ON SABBATICAL: Robben Island

While languishing in prison, I read about this infamous island. Robben Island figured prominently in the plays of the South African playwright, Athol Fugard, in the novels of Nadine Gordimer and in the theological writings of Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dominican Albert Nolan.  Many of these reading materials were smuggled into prison so we could have access to Third World political literature.

Then, I imagined Robben Island as the quintessential prison in many Hollywood films involving prisoners of war during WWII.  The island would be mountainous with very rocky surface and steep hills. All around would be barbed wires, punctuated by guardhouses. Nothing would grow and the heat of the sun would endlessly beat on the ground. Prisoners would labor under this constant scorching heat like the slaves of Pharoah. The sea between the island and the mainland would be treacherous; no one could swim across and survive the ordeal. There would be nothing but ugliness.

Today (22 July),  I went on a tour of Robben Island, off Cape Town City, at the tip of South Africa, barely 2,000 kms. to the South Pole.  I discovered it to be almost completely different from the Robben Island of my prisoner's mind.

The island is flat; the highest point is a mound on which the lighthouse was built. It might as well be the Galapagos Island for the flora and fauna of the island is quite diverse. There are penguins (who are truly the scene stealers), ostriches, various types of deer, guinea fowls and a hundred birds and insects.

From the name itself, Robben, which is  Dutch for seals, one is made to realize this island was once upon a time an idyllic setting before the cruelty of men (‘men’ is used here intentionally; its use is not suggestive of being gender insensitive) took over.

But since the coming of the Dutch to this part of the world – as connecting link between Europe and their treasured colony, Indonesia – the island would be the stage on which the colonizers (in the totality of the Habermasian sense) would act out their villainous roles.

As early as 1525 (just four years after Magellan made his own mark as the conquistador in the grace of the  Spanish King), the Dutch brought Muslim dissidents – a few who were the equivalent of our Sultans –  to this island as exile. Here they died and later, in their honor, a mosque was built.

Fast forward, in the 1800s, the island became a refuge for lepers.  Today, there are around 1,500 graves of those who died of leprosy, including the Irish priests and nuns who administered to the sick.  There is a cemetery where one sees the weather-beaten crosses. There is a still a church standing, named after the Good Shepherd, built by the lepers themselves.

Eventually, Robben Island became a place for the detention of  prisoners. At first, they were prisoners guilty of common crimes. Further fast forward to the apartheid era. This time, it was a prison for political detainees, those who opposed the totalitarianism of those who subjected this land to apartheid.  One of them was Nelson Mandela.

As soon as we docked at the island's port – which now is as smooth as any port of a resort island – we were asked to board tourist buses that took us around the 325-hectare island.  Many of the tour guides are former political prisoners themselves so deep in their hearts they know the history of this island.

Simbhutu was the ideal tour guide.  At first as we cruised through the southeastern part of the island, he took it easy, highlighting the beauty of nature and cracking jokes (mainly soccer jokes to highlight the fact that South Africa will host the World Cup in 2010).  But half-way through the tour, as we stopped at the quarry where the prisoners were forced to labor while digging up limestone, the horrible stories began to be told.

Story after horrifying story flowed out of Simbhutu's memory and as he told these, one could tell he was holding back the tears.  And as we proceeded to the maximum security prison, the horror of it all was so palpable.

Even as one would not wish the prison life at Davao Metrodiscom on one's enemy, nonetheless, I could easily acknowledge that Robben Island would have been much more of a living hell to those who were incarcerated here.

So in the end as we reached the final stage of our tour – when one was told what happened to Mandela, Biko, Makana, Autshamato and the hundreds of other prisoners – I was right after all to imagine Robben Island as the quintessential harsh prison that could so totally break a human being.

But, in fact, even as many of them died in prison, their spirits soar.  The other stories told were those of heroic acts: the political education taking place behind the guards' backs (remember the slogan: each one, teach one!), the hunger strikes so that rights would be respected, the prisoners who finished university degrees while in prison, and, ultimately, the persistence of the struggles that ultimately ended apartheid.

Tuesday (18 July) Mandela turned 88. There was a party in his daughter's house in Johannesburg and the papers on Wednesday reported about the modest party that brought together a hundred of Mandela's family and the closest of friends and comrades.

But the papers also reported not so very happy realities: the AIDS pandemic (2 million people would have died of AIDS complications by now), the high rate of unemployment leading to increasing criminality and drug addiction, massive poverty among the blacks including those coming from other African countries, the continuing rise of fuel prices thus jacking up costs of living, etc.

As we walked out of the maximum security prison at Robben Island where we saw the cell where Mandela was detained, the rains started to pour.  As it was winter, and there was a cold front hitting land coming out from the convergence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, I got wet and shivered by the time I was back inside the fast boat.

The trip back to the mainland was rough.

And I thought: how rough life has been for the poor and oppressed of South Africa. Of Lebanon and Iraq. Of Mindanao and Java.

Robben Island is no longer a prison.

But the mainland, beginning with Cape Town, is. 

At least for those whose options remain very limited.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” is on a year-long sabbatical. He wrote this piece on July 22).