I have never been to an island, let alone an island for prisoners. We traveled from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa on a warm Saturday. The ride there was something tropical as I stood off the rim of the boat to catch a view of the waves that we were cutting through as the as the salty mist hit my lips. The view was capturing as you could see Table Mountain and the Central Business District fainting. I couldn’t help but think how much as changed about my way of travel to the island as I wondered what it would have been like several decades ago as a prisoner or guard.
I got off the boat alongside about a hundred people into a port which gripped the boat to a boardwalk next to tourist stores, bathrooms, and array of busses and vans. I honestly had little idea how impactful this trip would have been at the time. My travel group regrouped and we met our tour guide next to a bus closest to the boat where we had arrived. We were told that we’d be receiving a private tour on the island from a former prisoner, war hero, and friend of our program coordinator. His name was Thulani Mabaso. Mr. Mabaso looked in his late sixties, tall, black, and bald with a bulging belly and a coat suited for the weather. He had looked tired but welcomed us with what felt like a humble appreciation and anticipation of meeting us.
We got on the bus and were told that we would be exploring parts of the island away from tourists as we drove off. We arrived and got off at a gate where we were told that the island has had much history from the abandoned victims of leprosy to political prisoners that many have died here having spent their long lives here. Over the course of the next hour we saw the prisoner’s cells, prisoner’s playing field, mandela’s garden, and other spaces in which prisoners once occupied. The cells only had a metal tin for human waste, a short mat, and a pillow. The cell that we saw in particular, was Mandela’s. The prison halls were tall with gray cement walls that Mr. Mabaso told us was built by the prisoners themselves. We followed Mr. Mabaso down the hall to see all the museum artifacts which displayed identity cards, explained the race classification which determined living accommodations, and the list of all that have died in the prison with no connection to their families. It was interesting to see the place filled with white tourist in a predominantly black country snapping photos with large cameras as if it were for their collection of souvenirs. The place was closed in by watchtowers in which guards once occupied.
Mr. Mabaso began to tell us of how resilient the prisoners were from adopting their own education system which made them lawyers and doctors upon leaving the island to how all the prisoners had agreed that they were fighting to take back their land and would stand in solidarity no matter what. We learned about the secret ways in which black prisoners would protest with each other for equal rights as other racial groups no matter what political party they themselves represented. We also learned about the ways in which blacks shared messages. Which was via ways in which they would not be cut off, blacked out, and censored by guards. They did so using soccer balls, stuffing their lesser clothing, and doing whatever to get messages across from the leader Mandela to the warden. This was the same warden who claimed that there was no violation of rights happening within the prison. This was obviously contrary to the reality of the former situation. The prison leaders would foster artificial photos of the conditions and reality of what was taking place on the island and these photos were also pointed out to us on the walls.
Along the tour, I asked Mr. Mabaso why did he choose to stay on the island given the trauma and time he had already been here. His answer was enticing. He explained that upon the closing of the prison and Nelson Mandela opening it as a museum that former prisoners had agreed that they would be there to tell the actual story. He also shared that they would be reunions here on the island and that there was one coming up for him and his family.
On the island we also got to see the mosque, Moturu Kramat, built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Moturu. We also got to see the former housing of the former isolated prisoner, Robert Sobukwe, who was essentially the only one on house arrest for his political dissidence. He was a radical activist of the PAN South African party who fought to liberate the continent until he was silenced on the island away from family and loved ones.
I don’t think I have ever been so captivated by political history despite having seen so much prior to this trip. I’m not sure if it is because the island closed 24 years ago or because I was led by a former inmate. Nevertheless I believe that everyone should understand the history of the place and learn from it, because as Mandela once said there is no easy walk to freedom.