Travel: Released from solitary confinement

Once Robben Island was a symbol of brutality in South Africa. Now the former jail has become a museum - complete with gift shop.
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TO SEE Nelson Mandela taking a leading role on the world stage this week makes it hard to recall that for years he relied on the newspaper wrappings around his guards' sandwiches for precious hints about what was going on with his country and the planet.

The South African president tells us this in his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom. To experience the full horror of his incarceration, though, you must venture across seven miles of sea from the restaurants, malls and markets of Cape Town's waterfront

History is still fresh on Robben Island - the island of seals. It is only in its second year as a national monument, and there is still a sense of awe among South Africans to be visiting the place, so long a symbol of apartheid - and resistance. The island is at the start of its transformation into a national museum. The process will culminate in 2004 to coincide, it is hoped, with South Africa hosting the Olympics.

You reach Robben Island aboard the Makana. Three times a day in winter (five in summer), it makes the 25-minute journey across the icy, shark- patrolled waters - the "uncrossable moat", as Mandela put it - between the mainland and the island's Murray's Bay Harbour. Press cuttings celebrating the ferry's launch are posted near the on-board bar. They tell the story of Makana - the famous Xhosa leader whose abortive attack on Grahamstown led to his incarceration on Robben Island; his drowning in 1820 during an escape attempt; and his shouts of encouragement to his compatriots as he slipped beneath the waves. He lived on as part of a Xhosa expression meaning "forlorn hope" - and now the ferry commemorates him. His is an ironic name for anything buoyant.

You land on a quay where chain gangs of prisoners were unloaded. Battered coaches transport you inland to the prison, passing under gates bearing the scales of justice and the chilling motto: "We serve with pride".

"Can you tell me which cell was our president's?" asked an elderly white woman seated in the dusty, sunbaked quadrangle outside the prison's Section B wing. Our guide, Muthe Nzukwa, gestured to a barred window in the grey stone-clad wall behind us. A member of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Muthe counts himself fortunate to have spent only five years locked up where now he escorts tours.

The prison atmosphere remains intact: impersonal and brutal, a realm of locks and echoing corridors. We filed past Mandela's cell, so small he could barely lie outstretched on his thin sisal mat which offered scant protection from the damp concrete floors. It was here he prepared defences for fellow prisoners and formulated the future of his country.

Back in the shadeless exercise quadrangle, we stood where prisoners were forced to hammer rocks to make road-surface chippings by the skipload. In front of us was the 20ft blank wall designed to stop communication with those in solitary confinement. It was this wall's construction that led to the discovery of Mandela's autobiography secreted under a pipe in his small patch of garden. It cost him his study privileges for four years.

Muthe explained how apartheid's discrimination was applied in prison. Black prisoners were not allowed the long trousers that the Asians were granted - preserving them as "boys" in the eyes of their guards. Food, too, was regulated on racial lines, with black prisoners on the most meagre of diets and refused bread in the belief it was too European for their palates. Fighting these injustices became symbolic of the larger struggle against apartheid for the political prisoners, to an extent keeping them sane and focused.

We boarded coaches again for the quarry where ANC leaders Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and Kathrada worked the limestone from 1965 to 1977. Designed to wear them down, the quarry instead became a place where they could meet and talk. For us, even in the weaker sunlight of a winter's day, the glare from the rocks was intense. It led to cataract problems for Mandela and many of his comrades, while the lime dust decayed their tear ducts.

From 1846 to 1931, Robben Island was used to house the Cape Colony's other unwanted: the insane, the chronically ill and the lepers. The leper colony graveyard is a melancholy stop on the tour but wry laughter filled the coach when we were told that the former leper mortuary is now the island's only bank. These are tough economic times for South Africans.

Our next pause was to inspect the island's north shore where the "politicals" were made to harvest seaweed for export to Japan as fertiliser. It was another indignity that backfired. The shift to this coast in 1972 gave Mandela the pleasure of seeing Cape Town for the first time in eight years. Despite the freezing water and sharp rocks, the prisoners were able to gather crayfish and perlomoen which indulgent guards allowed them to cook on the beach. Later, a stolen newspaper told them they were enjoying a diet matching the first course for guests at Princess Anne's wedding.

The shoreline is also dotted with wrecks. Twenty-nine ships have gone down around the island and, according to one writer, it is still possible to find encrusted ducats while beachcombing. As yet, this activity is not included on the itinerary.

Our tour became a game drive. Through the scrub we spotted a small group of duike, tiny antelope on porcelain-looking legs. There are eland and springbok also on Robben Island and 74 species of bird, including ostrich and penguin.

The rich animal life reminds you that this was once the larder of the earliest European settlers, denied access to the mainland interior by the fierce native Khoi. It was also the site of the first South African environmental decree issued by the Dutch East India Company Commander, Jan van Riebeek, in 1654, when he realised that wholesale slaughter was depleting the colony's food reserves. The seabird and penguin populations have now recovered, but the seals that gave the island its name have never returned here to breed.

Back at the dock, awaiting the Makana, there is time to visit the Robben Island gift shop. The postcards are the first signs of recent history being transformed into sanitised heritage. On sale are bags of novelty prison-issue flour, and replica metal prison mugs, spoons and plates are available in special gift sets. The fact that they are actually made by current prisoners in South Africa's "Correctional Service workshops" lends them further ambiguity.

Fact File

VISAS FOR South Africa: none required by British passport holders on short visits. The onward or return portion of your ticket will be stamped "Non-refundable", to prevent you from cashing it in and staying in South Africa.

There are plenty of cheap airline tickets between Britain and Cape Town available for our winter/South Africa's summer. Outside the Christmas and New Year period, fares are currently running at around pounds 400 return including tax.

Further information: South African Tourism Board, 5 Alt Grove, London SW19 4DZ; (tel: 0541 550044 for brochure request line; 0181-944 8080 for personal enquiries).