A sad sobering account of our visit to Robben Island

To revert to Robben Island, we had to board a ferry at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront.

Photo credit: John Nyagah | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • To revert to Robben Island, we had to board a ferry at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront.
  • The island got its name from the Boers, because in the Dutch language, the word for seal is robbing and the island was full of seals

Last year when Ahmed Kathrada, a staunch anti-Apartheid activist and a close friend and colleague of Nelson Mandela died, it was mentioned in his obituary that he had been imprisoned at Robben Island for 27 years.

It was also mentioned that when President Obama visited the notorious prison, Kathrada was given the privilege of showing him round. There were many pictures in the international press and TV of the President being shown Kathrada’s cell by its one time occupant himself. Those pictures invoked memories of our visit to the island, which attracts as many as 20 million visitors every year.

Marie and I had flown to Cape Town to attend the World Congress of Surgeons, held on African soil for the first time, and I had the honour to represent PAAS – Pan-African Association of Surgeons – at that important conference.

This is a newly established continental organisation representing East, West and Southern African colleges of surgeons. It was our turn in rotation to be the flag-bearer of PAAS and I was invited in that capacity. There was also a surgical reason for my visit, but more about it later. As usual, I was taking a busman’s holiday, mixing business with sight-seeing.

One very sad sight we saw was the world famous Robben Island. In addition, we went to the Cape Point, the southernmost tip of Africa, where we saw the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

 On the way there, we stopped at Cape of Good Hope, where in 1499 Vasco da Gama sailed with four ships and 170 men to our continent and opened up European trade with Africa. Finally, we travelled to the famous Cape route in a bus, seeing the many vineyards, where the world renowned South African wine is made.


To revert to Robben Island, we had to board a ferry at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. At the time it was a delightful new development around the seafront with shops, entertainment places, quaint cafes and ethnic restaurants.

 There was one which served Kenyan dishes like ugali, nyama choma and irio and it was belting Hakuna Matata while we were at the waterfront around lunch time.

The sea journey lasted about half an hour and we were happy to get off because the sea was choppy. On arrival, we were taken on a general tour of the island by our pretty Cape coloured tour guide.” We formed a special category in the Apartheid era because of relatively less pigments in our skin.” She announced as she introduced herself at the beginning of the tour and then added.

 African mainland

“Millions of years ago, Robben Island was part of the African mainland until the Atlantic Ocean cut a swathe from the southern tip of the continent. The island got its name from the Boers, because in the Dutch language, the word for seal is robbing and the island was full of seals.” She continued wistfully. “Sadly they are a rare sight now because of human habitation!” She went on. “For many years the unnamed island was used to confine slaves, lepers, hard criminals and the mentally deranged, until the Apartheid regime found a better use for it! From total oblivion, it shot up into the limelight when the world’s most famous and longest serving political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was confined there.”

Our first stop on the tour was a mausoleum called ‘Karamat’, which with my meagre knowledge of Arabic, I understood meant a miracle. Our guide confirmed it and added.”This is a mausoleum built round the grave of a Muslim Sufi who fought the Dutch in the East Indies. He was banished to this island by the colonisers and he died here.” I reckoned by East Indies, she meant Indonesia, which, as we all know, was colonised by the Dutch until Soekarno, the Indonesian nationalist, and his colleagues, drove the Dutch out in the latter part of the last century.

 His daughter Soekarnoputri, literally meaning Soekarno’s daughter, a traditional name in Indonesia, followed in his footsteps a few years after he was ousted by his deputy as happened in Third World countries at the time.

We also saw a graveyard for lepers and a church built for them in 1863 by the Dutch Reformed Church. In the town, there was also a primary school, town hall, a post-office and the governor’s residence.

We also saw heavy fortifications round the island built during the Second World War to defend it against German invasion.

Finally we arrived at the famous limestone quarry, when our guide referred to Mandela as Madiba, a name, by which he was affectionately called by his countrymen. She said, “Madiba and his fellow prisoners dug stones here every day between 7am and 3pm in the scorching sun.

When they asked for sunglasses to protect their eyes from dust and flying debris, they were told that goggles did not form part of the prison uniform!” As I saw a cave-like opening at the far end of the quarry, I inquired what it was and our guide replied. “That is a toilet for the workers in the quarry and there are buckets inside for them to use because even leaving the quarry for toilet purpose was misconstrued as an attempt to escape and could invoke the rule to shoot to kill.”

Eventually we arrived at the highlight of our tour, which was Cell No. 5. “This is where Madiba was held,” said our tour guide. “There are 40 tiny isolation cells here where anti-Apartheid prisoners were confined. You can see preserved for posterity in Cell No.5 a drum used as latrine, two small wall cupboards where Madiba kept his meagre possessions and three blankets to protect himself against the howling cold breeze at night.” We were then shown the actual prison, a sprawling complex dotted by watch-towers, searchlights and kennels for vicious dogs patrolling the prison, day and night.

The final scathing comment from our guide was. “The prison is divided into Section A for common law criminals, convicted for rape and murders, and Section B for political prisoners. Needless to add that the inmates of Section A were treated better than the residents in Section B.”

After this sad sobering account of our visit to Robben Island, which reminded me of my visit to the Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda and the Auschwitz Camp in Poland where millions of Jews were eliminated in the holocaust, let us revert to the Surgeon’s Diary part, which has a happy ending.


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