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Visiting Nelson Mandela’s Prison

Visiting Nelson Mandela’s Prison

“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 For that crime, he had four years of educational privileges withdrawn.”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.”

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