Robben Island – Home of Seals and Survivors

Robben Island – Home of Seals and Survivors

July 4, 2019 Off By Lea Strenge

Our day starts out with the first promising rays of sun. The African weather has been quite unpredictable; when the sun shows its face it almost feels like a mild summer day, making you forget it is supposed to be winter in June, but as soon as we step foot in the shade temperatures drop several degrees and the wind serves as a reminder of the prevalent harshness of the Cape. 

Energetically, our group of eleven makes its way to the ferry that will take us to the island that Mandela was forced to call home for 19 of the 27 years he was imprisoned during Apartheid. Suspecting that the former prison has lost much of its dark and depressing charm, I mostly enjoy being on the boat with a smile on my face, gliding over the waves on our short ride, not anticipating the emotional roller coaster I had signed up for. 

Robben Island itself has changed its name as much as it has changed its purpose over the years. Today, the comparably small piece of land within the jurisdiction of Cape Town houses merely 200 living and over 1000 dead people that were exiled and left to die first from leprosy and later from the side effects of incarceration as political prisoners. 

It is almost impossible to imagine the daily struggles inmates lived through; being punished for exercising basic human rights, or race determining how much food or clothing would be provided for them – overpopulation, physical and psychological torture aside. Then we meet Ntando Mbatha and the stories get a face. 

Ntando, a former political prisoner of Robben Island, is now an old man. His walk is slow and warped while he guides us through the fading green prison hallways. His calm but raspy voice takes us on a journey of despair and hopelessness. He takes us into a large cell where Ntando begins his speech, pacing up and down between old metal bunk beds at one end of the room and the heavy metal door he had slammed behind us as we came in because, “people should suffer when they come here.” The picture he paints in the short time we have with him leaves everyone speechless.

Ntando Mbathe in his former cell

Those that have experienced trauma know, suffering is not a competition. Without a doubt, some fates are harder to stomach than others but what is shared is a clashing void that feels so uniquely solitary and is yet what can bring people closer together. 

Ntando came close to the edge more than once, rather ending his life than continuing it. The picture in my mind is that of a young man sitting on the folded blankets that is his bed, penned together with the other 50 inhabitants of cell four that were classified as black, the least fortunate category during apartheid. Guards were eager to provide advice on how to commit suicide rather than help and so Ntando let go. 

He let go of the dirt, food rations of a few ounces per day, and one outfit per inmate per year. He let go of two visitations per year for 30 minutes, and the censorship of newspapers and personal letters beyond recognition. He let go of a mutilated body that was unlikely to father children after his genitalia was burned so badly by interrogators that doctors seriously questioned his fertility. Ntando let go of his cause, of life, of hope. His face makes clear that we are barely scratching the surface of the daily nightmares leading up to his suicide attempt.

Today he speaks about the unspeakable and walks on the ground he couldn’t wait to leave after his release. The cell we’re sitting in falls dead silent as he tells us about his children – a miracle that can’t wipe the tears from the eyes of some visitors completely. Ntando recollects living five minutes at a time after his failed suicide attempt and it seems surreal watching him exercise his daily routine of introducing strangers to his intimate horrors.

Nobody can comprehend the pictures this man sees when he closes his eyes at night – nights that are spent on the other side of his cell’s bars and yet in the same place, together with other employees, Ntando lives on Robben Island. The island that almost took his life is now his home, and once again this choice was partly made for him.

He recollects his efforts to find a job: “If I had it my way I would be as far away from this place as possible. Somehow, the island doesn’t want to let me go” he ruminates with a melancholic smile on his face. Being incarcerated for seven years left him not only with a criminal record but also under qualified for many professions, despite his late studies of African literature. 

Image credit: South African Tourism (flickr)

Ntando eventually decided to return and now appreciates his job for its therapeutic qualities. When I ask him how he perceives all the visitors flooding the gates of his prison he answers carefully: “People that come here want to know what happened. You think, you have a soul.”

Ntando’s encounters might have left him in doubt if a soul lives in each and everyone of us and as I am standing on the ferry back to the main land I am wondering about his. I’m staring into the water our boat stirs up; the molecules seemingly hurry to carry us away from this strange place that continues to hold so many secrets. I am trying to imagine the wave of release washing over Ntando, standing in a similar place, watching the island getting smaller and smaller as he first left. I wonder if he felt defeated when he returned to start this last chapter of his life. 

Ntando Mbatha, along with the other ex-inmates, continues to keep history alive so my generation can learn and grow. He is sacrificing his life for the fight of freedom and equality in the most dedicated way imaginable: he keeps living it.

Ferry ride back to the mainland