Free but not wanted at apartheid's Alcatraz

They suffered on Robben Island, but tourists won't see them. Mary Braid reports
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The Independent Online
"IT was children we missed most," says Ahmed Kathrada, 60, wistfully. "We all say the same. We used to stare through the bars at the wardens walking towards the harbour with their kids."

Mr Kathrada looks every inch the tour guide, from the day bag slung over his shoulder to the American baseball cap shading his eyes. But Mr Kathrada spent 18 years of his 26-year sentence for terrorism incarcerated here on Robben Island, tortured by tantalising views of the stunningly beautiful Table Mountain and Cape Town's golden, though racially-segregated, beaches, where the whites frolicked, apparently oblivious to the human misery only 13km away.

So many days spent longing for the mainland and freedom; experiences do not come much more surreal than those of Mr Kathrada, jailed in 1963 with Nelson Mandela, as he escorts international VIPs around his former prison. But, as he leads the way to Mandela's old cell, Mr Kathrada, who is now chair of the Robben Island Council, which was set up to develop the island as a tourist attraction, claims the visits no longer hurt. Not all the former prisoners have come that far.

"I never go beyond the harbour," confesses Vincent James, 31, a former ANC guerrilla released in 1990 (just after Mr Mandela) who owns the new tourist ferry which makes the 20-minute crossing from Cape Town harbour to the island several times a day. He and nine former prisoners - including two formerly on death row - started the service eight weeks ago.

It now attracts 1,200 customers a day. "People tell me what happens on the tour," says Mr James. "But I don't want to visit the prison cells or the quarry, - where the ANC leadership, including President Mandela, toiled." Many other ex-prisoners feel the same. Some, he says, are so traumatised they would not even board his boat.

Mr Kathrada is a trouper. He tells his special tour party that not once in those long hopeless years did he ever doubt that the ANC would prevail; he avoids the question of whether he was as sure that freedom would come in his lifetime. Mr James is more frank. The ANC leadership, he says, tried to keep everybody's spirits up, but many of the "lifers" secretly believed they would die in prison before the brave new world dawned.

Mr James, who took a degree in history and economics in jail, is rebuilding his life. In addition to the ferry, he is studying for an MBA and has become a father. Most of his former comrades are faring less well. Their bleak situation confounds the widespread notion that many have found employment on the island, now the country's most popular attraction, since they were freed.

More than 100 people now work on Robben Island, but very few are former prisoners. Eventually the island - first opened to tourists last year and expected to become South Africa's first world heritage site - will employ 200 people. But the former prisoners suspect that few, if any, of the new jobs will come their way. For them, the hard reality of life in post-apartheid South Africa is kicking in.

There are several thousand former Robben Island prisoners; around 80 per cent of them are unemployed. Some of those jailed with Mr Mandela are in their eighties, but others are young, and bitter.

"We feel such alienation now," says one young man, who refuses to be named because he hates to criticise the movement that was his life. In 1992 he joined hundreds of ex-prisoners for a reunion with President Mandela. It took place in the limestone quarry, where the combination of sun on rock and choking dust had damaged the President's eyes. As Mr Mandela symbolically raised a mining pick, his old comrades suddenly broke into a liberation song. The assembled company started crying.

Those who gathered there that day now say they have been outmanouvered by outsiders, and especially by the museum and environmental specialists, most of whom are white. "When I visit Robben Island now I feel so detatched I have to ask myself where I am," says a middle-aged former prisoner. "We thought the plans for the island would revolve around us, that we would shape its development. No one knows what it was like to sacrifice all those years better than us.

"But now, outsiders are being brought in to tell people what happened there. Former prisoners are sitting at home with nothing to do and no bread on the table. Surely some could play a role?"

The future of Robben Island will be decided in the coming months by Mr Kathrada's council. Some of the suggestions from the public include putting up an American-style Statue of Liberty and starting a centre for conflict resolution. Mr Kathrada insists there must be no "vulgar commercialisation".

Former prisoners claim the ANC leadership knows about their disillusion. But, on the tour, Mr Kathrada made no mention of it and was vague about the number of former prisoners who work there. The President's former fellow prisoners still hope that they will become more involved. Otherwise, they say, they will feel as forsaken as the lepers and the madmen banished to Robben Island in past centuries by the Cape's Dutch rulers.