26 July 2006

My Pilgrimage

Usually I am rubbish when it comes to going through the tourist spots of any city and even in my own home, I struggle coming up with the ideas of where to take the visitors. It has been a bit like that here in Cape Town as well. I have not been to too many of the hotspots for a lot of reasons. I suppose one is that I am mostly very busy here working and secondly I hate to be reminded that I am a tourist but it always happens when I see other tourists. It is like a look in the mirror when you have gained a lot of weight – makes life easier when you skip it.

Since I came here for the first time some years ago I though that I will go to the Robben Island eventually but I have never been in a hurry, because I have known that I will have time and that time will come. I have also been a bit afraid of how it would feel to go there to the scene of so many incidents that I have been reading about for the past some years. The ones who knows me can probably testify that this was nothing short of a pilgrimage for me.

Finally this week I made my way to the ferry and travelled approximately an hour on the sea to the infamous island which has given “home” to South African leaders from of the Khoisan people and later on most of the political prisoners of ANC, PAC and Black Consciousness Movement.

I must say that after hearing that the tour itself is not that good, I was very positively surprised. Once arriving on the Robben Island harbour we took a guided bus ride which took us around the island to the different places such as Robert Sobukwe’s small prison, Lime quarry where lot of the South African future was talked about when political prisoners such as Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki (President’s father) and others where doing hard labour as a part of their unjust punishment and finally we were dropped at the maximum security prison. The place that was home to some of the greatest people of our time for decades. The bus tour was okay, not quite what it could have been as we could not leave the bus and if you were not sitting by the window, like I was not, the view was far from very good. I do understand why the tour was like that because the amount of tourist that come to the island and the size of the place would really create a problem if people could freely wander around as long as they wanted. It is unfortunate but I do understand that the whole tour must be very organised and structured which does not make it the most interesting to me but then again, it is not always about me, is it.

The lime quarry of Robben Island - the dust from here is a major reason for illnesses that lot of the former political prisoners are having.

The maximum security prison was the most emotional part of the journey for me. To look into the small cells behind the bars where some of my heroes slept for years. That tour was guided by an ex-political prisoner who had been living at those conditions for five years starting from his seventeenth birthday. His stories about his torture, both physical and psychological were hectic and I believe it speaks volumes that he had such a passion while talking considering that he gives several tours everyday.

I could have spend much more time at the prison that we did. It was almost spiritual to be on the door of Mandela’s cell but at the same time I never found out which was Sisulu’s one. Not that it would be that important but it was very much build around Mandela’s character when so many people were contributing to the same events.

Mr. Mandela's cell

That also is understandable for many reasons. One of them is that it was actually Walter Sisulu, if I remember correctly, who made the decision that ANC should start campaigning for Mandela’s release from inside as he knew that releasing one would very likely mean releasing all the rest of them but people, especially in the “west”, like to have a face for everything. So Mandela became the face of freedom and that makes sense and when almost all the visitors to the island seemed to be foreigners from the “west” and quite frankly not everyone seemed to have any idea where they were, it is the best bet to just concentrate on the more simple things.

It was sad not to see many local people who the leaders where fighting for at the trip. That by no means is the fault of the locals but the price which was 150 Rands (approximately €15) so quite frankly I could not really expect many to be able to pay that whilst unemployment is a major problem in the society and especially in the townships. I can only wish that the ones in charge would adapt the same system as in Zimbabwe where tourist pay the full price but locals rather nominal amount if anything. Looking at how many tourist were there I doubt that it would even affect very much on the economics but it would give people a chance to see what they and their leaders were facing during the struggle. It is to them that this place belong to and it is them who should be able to visit Robben Island.

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