Nelson Mandela, South Africa, spent 27 years in prison before his release in 1990. At Robben Island he demonstrated a rare talent for conflict management. Meeting the raw brutality of the guards with human dignity he built a relation of respect. The guards ended up as friends and were invited by Mandela as his personal guests at the ceremony when, in 1994, following general elections, he was elevated to President of South Africa. He shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk.
WELCOME TO ROBBEN ISLAND!
One night towards the end of May, a warder came to my cell and told me to pack my things. I asked him why, but he did not answer. In less than ten minutes, I was escorted down to the reception office where I found three other political prisoners: Tefu, John Gaetsewe and Aaron Molete. Colonel Aucamp curtly informed us that we were being transferred. Where? Tefu asked. Someplace very beautiful, Aucamp said. Where? said Tefu. ’Die Eiland,’ said Aucamp. The island. There was only one. Robben Island.
The four of us were shackled together and put in a windowless van that contained only a sanitary bucket. We drove all night to Cape Town, and arrived at the city’s docks in the late afternoon. It is not an easy or pleasant task for men shackled together to use a sanitary bucket in a moving van.
The docks at Cape Town were swarming with armed police and nervous plain-clothed officials. We had to stand, still chained, in the hold of the old wooden ferry, which was difficult as the ship rocked in the swells off the coast. A small porthole above us was the only source of 1ight and air. The porthole served another purpose as well: the warders enjoyed urinating on us from above. It was still light when we were led on deck and we saw the island for the first time. Green and beautiful, it looked at first more like a resort than a prison.
’Esquithini.’ ’At the island.’ That is how the Xhosa people describe the narrow, windswept outcrop of rock that lies eighteen miles off the coast of Cape Town. Everyone knows which island you are referring to. I first heard about the island as a child. Robben Island was well known among the Xhosas after Makanna (also known as Nxele), the six-foot six-inch commander of the Xhosa army in the Fourth Xhosa War, was banished there by the British after leading ten thousand warriors against Grahamstown in 1819. He tried to escape from Robben Island by boat, but drowned before reaching shore. The memory of that loss is woven into the language of my people who speak of a ’forlorn hope’ by the phrase ’Ukuza kuka Nxele.’
Makanna was not the first African hero confined on the island. In 1638 Autshumao, known to European historians as Harry the Strandloper, was banished by Jan van Riebeeck during a war between the Khoi Khoi and the Dutch. I took solace in the memory of Autshumao, for he is reputed to be the first and only man ever to escape from Robben Island, and he did so by rowing to the mainland in a small boat.
The island takes its name from the Dutch word for seal, hundreds of which once cavorted in the Icy Benguela currents that wash the shores. Later the island was turned into a leper colony, a lunatic asylum and a naval base. The government had only recently turned the island back into a prison.
We were met by a group of burly white warders shouting: ’Dis die Eiland! Hier julle gaan wrek!’ (’This is the island. Here you will die!’) Ahead of us was a compound flanked by a number of guardhouses. Armed guards lined the path to the compound. It was extremely tense. A tall, red-faced warder yelled at us: ’Hier ek is you baas!’ ’Here I am your boss!’ He was one of the notorious Kleynhans brothers, known for their brutality to prisoners. The warders always spoke in Afrikaans. If you replied in English they would say, ’Ek verstaan nie daardie kaffirboetie se taal nie.’ (’I don’t understand that kaffir-lover’s language.’)
As we walked towards the prison, the guards shouted ’Two- two! Two-two!’ meaning we should walk in pairs, two in front, two behind. I linked up with Tefu. The guards started screaming, ’Haak! Haak!’ The word haak