The Island that Changed My Life


Words and Photographs by Amron Gravett

Leaving the Victoria & Albert Waterfront (or V&A as it is known locally), I sit below deck in a rickety old boat loaded with Cape Town librarians and authors. We are a group from the National Library of South Africa’s Center for the Book and are headed to a symposium celebrating an exhibition on banned books. The conference is titled, “The Book that Changed My Life.” The tourist catamarans race past our slow, bobbing ferry—the very same ferry that once transported apartheid prisoners to and from Robben Island, our final destination today.

View of Table Mountain (Cape Town) from Robben Island shoreline

View of Table Mountain (Cape Town) from Robben Island shoreline

There is no more iconic landmark in South Africa than Robben Island, located seven kilometers northwest off the shore of Cape Town. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, today it is not only a memorial to the isolation and grimness of apartheid, but also a beacon of hope. For the past 400 years, this tiny body of land has served a number of important, historical uses, including a supplies stop for ocean explorers rounding the southern tip of Africa, a World War II military base, a leper colony that isolated nearly 2,000 victims, and a prison colony in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and during apartheid from 1961 to 1991. The long list of apartheid prisoners included activists, leaders, and presidents such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Jacob Zuma. A statement on the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s website reads, “The buildings of Robben Island bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history, and at the same time symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression.”

The woman sitting next to me points toward the lighthouse that we can now barely make out on the horizon. She places her right hand across her chest and her eyes glaze over. She tells me that this is the first time she’s been back since being imprisoned for her political activism in the 1970s. She goes on to explain that she was at such an impressionable age during her time on Robben Island that she actually feels a sense of coming home. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela mirrors this sentiment, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Several of the people sitting nearby nod in agreement with what she is saying and I come to learn that many other prisoners came at an equally young age, some as young as 16. Many even acquired advanced degrees while imprisoned, further changing their lives in phenomenal ways.

Cape Town librarians having tea before the Robben Island symposium

Cape Town librarians having tea before the Robben Island symposium

Among the speakers at the banned books symposium are Paul Langa, the CEO of the Robben Island Museum; Kwedi Mkalipi, an author and museum tour guide; and Sedick Isaacs, an “ex-librarian,” educator, and author of Surviving in the Apartheid Prison. All three are ex-political prisoners detained on Robben Island for decades of their lives. They talk about what they went through to get their stories published and which books they used to smuggle into their cells to read. They share stories of what it took to survive on a daily basis in prison but focus mostly on the role that education played in this survival. My favorite story is about how prisoners used to write mathematics lessons on the toilet paper in the loo for the next prisoner to complete. Isaacs quotes Albert Einstein, “Isolation stimulates the creative mind,” to exemplify the prisoners’ spirit of determination rather than bitterness or rage. The speakers center their attention on hope for the future generations.

Musicians at V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

Musicians at V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

Many of South Africa’s current leaders managed to survive the horrific oppression and violence of the apartheid years because they too possess this same ever-present hope and this, I believe, is the sole reason that reconciliation was possible. Throughout their stories of the brutality and torture they endured, there is laughter and joy as they discuss their determination to create a South African nation of readers and learners who will foster even greater change by living and working hard alongside one another.

What to Read

Nelson Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom is the most revealing book to read on the subject of apartheid and his 27 year imprisonment on Robben Island. The 2013 biopic titled “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” was being shown worldwide when Mandela passed away on December 5, 2013. Many of the other longtime prisoners have published memoirs and collections about their time imprisoned on the island and are worth seeking out. The Robben Island Museum has published a number of these excellent books. Search worldcat.org with keyword “Robben Island” or “Robben Island Museum” for book information.  After his death, Maya Angelou wrote the poem, His Day is Done, which captured his love and legacy succinctly. Today, The Nelson Mandela Foundation continues to work for social justice, both in South Africa and worldwide.