Ex-inmates plan fate of apartheid's prison isle

Robben Island Prison is on the way out as South Africa's most notorious maximum-security jail. But what should take its place in the focus of Cape Town's Table Bay? A casino? A wildlife park? A prison for apartheid-era killers and torturers? Or a South African peace institute and monument to the struggle for freedom and non-racial democracy?

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before