More than 1,000 of the island's last political prisoners gathered
yesterday in a Cape Town polytechnic sports hall to start the debate, regaled by the prison's swaying kitchen choir and the island's most famous resident, President Nelson Mandela.
"Our children and grandchildren should see in its nakedness that part of our history . . . and swear that such horrors should never be repeated," Mr Mandela told his fellow former convicts. A presidential commission would decide on the island's future, perhaps mixing all the proposals, he said, but would be "offended by any modicum of vulgarisation".
The last 750 common criminals are due to be evacuated from Robben Island by next year, and plans for a museum and terminal on Cape Town's Waterfront tourist development are well advanced. One brochure sponsoring a peace institute details its potential to attract tourists, and even its benefits for Cape Town's bid for the Olympic Games in 2004.
Peace Visions, a company patronised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that organised the conference, backed its peace institute idea as a model that built on "Robben Island's metaphorical ambiguity, its role as a place of banishment . . . and human triumph over injustice".
It may be uncertain whether or not such an institute comes into being, or whether its academicians can solve the conundrum long debated in jail by Mr Mandela and his colleagues - whether there was ever a tiger in Africa. But judging by the mood during the mass reunion on Robben Island on Friday to mark the fifth anniversary of Mr Mandela's release, a 1974 proposal to build a casino or leisure complex on the island is doomed.
"This casino stuff is all bullshit. It's white selfishness. The whites are in such a big hurry to forget," balladeer Gcina Mhlophe said. "There's big emotions here. People are angry. All these wasted lives after being put in jail for one word. There must be something else here, like the Jews get to remember Auschwitz."
Basil Ndwanya, jailed for 25 years for blowing up an empty police car, said the prison should remain in use for the torturers of the past. As he stood on Robben Island's rocky seaweed-strewn beach looking out at the Cape Peninsula, he pointed to scars around an eye from a whipping with handcuffs.
"The vote will be for some kind of monument," veteran ANC leader Walter Sisulu said, walking as a free man through the scrub-dotted island, which has been used off and on as a prison colony almost since white men arrived at the southern tip of the continent.
A spokesman for the warders told South African television he favoured some kind of wildlife reserve. "It's a great place to live. It's just like a farm. children can wander about. It's not like Cape Town with all those criminals on the streets." another warder said, oblivious to the irony of what he was saying.The island is home to about 320 civilians.
The warders have now bolted a sign on their ferry announcing that "Robben Island is for Peace". But however PC the warders may become, the island's history symbolises the black struggle for freedom from whites. Few white prisoners were kept
there. Previous centuries had seen isolation there for chiefs, Muslim holy men, African princes, tribal prophets, whites who freed slaves and lepers.
All the talk of future plans for the island did not seem to spark the imagination of the prisoners themselves, many of whom were more concerned about their own fate. Some of the loudest clapping greeted Mr Mandela's promise to look into the question of pensions for those "who contributed to the democratisation of the country".
Former inmate Kwedi Mkhalipi recalled prisoners who had returned to their lives outside to find houses destroyed, job applications refused, families divided and finances ruined. Some, he said, had been forced to live
in squatter settlements.
Ahmed Kathrada, a confidant of Mr Mandela, said that whatever complex of museums and monuments was agreed on, it would have to reflect all segments of the struggle against apartheid and protect the island's flora, fauna and even its shipwrecks. "To us, Robben Island is sacred," he said. "We want it to be a monument of freedom and dignity over oppression, non-racialism over bigotry, largeness of spirit over small- mindedness. We want it to be a triumph of the new South Africa over the old."