A visit to Robben Island


Graves litter The Island, among them a cemetery for lepers who were once banished here to die.Graves litter Robben Island, among them a cemetery for lepers who were once banished here to die. Photos: Lorraine Kearney


Lorraine Kearney

sobukweT159 – the isolated block where Robert Sobukwe was put in solitary confinement.
keyThe heavy key – with its heart-shaped top – that locked Nelson Mandela’s cell door.

By Lorraine Kearney
8 November 2013

In 1991, the last political prisoner left Robben Island. Yesterday, I visited The Island for the first time. There are some things every South African should do: visit Constitutional Hill, visit Robben Island and the Apartheid Museum, walk Reconciliation Road and, of course, vote.

The Island is an astounding place, filled with a deep peace layered with dignity. In its life, it has been a home, a leper colony, a fort and a jail, and once again a home.

There are hundreds of graves – almost double the 200-odd inhabitants who live there now. Resting in the sandy soil are the bones of lepers, prisoners and Irish immigrants who crossed the oceans to find a better life.

The single privately owned property on Robben Island is a church, built by these immigrants and now owned by the Anglican Church of South Africa.

Set apart from all other prisoners, staring longingly outwards, is the small rectangular structure where Robert Sobukwe was kept in isolation for six long, lonely years.

Here has a man so powerful, his captors kept him locked away from other inmates. It is humbling to touch the walls he touched, to see the views he saw. What thoughts kept him alive and sane, his humanity intact, for all those years, I wonder.

Deep within the thick walls of the prison block, there is a profound silence. Visitors speak in hushed tones, if at all.

The brutality and aching loneliness of the place infiltrate your heart. But if you stand by a window, and listen hard enough, you can hear the sea outside the walls. It is the sound of freedom, the promise of hope.

At the lime quarry, the glare is blinding. But the unmistakeable smell of fynbos and salt is on the air, and the gulls wheel and cry in the sky.

There is a spot, outside the village, with the most beautiful, tantalising view of the Mother City, with her flat-topped mountain looming protectively over her. She beckons, calling her children to be comforted in her arms. And of course we answer, climbing back into the ferry to thunder across the water.

The only way to travel is right at the top, in the open air, where you can watch The Island get smaller as the boat rounds into the harbour, and breathe the free sea air.

Tears dried down my cheeks, from the wind or from The Island. I stepped ashore exhausted, profoundly moved and yet again aghast at what humans do to each other.