Thursday, May 12, 2011
Today we took the boat out from the waterfront to the famous and foreboding Robben Island. This is a large flat and deforested island far out into the bay at Cape Town. It took about 40 minutes in the rolling ocean to get to the island, and when we landed we had a tour around the place. There was a constant windy mist, and even though the sun was out, it was damp and cold. The island is made of limestone, and the glare in the sun hurt the eyes. It is a place that just feels a little unpleasant. Of course, Robben Island is the home to the famous prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. In fact, all of South Africa's male political prisoners were kept on this island during the Apartheid years.
Our guide in the prison was a man named Benjamin, who was himself a former political prisoner. He told us about life in the prison, and the ways that the political prisoners secretly tried to organize and improve prison life. Many of the prisoners were not educated, and secret schools were created in the quarry while the men were working. The educated prisoners taught the others, from basic literacy to advanced socio-political analysis. Benjamin told us he was convicted of High Treason after he was caught trying to blow up a fuel depot; when he told us he was on the U.S. 'No-Fly' terrorist watch list, you could have heard a pin drop. His story was fascinating: he had been in school in Soweto when the police fired on unarmed students who were protesting. His pregnant girlfriend was shot in the head and died in his arms; he escaped from South Africa to Angola, where he was politicized and trained as a resistance fighter. It was hard to imagine a time when this kind of politics was the norm. But as we visited the former cells in the prison, we were able to see photos and read interviews of former prisoners. It was a very powerful experience that really drove home the wrongs of Apartheid.
We got to see Nelson Mandela's former cell, which was very small (he apparently couldn't sleep without curling up). The cell was bleak and the bars were striking. It must have been a deeply terrible place to have been incarcerated for so many years.
After we got back to Cape Town, we had lunch in the huge development called the Waterfront. This area has a blend of new buildings along with renovated wharf buildings. It is filled with shops and restaurants, and the area is a lovely place to walk. Some of the students plan to head down there for dinner and shopping on one of our remaining evenings.
We had the opportunity to go part-way up Table Mountain, to the observation deck. Table Mountain is the famous flat-topped mountain that rises up behind the city. It's a visually striking landmark, and the view from the observation deck was amazing! We could see down over the whole city and out to Robben Island. Some of the students took the cable car all the way to the top, which gave a 360 degree view over the whole area, and which took us up above the clouds. A couple of students, Brendan and Meesh, are thinking about actually trying to climb Table Mountain on our free day this weekend. (!)
Shark-cage diving has been scheduled for our free day on Saturday!