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Liebeeck Garden’s Weekend Adventures Pt. 2- Trip to Robben Island

Robben Island

On Sunday, the Liebeeck Garden Adventures continued with a trip to Robben Island. Robben Island is one of the most popular and well-known South Africa tourist destinations. Robben Island has a rich history even years before it was used as a prison. While it was most commonly known as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years during apartheid, Robben Island has a history of exile, imprisonment, and banishment. Rulers sent political threats, social outcasts, and the outcasts from society. It housed a hospital for people with leprosy and for the mentally ill. Our group was excited to see Robben Island and to learn even more about its history- a history so telling of apartheid and of modern day South Africa.


Our journey began bright and early at 9:45am where we loaded into Earl’s van and the Guardian Angel car and headed to the Waterfront. We explored the Waterfront area before going over to the Nelson Mandela Gateway. After waiting in line and going through security, we boarded the ferry to Robben Island. The ride was only 30 minutes long and before we knew it we were stepping foot on Robben Island. We were shuffled onto tour buses bearing inspirational quotes like “The Journey is never long when freedom’s the destination.” These tour buses took us on our 3-hour tour around the island. Once we first drove through the gate, we past a mosque with a bright green dome where Islam was practiced on the island and it actually helped bring Islam to South Africa as well as The Church of the Good Shepard which is owned by the Anglican Church of South Africa. Both the mosque and the church were not used by the prisoners, they could practice their faith in different facilities inside the prisons. We passed the high-security prison that was built by prisoners and completed in 1964.


The tour continued and we stopped by the area where Robert Sobukwe was imprisoned. Sobukwe was the founding member of the African Pan-African Congress and he was arrested for protesting the apartheid regime. He was placed on house arrest in his own separate part of Robben Island where he was completely in isolation. While he was in prison, he could not talk to anyone and could no longer speak after his release. We walked around and saw where he stayed and where his children and wife would stay when they visited for short visits every couple of months. We then drove by the lime quarries where prisoners would work every day. The quarries were blinding and many of the prisoners who worked in the quarries now have vision problems. By the quarries also stands a pile of rocks which looks like a monument of sort. When Mandela visited a few years after his release with other former prisoners, he placed a single rock on the ground and all of the other political prisoners followed. It showed solidarity against apartheid. 


After the quarries, our next stop was the high-security prison. We left our guide from the first leg of the tour who joked that we were going to prison, yet even when walking into the gates I sensed the brutality that the prison contained only a few years ago. We were greeted by our next tour guide who was a prisoner on Robben Island before everyone was released in 1990. He was a soft-spoken man who did not share the details of his story, but you could tell how difficult it was for him to be back in the place that once robbed him of his freedom. He walked us through the process prisoners would go through once they were admitted. As we saw the different food rations for different races and walked through the facilities, the reality set in how haunting of a place Robben Island was. As we ended the tour, we saw some of the prisoner’s cells, including Nelson Mandela’s. They were a small room with a blanket laid on the ground with a pillow, little end table, and a bucket. As we walked down the hallway on our way out, our tour guide reminded us that while Robben Island has seen brutality and hard times, it is a symbol of triumph and human spirit to overcome adversity. Robben Island was referred to as Robben Island University because the prisoners were committed to self-development and freedom even though they were in prison. Robben Island was a dichotomy- while the island itself was barren and home to extreme hardship and suffering, there was a resounding feeling of hope and freedom. It spoke to South Africa’s struggles, triumphs, and successes today. It was a life changing trip and it definitely helped me see South Africa in a new light.

 by Gina Maffucci - American University


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