On this day 50 years ago: Mandela arrives at Robben Island

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Mandela and Walter Sisulu were both held at Robben Island. Keeping all political prisoners in one prison was a mistake Mandela has said. (Image: Mandela Foundation)


Robben Island revisited digitally
Nelson Mandela: a life in photographs
From Liliesleaf to Robben Island
The Rivonia Trialists today
Places to visit on Madiba’s Journey

Sulaiman Philip

“The names of those who were incarcerated on Robben Island is a roll call of resistance fighters and democrats spanning over three centuries. If indeed this is a Cape of Good Hope, that hope owes much to the spirit of that legion of fighters and others of their calibre.” – Nelson Mandela Inaugural Speech, 1994

Today, 50 years ago, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island to begin serving a life sentence after his conviction for sabotage at the Rivonia Trial. For the next 24 years the oval spit of scrubland would be his home.

To the warders he was not his reputation – a charismatic leader, a keen amateur boxer and ladies’ man – he was simply prisoner number 46664, a convicted terrorist. But his status as leader of the political prisoners on the island made him a target of abuse from the warders. Realising that he had to draw a in the line sand or the abuse would never end, especially when the mistreatment came close to violence, he turned on his tormentor. “I was frightened; it was not because I was courageous, but one had to put up a front and so he stopped.”

 As Mandela remembered, “I say, ‘you dare touch me, I will take you to the highest court in this land and by the time I’m finished with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse’. And he stopped.”

For Madiba it was more than just winning peace and respect from his jailers. It was him living the spirit of his philosophy. “I believe the way in which you will be treated by the prison authorities depends on your demeanour and you must fight that battle and win it on the very first day.”

June 13 1964 was not Madiba’s first day on Robben Island; he had begun serving a five-year sentence for leaving the country without a passport a year before. He was transported back to Pretoria in June 1963 to stand trial for sabotage in what was to be become known as the Rivonia Trial.

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Mandela and Walter Sisulu were both held at Robben Island. Keeping all political prisoners in one prison was a mistake Mandela has said. (Image: Mandela Foundation)

Robben Island: an isolated world

In Long Walk to Freedom, his autobiography, Mandela wrote about the ferry ride from Cape Town to Robben Island. “Journeying to Robben Island was like going to another country. Its isolation made it not simply another prison, but a world of its own.”

Within hours of their guilty verdict, around midnight of June 12 1964, Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were flown to Robben Island to begin their sentences.

Often before his release, first being moved to Pollsmoor and then Victor Verster prisons, Madiba was offered freedom by the apartheid government, but he found the strings they attached too onerous. As younger, more militant activists started arriving as prisoners after the 16 June 1976 Soweto uprising, the older prisoners found an unspoken fear realised. As the struggle had evolved and become more violent in response to more violent oppression, the prisoners on Robben Island were frozen in time.

“These young men were a different breed. They were brave, hostile and aggressive; they would not take orders. To be perceived as a moderate was a novel and not altogether pleasant feeling,” Mandela wrote.

Robben Island: the tourist attraction

“South Africans must recall the terrible past so that we can deal with it, forgiving where forgiveness is necessary but never forgetting.” – Nelson Mandela, on leaving office as South African president, 15 June 1999

Today you can take a high-speed ferry from Cape Town and for a half a day walk through the quarry where Mandela’s eyesight was damaged by dust and the glaring sun. A visitor can enjoy the wild life, originally released as hunting stock to feed passing ships.

Visitors to Robben Island, today a national heritage site and tourist attraction, are free to roam the concrete jail house and cells that housed the Category D prisoners, or stop over at the shrine of Muslim leader; Tuan Guru; the Lepers Graveyard; and the house where Robert Sobukwe spent nine years in solitary confinement.

Each cell is uniformly bleak – a bedroll on the floor, a tiny stool and a ceramic pot – and each was kept spotlessly clean. This simple act of domesticity was revolutionary for the prisoners. “To survive in prison one must develop ways to take satisfaction in one’s daily life. One can feel fulfilled by washing one’s clothes so that they are particularly clean, by sweeping a corridor so that it is free of dust, by organising one’s cell to conserve as much space as possible. The same pride one takes in more consequential tasks outside prison, one can find in doing small things inside prison.”

Madiba began his life sentence as a determined politically radicalised activist; he left Robben Island determined to be a leader. The roots of the statesman he became are on the island, or as he said; “Robben Island matured me.”