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
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
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

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'