Island is heritage site

Ido Lekota

Ido Lekota

Robben Island, a piece of land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on the southern tip of Africa, has a multi-layered history.

It was used as a place of banishment from as early as the 16th century.

In 1525 a Portuguese ship on its way to the East in search of spices, offloaded some convicts on the land mass.

The Dutch settler leader Jan van Riebeeck sent South Africa's first political prisoners to the island.

These were Khoikhoi leaders who resisted the settlers' drive to usurp land and force the indigenous people into paid labour.

In the 1800s several Xhosa and Khoikhoi leaders who resisted British occupation were also incarcerated on the island.

The coming to power of the Nationalist Party in 1948 and subsequent adoption of the apartheid policy, led to an influx of political prisoners on the island.

Those incarcerated there were sentenced to hard labour, including working in the quarries.

Apart from being denied their freedom, many of these prisoners were subjected to severe beatings and other cruel forms of punishment.

As a maximum security prison, Robben Island was seen as a symbol of extreme repression by a government that was prepared to defend the inhuman apartheid system at all costs.

Ironically, the island also became a symbol of resistance for the oppressed majority.

The messages transmitted clandestinely from the island gave the oppressed majority hope and the courage to continue fighting against oppression.

Being incarcerated on Robben Island became a badge of honour that showed one's commitment to the liberation of the oppressed majority.

Negotiations between the ANC and the NP led to the release of prisoners like Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. All political prisoners left the island in 1991.

The prison was closed in 1996. In 1997 it was declared a national heritage site, now known as the Robben Island Museum (RIM).

The museum is now seen as part of the South African heritage that includes the struggle for liberation which had led to African heroes being incarcerated on the island.

As the RIM's chief executive Paul Langa, a former Robben Island prisoner himself, says: "Robben Island's transformation from a maximum security prison to a museum has led to the re-examination of the island's change as a symbol of national heritage and history. It is now seen as a symbol of extreme repression as much as a symbol of resistance, liberation and triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

The new role that the island plays has also come with new challenges.

For example the RIM is among the 10 most visited places in the Western Cape. During high season the island hosts as many as 1800 people a day. These are tourists who visit the island on cruise boats.

There are also resident artists, teachers and support staff who live on the island.

All these factors have an impact, for example, on the island's infrastructure including roads, drinking water, and an efficient harbour where cruise boats can dock.

The island has spent about R6million on a water purification plant to provide fresh drinking water. Another R7million has been spent to upgrade roads on the island. The Sobukwe house, where the PAC leader was kept in isolation, is receiving a R6,6million face-lift.

In September this year the RIM will celebrate its 10th anniversary. As part of the celebrations the RIM is hoping to launch a new 31,5m-long cruise boat currently being built.

The three-decked, 300-seat boat will cost R26million to build.