Robben Island by Nita Bajoria


From Table Mountain it looked like a small piece of land floating on the vast Atlantic. To me it looked like one of those dots that connected and formed Nelson Mandela’s life and his achievements. I couldn’t wait to take a tour of the World Heritage site to get a feel of what it takes for a person to stay confined in an isolated land for 18 years and then emerge as a president of a country.

The ferry took 45 mins to reach the desolate island and black African oystercatcher birds chasing each other with read beaks welcomed us. The island, named after the seals who occupied it before the Dutch came, looked like a barren stretch of dry land with few establishments, the prison cells mostly. We boarded a bus and entered the prison gate, where prisoners were once greeted by white warders with the words, “This is the Island! Here you will die!” I shuddered at the thought. It was not only unfathomable but also unthinkable. But it did happen, only a few decades ago, while the rest of the world were enjoying freedom as their birthright.

“That is the quarry where Nelson Mandela and other prisoners toiled for decades.” Our guide pointed.

The limestone quarry dazzled in the African sun as we took pictures. It was caved at one part, which as per our guide was used as a shelter and toilet. The blinding sun and the bone dry dust-damaged vision of many prisoners including Mandela. But ignoring these impediments leaders like Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu turned it into a unique university. They would secretly meet there with other prisoners to educate them and guide them for their movement against apartheid.

A small heap of stones stood near the entrance of the quarry, as a symbol of the final victory against years of slavery and torture. Nelson Mandela dropped the first stone when he paid a visit to this place after his release and the rest by other 1300 political prisoners in memory of their unity and strenuous labour. I silently saluted their strength thanking God for the great life he had chosen for me.

The guide told us that the island was previously used by Dutch rulers as a leper colony and later turned into a prison. Not much of a difference I thought. People were dumped here to suffer till their death anyways.

We passed a white little church before reaching the political prisoner cell. I wondered. Did God really live here, amidst this injustice? Or all this anomalies of life designed by him towards a greater goal? I soon received my answer.

Nelson Mandela spent valuable years of his life as a prisoner no. 46664 in a cell that was just nine by seven feet. It had only three pieces of furniture for survival. A narrow thin bed lay on the floor touching wall from three sides. Beside it was a small wooden table that once had the picture of Mandela’s wife Winnie and that of a tribal Zerawa woman dancing merrily whom he had named Nolitha, meaning suns rays.

The picture of the lady, shot by late Raghubir Singh for National Geographic issue of July 1975, caught Mandela’s eye as a symbol of hope and “celebration of life” and he kept the picture with him till the rest of his prison days.

I imagined his loneliness and how he had to suppress within himself. Staying away from his wife and kids, being unable to share their moments of sadness and happiness, missing out on the responsibilities of a husband and father, must have been so very difficult. But he embraced this situation as his life and took the challenge of survival. His motto was to come out of the prison one day hale and hearty and to move forward with his mission. And he did.

The red metal bucket in his room was where he had to release himself daily. Every morning at 6:45 am, the prisoners were supposed to carry the bucket at the end of the hallway to the sink area to clean it. Instead of complaining about the stench, he took advantage and connected with his fellow prisoners, as the warders generally avoided coming near because of the foul smell.

When our guide, a past prisoner, was proudly narrating his prison tales, most of the tourists got restless standing inside the cellblock after few minutes. How did the prisoners here survive for more than a decade?

We then visited the dormitory cells where many prisoners lived together. It was empty now, but souls were moving around trying to look for their lost years. A board displayed the diet chart of the prisoners. Two things there took my attention. “Puzamandla” and “coffee”.

“The coffee was in fact ground-up maize, baked until it was black, and then brewed with hot water. And puzamandla means “drink of strength,” a powder made from mealies and a bit of yeast. But the prison authorities gave us so little of the powder that it barely colored the water.” Our guide cleared my doubts. Nelson Mandela had rightly described the so-called balanced diet meal as “balanced between unpalatable and inedible”.

Another piece of paper was a sample letter that came to the prisoners. Several patches of white covered the messages that warders had thought dangerous and censored them and the rest looked like tethered pieces of emotions just like their lives.

As I walked out of the stockade and towards our ferry I looked back at it. The prison walls and barbed wire stood high threatening to engulf within its dark and brutal boundaries. But I smiled at it, my heart filled with pride at the human power of perseverance, hope and courage. The prison, however notorious and gruesome, had failed its authorities. Instead of suppressing the anti- apartheid movement it gave the world, a free country and three presidents.


BIO: Nita Bajoria says: I am a freelance writer and my writings have appeared in Times of India, Airports India and Alive Magazine. I love travelling as it gives me an opportunity to get up close with all the new things and experiences in the world that you can’t get staying at one place.  Going over to Robben Island and the places Mandela had walked and things he touched, I understood him as a human being.