama and he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 5 years. He is originally from Port Elizabeth and in the seventies, while still in High School, he started a youth movement to oppose the government’s laws of black oppression. The first stop is his former cell…

Photo by www.wokshots.com

Photo by www.wokshots.com

The mood shifts to a slightly less depressed state at the mention of Madiba’s cell. Now here’s where I get confused, what were my fellow tourists expecting to find? What were they expecting to feel? Jama leads us to his famous “garden” where he distracted himself with fathering tomato shrubs. The walls are high and it’s not like they saw in the latest (horrible) movie adaptation of his life, there are no fences. Just high walls and a mild feeling of claustrophobia – and this was his outdoor space.

The excitement has somehow subsided, and nobody is pushing to the front to see his cell. This whole ordeal is starting to feel extremely real and morbid. Being from South Africa, I thought I would be hardened to the tale as I had heard it so often – but approaching his cell, especially being first (I turned up the bravery) – made it all the more dramatic and theatrical. I could almost feel a somber classical track in the background as I turned my body to see the inside of his cell. I felt cold and numb to it all – how on earth could I comprehend his struggles and find some emotional state to attach to this situation? Jama asked if I wanted a picture in front of his cell. “No thanks, I won’t forget this in a hurry.”

My own "Long Walk to Freedom"

My own “Long Walk to Freedom”

Visitors get to experience the same “walk to freedom” – by this stage my emotions are highly strung and I’m uncomfortable being a white South African at that current moment. Jama has heard me speak, what must he think of me? I’m immersed in the moment and I’m trying to feel what it must have felt like being exonerated after all those years. I can’t – it’s impossible. So I try replicate it into my own life. As a traveller being forced to mainstream, I’m also trapped. I feel like every day is a carbon copy of the previous 24 hours and the anxiety and frustration of having “given up” on life is overwhelming. I feel like I have betrayed my own happiness. How can I move forward from this?

As I’m about to walk onto a ferry that is to take me away from this prison, Jama walks by and smiles at me. Forgiveness – that’s our miracle. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. You don’t need religion to understand the meaning.

I urge every South African and visitor to our country to experience this incredible piece of history.

Have a look at the tour times and costs.

Much love,

Tam

xo

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