One prisoner’s story of surviving Robben Island

It’s funny. The heart of Cape Town and the history that I wanted so very much to learn about was actually about seven kilometers off the city’s shore on a desolate, isolated place known as Robben Island.

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Robben Island is infamous for being the place of the informal battleground against the apartheid movement.

The island’s history was always one of turmoil. The Dutch used it as a prison for political leaders. It also became a leper colony. Fortified during World War II, the island’s purpose became a line of defense for Cape Town. Today, it’s most infamously known as the prison for apartheid political prisoners, namely Nelson Mandela. A living museum, the island is visited by over a thousand tourists every day.

Every visit to the island includes a bus tour, where you get a feel for the spaces of the island and how the prison was run. After leaving the bus behind, past political prisoners lead the prison tours, sharing their own experiences with you. Their storytelling has been perfected from years of practice.

Here’s where I leave off, because my tour guide, Ntando Mbatha, told his story in a way that couldn’t be paraphrased or shortened. He arrived as a prisoner in 1986 and served his time alongside Nelson Mandela until his release in 1991.

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I want to let him tell the story, because it’s his story to tell. I recorded his talk and transcribed it to the best of my ability so anyone who might not have the opportunity to visit Robben Island can still hear his story.

All I can ask is that you listen.

Ntando’s story

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My name is Ntando. I like this job that I am doing. On the other hand I don’t like this job. I like this job because I get to talk to people from all over the world. I don’t like this job because I have to be the bearer of bad news: news about our plight here in prison, news about our sufferings, depressing news. If I had my way, I would talk about something else. But unfortunately, I have to tell people depressing stories.

When people come to this prison to visit, they want to learn about our stories during that time of apartheid. They have this idea that things would take place in one place. But to us, it was a very long journey that culminated in this place.

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In this country, you are first arrested, and then you are taken to a police station. That’s where you will be detained. That’s where many political activists met their death because of torture. Others were tortured to the point where they were found to be mentally disturbed. But if you survived that, we had to face this prison upon being sentenced. It was a very long journey.

In this country, we make a distinction between a detainee and a sentenced prisoner. If you get arrested, then you are taken to the police station, tortured there, but you do not appear before the judge or magistrate. You remain a detainee.

If I could choose between the seven years I spent here in this prison and the six months I spent in detention, I would choose the seven years here. Because in detention it was tough. You would never have any visitors. The only visitors you get were unwanted interrogators who would come and torture you for information, names, surnames, addresses. It was tough. That’s why some of our political activists were tortured there until they were found to be mentally disturbed. Others died in detention.

You may be familiar with some names, but there are many unsung heroes. There were two gentlemen who were arrested. One of them was an unsung hero. When they arrested the two, they were severely tortured to the point that that the unsung hero was found to be mentally disturbed. That’s why he couldn’t stand at his trial. He was sentenced to be hung in 1979 for fighting apartheid.

His mother was present [for his hanging]. She was crying bitterly, for her son was about to be hanged. He told his mother, “Mother, do not cry for me but cry for those who are still suffering, because my blood will nourish the tree of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue to struggle.” You can imagine a 22-year-old facing death with such bravery, telling us to continue fighting because he knew that his blood would nourish the tree of freedom. I think it takes a different courage, a selfless person.

You came here to hear me talk about our plight here in the prison. Our suffering here in this place. But to me, the people who were ruthless and vicious were the interrogators in detention. They made my life a living hell. I still remember the chief interrogating officer, J.J. He made my life a living hell. I still remember when I was in detention for six months, when the torture was so severe to the point that I contemplated committing suicide. Fortunately it was at the end of the torture.

You know when I give these talks, people expect me to say something about torture. But I find it difficult. To me, it’s like asking a person who was raped as to how she was raped. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult. 

I will tell you about one thing that took place in 1993, when I had my first child. My father came to me to say, “Look my son. I am very happy for you that you have been able to father a child.” 

Because of what took place in detention, I did not think I would ever be able to father a child. In torture, they used electrodes to burn your private parts. That was crazy. That was crazy. That’s why to me I’d rather have seven years here in this prison than a day in detention.

If you find yourself in the lion’s den, that’s when you realize the gravity of the situation. People of this country are familiar with certain names. Those were people who were with us in this struggle but they broke down in torture. Then they joined the enemy against us. They are very hated by people in this country. But if you ask me, of course I understand why they had a breakdown. It was not easy. It was a strategy. Though I don’t condone what they did, I understand it. 

People ask me the question of how did I manage under torture. You know when it was tough in detention, there were some words that were always in my mind. Those words were said by the ANC, “In the brutal repression, under the veil of death, between the jaws of the life, we still declare victory or death.”

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When I was in detention, those words were always on my mind. No matter how difficult it is, I’m protecting all of those who I was working with, even if I must lay down my life. Those were the words that kept me going.

When I first came here in this prison, we were taken to the reception. In that office, that’s where we were dehumanized. There they would strip your dignity. When I first came here in this prison, escorted with our hands handcuffed and leg irons on our feet, we were stripped naked. They were looking for contrabands. But they were only dehumanizing us.

It was in that office where we got our prison number. In this prison, your name and your surname cease to exist. That’s why we say in that office we lost our identity. You were reduced to a non-living thing. I’d like to show you the enlarged ticket.

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Remember that during those days of apartheid, any political prisoner was not entitled to things like bail or remission. You will serve your sentence in full.

From 1964 to 1979, prisoners were sleeping on the floor. It was only in 1979 when an international committee provided all the prisoners with beds. If you can imagine this cell lined with rows of beds stretching all the way to the back. Two prisoners occupied a bed. Remember that in this prison, there were blacks, colored, and asians and all males. Females and white prisoners were incarcerated somewhere else. In this prison, there were only male prisoners.

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The main rule of this place was the authority divided prisoners by racial lines. The diet of the Indians and colored prisoners divided races. You see the main diet of the bantus. Bantus has a negative connotation, and that name that describes the African people, like myself. This name has negative connotations. People of mixed race were referred to as colored. The blacks were given nothing. They had no sugar, no syrup. This was the diet that divided prisoners.

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People in this prison were fed, clothed, and divided on racial lines. The colored and Indian prisoners were given shoes, socks, and long pants. But black prisoners were only given short pants and shirts without shoes. They tried to divide us to keep their power, but fortunately, they did not succeed. They tried to give some people privileges so they see themselves as superior to the other prisoners. This was the main rule of this place.

The real truth of Robben Island

Ntando led us through the prison blocks. We walked through the courtyard where prisoners were put to work.

Ntando mentioned the outrage that the international community felt about Robben Island. This outrage did make a difference in the lives of prisoners, bringing in basics like beds and food. The South African government spread propaganda to appease world leaders about the treatment of these political prisoners.

One such piece of propaganda was in the form of a photo. The photo showcased political prisoners sewing on one side of the courtyard with criminal prisoners completing more exhausting and demanding labor work. This photo was taken to appease protestors and the international community by telling the story that political prisoners were being treated well.

Ntando gave a different impression. The guards would take any opportunity to make their lives worse. For example, those elderly prisoners were often told that they would be released in a few months. Hope and gossip about the good news would spread like wildfire throughout the prison. Quiet celebrations would build the hope that would be squashed when the time came and the guards’ mocking faces told the truth of their lies.

A place filled with secrets

While I was able to hear the firsthand account of a past prisoner and read many of the stories sprinkled on posters throughout the prison, I know those walls hold many more untold, terrible secrets. But those walls also hold stories of incredible hope and perseverance. Somehow these prisoners banded together, despite the guard’s best attempts at taking away their humanity.

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Nelson Mandela’s cell

It was a humbling day. I heard true bravery in the face of seemingly never-ending hate and hopelessness. Ntando never gave up on his beliefs even when all of the tables were turned against him. Neither did Nelson Mandela. Neither did most of those prisoners who lost years of their lives fighting for basic human rights that I, and most people, take for granted.

I hope the world can learn from these incredible prisoners and their strength through some of the darkest times in their country’s history.

This place holds something beautiful. Three South African presidents were held against their will on that island. I haven’t figured out exactly what that means, but it’s something I want to emphasize but don’t know how to best put it. From darkness comes greatness? From hopelessness comes truth?

What I do know is this: Hope is everything. Hope makes the impossible seem possible. Hope makes the unbearable bearable for just one more day.

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