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Travel Story by Andrew Hearn

  Robben Island
Cape Town, South Africa

Nelson Mandela's prison cell

Robben Island has a sombre history, as it contains South Africa's infamous prison, where political dissents of the apartheid regime were sent to, along with convicted criminals.

This island, situated an enjoyable half an hour's ride on a catamaran away from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront at Cape Town, housed one of humanity's greatest advocates; Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was held in this prison for the majority of his life as a political prisoner. This fact was the first, and main reason, why we wanted to visit the island while forming our travel itinerary.

On arrival at the Island, there were sea-lions frolicking in the harbour water, maximising the exposure of their undersides to the hot sun. But that welcoming sight was soon forgotten, for we were slightly unsure of what were going to happen next, as most of the other passengers immediately paraded in the direction of a couple of waiting tour-coaches. While the rest of them seemed to know which standing guide, in front of the stone walls, they were allocated to, even though the guides hardly ever did any beckoning.

Ah.... the usual occurrence of us Deaf people missing some vital information happened again, in our case, somewhere from buying the tickets up until the catamaran docked at the island.

Luckily, where time was concerned, one of the tour-coach drivers waddled our way, looking at his handkerchief after patting his forehead. A customary initial exchange occurred between Deaf peoples with give-away mannerisms, and an hearing person with a facial expression of '<sigh>-what-now?-but-just-remembered-to-put-on-a-convincing-smile-on'. He told us to join a guide party, that there is a sign language thingy happening somewhere, emphasised by a vague gesture towards the prison buildings.

After thanking the driver wholeheartedly, we joined a group of people who were already on their way to the prison, subconsciously keeping a comfortable distance between the last person of the group and ourselves. At the front of the group was a guide (who had an air of a person in love with her job), leading us all towards the jail. At the unassuming entrance, this guide handed the group over to an elderly man (who, we later found out, was an ex political prisoner of the very same buildings from 1969 till '89).

It wasn't until the second room into the prison that we felt this 'sign language thingy' was definitely not going to happen. We then waited until the party began to move on before sneaking away, like school-kids, to look for this.

By chance (or fate??), a randomly selected corridor had a security warden in it, walking briskly, followed by a woman with a sense of urgency. She turned out to be this Sign Language Thingy!

She was a tad annoyed that no one from the ticket office has contacted her, despite us informing the clerk that we are Deaf. She was exasperated (surprise, surprise) that she still has to explain the simple procedure to the ticket desk clerks on the mainland, of informing the island of any oncoming Deaf visitors.

She left her office to look for us, as soon as an employee of the Prison museum who was on the same catamaran to the island, told her of our presence. (Later on, we asked her how she knew where to start looking, as the island cannot be covered in a short amount of time - her grinned reply: "By luck!")

Vanessa Chetty, the signer, is an amiable hard-of-hearing person who signs fluently. She uses South African SL, sprinkled with some international sign. When there are no Deaf visitors, she works in the admin department of the museum.

There is no need for us to recount, how much difference it made having a guided tour given in an accessible language! (Of course we got our token stares from some mesmerised hearing people in the party just ahead of us.)

Vanessa would like for any future visitors to try and contact her directly if possible, prior to arriving on the island. For the more spontaneous visitor, she would like him/her to inform the ticket seller to contact the island and ask for her. So that she will be ready at the harbour, to greet any Deaf arrivals.

As we walked through the buildings, the actual scale of oppression, which went on behind closed doors, got revealed, bit by bit the further we ventured. The prevalent type was that the prisoners were treated differently, mainly according to the colour of their skin.

Black people lacked the provisions, which were available to the other, prejudicially labelled 'non-white', and also white prisoners. They had to put up with sparse clothing throughout the year. Bedding only consisted of blankets, and nothing else. It is very difficult to fathom the effects of sleeping on the cold, hard concrete floor every night for many years.

They also had metal buckets in place of a proper working toilet. The prisoners cleaned these out at a scheduled time, only once daily.

Deaths occurred more often in the Black prison population.

Robben Island has many stories behind its prison walls - almost as if they are coming out of the brickwork itself. Humbling stories. Made more so by the fact that the former political detainees' wish; that the prison becomes a symbol of united human triumph against inhumanity and oppression, instead of a reminder of tragedies.

Click on photo to enlarge

Robben Island: Entrance to maximum security prison  Robben Island: Prison interior  Robben Island lighthouse

Date Submitted: 19 Aug 2006

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