Robben Island – a journey through the darkness of South Africa’s history to honour the light of our rainbow nation

The winemaker at Weltevrede Estate, Robertson once told me a rather beguiling story about Robben Island, which made for an interesting departure from its more sinister past. On a visit to the historic prison, the winemaker noticed an old, neglected vineyard clinging to life in the prison gardens, so he approached the authorities and offered to revive the vineyard.

Robben Island

After wading through the obligatory bureaucracy, he was given the go-ahead. Some years, and a lot of TLC later, those vines recovered enough to yield a few cases of sweet Muscat wine. Naturally, the winemaker gifted a bottle to none other than former President Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years of his life incarcerated in the island’s maximum-security prison, only to emerge an international icon for peace and reconciliation.

Robben Island

Robben Island is the summit of an ancient, now submerged mountain linked by an undersea saddle to Blouberg.

I am horribly paraphrasing the story since I heard it so long ago – plus, winemakers rarely entertain guests without plying them with wine. However, it’s worth repeating again and again because it reminds one that Robben Island takes and gives life in strange and unexpected ways. Those grapevines were very likely descendants of the original vines planted in 1652 by Jan Van Riebeeck, not to make wine but to ward off scurvy amongst passing sailors. Yet, right next door to these flourishing vines, freedom fighters incarcerated by the insidious Apartheid government were diminished by squalid living conditions and bone-breaking masonry labour.

On Robben Island, the light lives side-by-side with the darkness.

Robben Island

Today, this 507-hectare World Heritage Site serves as a teacher: a reminder of what happened and what is still possible when the morally bankrupt is in command. It is a place that is haunted by the trauma it bore witness to. And while this may sound terrible, it is not: to the visitor, Robben Island is a baptism in awareness and an awakening to our responsibility to honour equality.

This maelstrom hits you as you shuffle through the old prison grounds, which have withstood decades of abuse by the winter storms for which the Cape has earned a formidable reputation. You marvel at the soulless hallways, the iron bars that must have been rusted from the sweat of prisoners’ hands before being painted over, and the four walls that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 years. And all the while school children jostle about your legs to take a closer look, giggling and blissful, excited to escape their own classroom prisons.

Many of Robben Island’s archival resources are kept at the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape; this includes artefacts, historical documents and photographs.

There is something of a rebirth in the experience, and I’m yet to meet a person who has not returned from Robben Island humbled, even stung, and definitely inspired.

Of course, there are other, slightly unexpected things to visit the island for. It is home to a large colony of endangered seabirds, including African penguins, bank and crown cormorants, swift terns, and African black oystercatchers. There’s also a totally endemic population of chukar partridges (small quail-like birds) and peafowl that were introduced to the Cape as game birds but didn’t survive elsewhere because of predation and parasites. The lack of natural predators on Robben Island also explains it being overrun by rabbits.

Robben Island

You see? To the humans who lived there, the island was hell. But to tens of thousands of critically endangered animals and birds, it is a safe haven. The darkness lives side-by-side with the light.

Animals on the island include sea birds, water birds and terrestrial birds. The island has about 23 species of mammals including bontebok, springbok, eland, ostriches, snakes and tortoises. Cape Fur Seals, Southern Right Whales, Dusky and Heaviside Dolphins can be spotted on the boat trips to and from the island.

Visitors can stick to the well-trodden tour routes, which depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront every day at 9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. Including travel time on the ferry, these tours take approximately 3.5 hours and guide you through the island’s clutch of attractions, such as the leper graveyard, freedom fighter Robert Sobukwe’s house, the Bluestone quarry, and the prison itself, culminating with a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell.

Robben Island

Robben Island

Robben Island has more than 500 years of human history under its belt. And while it may seem to be a place steeped in death, it is equally, if not more so, steeped in prolific life and renewal. And this can be appreciated in every quarter: from the tens of thousands of seabirds that roost safely on its shores to the Muscat grapevines the winemaker used to craft wine for our beloved Nelson Mandela, and from the hope that Madiba brought to the people of South Africa to the rainbow nation we have subsequently become.