Saturday, January 1, 2011

Robben Island - a pilgrimage by a struggle hero

In the 1980's Pietermaritzburg was a cauldron of warfare between Inkatha and the African National Congress. They were terrifying times. Aided and abetted by the apartheid state, Inkatha rampaged everywhere, killing and intimidating. Priests and ministers of the church who were actively engaged were few and far between. Many of them just battoned down the church hatches and hoped it would all go away. Not the Revd Ben Nsimbi - a humble and remarkable Methodist, who was there for the people who were suffering - who stood out in any crowd, despite his slight stature.

He expressed the hope, some time ago, that he wanted to see Robben Island before he dies. I, together with a struggle lawyer in Durban, have been privileged to be a part in enabling this dream to come to fruition. He and his wife Thoko have been staying with us for the past few days, during which they went to the Island.

What follows below are his impressions of the visit. I will comment, at the end of them, on what I see to be really significant insights - put in a really simple way:

Visit to Robben Island
31 December 2010
Revd Ben Nsimbi

As our feet touched the ground, Cde Madiba’s words during the Rivonia trial came to mind -

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

My soul, my mind, my body – yes, my whole being felt revitalised and rejuvenated. I am not a politician, but all of my life has been unfortunately negatively affected by the notorious apartheid system. I could write volumes about this, but God forbid!

This Robben Island was a curse to our black community and foolishness to the whites. It was foolishness because they thought the size of their army; the huge machinery of their security forces and; (worst of all), the myth of their having been ordained by God to rule over us, could never be challenged.

Like the lepers of the ancient days, political prisoners were dumped here, lest they contaminated the rest of their fellow human beings with their ideology. Today, the Island has become an international attraction for tourists of all walks of life, young and old.

Our minds were challenged and our hearts moved when we met a boy of 10, who had travelled with his father from Australia to see the place whose name is now synonymous with Madiba. In his hand this boy carried a book entitled “Viva Mandela!” On the ferry he was enthusiastically paging through it. The question went through our minds, how many South African children of that age would take an interest in the liberation struggle of their own country? For me, this is a crucial question, because if we forget where we come from, the gains that have been made will vanish into thin air. There are many battlefields inside and outside South Africa, against the apartheid regime, but Robben Island, surely, remains unique.

The young man who was our tour guide in the bus spent time showing us where the PAC leader, Mr Robert Sobukwe was placed in solitary confinement. He briefly outlined his biography. His telling of the story was extremely impressive and reminded me of the special parliamentary session which was called at the time to pass the so-called “Sobukwe Bill” (The General Laws Amendment Bill) This Bill would permit the detention in solitary confinement without trial for 90 days. One particular clause was directed at Robert Sobukwe. He had been due for release, but instead was transported to Robben Island, where he stayed in 24-hour solitary confinement for six years.)

From the bus, a middle-aged ex-convict, Mr Msomi, took us through the different sections and cells in the prison. I did wish that we could have been divided into smaller groups at this stage, because the group we were in numbered more than 100 people. This meant that we could not hear some of his comments or explanations. It was very much a rushed process and we could not ask some of the questions we had on our mind.

To Thoko, my wife, who has never been imprisoned, it was horrifying. To me it was less so (of course, I was not imprisoned on Robben Island).

Ideally, we would have liked to spend more time on the Island. We would have liked time to digest and to reflect on what we had seen. We would have liked to hear what some of the other convicts had to say. In a word, there was not sufficient time for contemplation.

We went to the Island expecting something educational and spiritual. This could have been better achieved if there was more time, less rush, and more interaction with the guides. Instead what we experienced was a commercial one, rather than an educational one. Despite that, however, it was an extraordinary experience and has fulfilled one of my life-time ambitions.

Revd Nsimbi raises several interesting observations which, I would think, need much more further discussion. Firstly, there is the issue of the interest which South African children have in history. He wonders whether a South African child be as interested as was the young Australian boy he encountered, in his/her own history - let alone someone else's history? There can be no doubt that South African learners of today are very much less engaged with the struggle against apartheid. In many ways that is a good thing – something one would want. But it soon becomes clear, when one engages in discussion with many young people, that there is just a simple ignorance about the most basic facts of South African history. Equally because of the way the present curriculum is structured, there is equal ignorance on other struggles, both present and past, in other countries. This has been an issue which has been widely debated and acknowledged – but it remains a blight on our educational system and will have profound effects on the way the future generation understands and interprets itself.

The second observation he makes is that Robben Island needs to be celebrated as a primary site of black consciousness. A visit to the Island does highlight the importance of certain people such as Robert Sobukwe, but somehow the contribution of Black Consciousness, in particular, seems to have got lost in the "rainbow nation" dream. It was (and to my mind, remains) a hugely important contribution to our struggle and I don’t think there is nearly enough focus on it.

Finally, Revd Nsimbi expected (not unnaturally) the experience of visiting the Island to be spiritual one. In some rather limited senses, it was. But there was not enough opportunity to pause, to reflect, to be contemplative. I would say that that must be a grave flaw in the tourism design of the place. Robben Island is not an ordinary museum. It is much more like a Cathedral, a Mosque, a Temple. It is a World Heritage Site and it was chosen to be that, because it is entirely unique. That, in itself, should be a limiting factor on the commercial opportunity – and a pointer to the design of an experience that enables the visitor to engage with it and be changed by it. It has not achieved that, unfortunately.


  1. As a teacher of History, albeit at a university in KZN not primary school level, I have learned the hard way that students do not want to be taught SA history upfront. After a lot of thinking and listening I believe this has less to do with willful ignorance or laziness than it does with the very real threat that SA history poses to their forging of a post-apartheid identity. So, we teach SA history in the third year when the class has forged some bonds, no matter still how tentative. Teaching history has the power to hurt as well as heal. It is a huge responsibility. Julie Parle

  2. Michael, I was priviledged to spend about a week there doing a diversity training course. We stayed in the "ordinary" prison but had time to walk on the beaches and around all the sites. It was an experience too amazing to describe, and island with the ghosts of years past floating around it - if you had time to stop and think and feel as we did. The commercialisation of the island (as described above) gives lots access but limits the ability of visitors to a real exposure of the place. How can it be done differently? Maybe an overnight visit is the answer - the facility where we stayed could house about 40 people in dormatory type accommodation and that made it possible to enjoy the early mornings and late evenings in solitude and contemplation. One of the most amazing experiences of my life to date.