Cape Town Day Three

Yesterday was an emotional day in some repects. We took the ferry over to Robben Island and spent several hours touring the island and the prisons. The history of the island is steeped in sadness really. It appears to have been used as a dumping ground for “undesirables” of all stripes since Cape Town was established in the 1600’s. Lepers and lunatics, mutineers and murderers, WW II military redoubts and of course most famously, political prisoners from 1964 to 1991. As we disembarked from the ferry we were loaded onto buses for a drive around the entire island which is only 4 x 2 km. Both the driver and the guide were former political prisoners, indeed all the guides are. They wear their servitude with pride I think but not lightly. And the creation of the museum has provided much needed employment, ironic in a country with such high unemployment.
Our first guide was Muslim of Indian heritage I think, he had the most melodic and dramatic way of speaking. Everyone we met told us of their sentences and the terms. High treason for participating in “Freedom Rallies”, sedition for leaving the country illegally, aiding and abetting …. Etc. The sentences were harsh and apparently no parole granted. Of course we saw Nelson Mandela’s cell set up as it would have been in 1964 – a mattress on the floor, (actual beds didn’t arrive until years later) a couple of blankets and very little else – tiny rooms. The most affecting part were the photographs in many of the cells of their inmates with their words and sometimes specific artifacts which they choose to represent their time there. Things like a safety razor which one prisoner was unable to give up even after being released as for 20 years it had been his only constant possession.
At the risk of drawing some ire, I don’t think the prison itself was exceptionally harsh, Alcatraz for example seemed to have much worse living conditions and greater brutality, but the reason for the imprisonment and the different, institutionalized treatment of inmates based on some “colour code” is appalling and almost incomprehensible. Coloureds and Asians were accorded better clothing and food than Bantus(blacks). Long pants and shoes for the former, shorts and no shoes for the latter; much fewer calories and lower quality food for the Bantu as well. Impersonal degradation which strikes me as worse somehow, I can understand hating someone or being afraid but to just denigrate people solely for the colour of their skin isn’t something I can parse. I can be uncomfortable with a culture but not with the way people look.
Anyway it was complicated! Aside from that, the island is rather beautiful in a spare sort of way, tons of birdlife and fields of flowers blooming everywhere. Aram lilies grow wild all over the place which looks impossibly exotic and opulent to my Canadian eyes.

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