Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, is primarily known as the island prison where Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, was imprisoned for 18 out of his 27 years behind bars. For most people at least remotely interested in history, when visiting Cape Town, this is one of the sites on their list, and we made sure to book this tour as early in our stay as possible to make sure there were no issues with weather, as bad winds can cause the boats to stop going to the island and all tours of the day to be cancelled.
Although I knew that former prisoners were the primary walking guides for the tours, it didn’t hit me exactly how powerful it would be until Parks, our guide, revealed that he was a former political prisoner at Robben Island for seven years in the 1980s. Their cells had glass-less windows, which meant that any time of the year, especially during winter, they were fully exposed to the elements (today, they have enclosed them in glass). They were not allowed to wear proper shoes or socks; all manual labor was done without proper footwear, even in the winter time. For the slightest infractions, they were beaten repeatedly until they were bruised and bloody. They were not allowed to speak to each other. Their meals were small, especially if they were black, and if black, their only “lunch” was puzamandla – a white liquid made from a mysterious white powder that was mixed with water. They were told this was a protein drink; in fact, it was actually a drink to make them infertile because the prison wanted all black prisoners to leave and be unable to ever bear children. They had a different menu for “coloureds/Asiatics” vs. “Bantus” – blacks.
I asked Parks why he decided to come back to work and share the story of his time at Robben Island. In my own mind, I cannot even fathom going through a fraction of what he’d been through, but if I had, the last thing I’d want to do was to go back to that putrid place of imprisonment and relive those terrors every single day as my line of work. He said he originally went to college and hoped to do something else for a living, but it was hard to find work, and when they asked him to come back and share his stories to visitors, he agreed. It was painful at first as we’d imagine, he said, but he realized how important it was for people to know what really happened there. It’s part of his country’s history. And he’s learned to forgive the prison guards who beat him and tried to make him infertile; he actually gets along with them now as they all work side by side in the prison, now not as a place of imprisonment, but as a World Heritage Site to educate the world. He calls some of them his friends today.
It’s difficult to understand the amount of forgiveness in his heart to get to the point of actually considering these people his friends. But to that, I deeply admire and respect him and all the other prisoners who have chosen willingly to come back and work to share their stories. It’s always deeper and more meaningful when the stories of our past are shared not in textbooks, but in real life circumstances that we can relate to. And this is one of them. The entire experience is so humbling because I don’t think I could ever be that lenient in the same circumstances.