Robben Island

One brilliant afternoon we loaded on to the Madiba-1 and took a trip to Robben Island, a little flattish island a few miles from the V & A waterfront in Cape Town.

In the central business district and the ritzy neighborhoods of Cape Town you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Europe. The streets, stores, museums, people, weather, wherever you look, are stereotypically European. There is one thing however that is different. Violent crime. Quoting Evan, who heard it on the news, “it wasn’t very comforting [to learn that] crime rates are getting lower, because murder rates are getting higher”. Cape Town is one of the most dramatically beautiful cities I’ve seen. It is also by far the most violent. Uber drivers retell stories of narrowly avoiding violence (and sometimes not). Homes are defended by security systems that rival banks in other cities. Signs advertising the name of your favored armed response security company adorn every gate, door, and shopfront. Barbed wire is for wimps – Capetonians feel compelled to top their fences and walls with concertina and electrified wires. It is unclear why this is so. The modern history of apartheid and violent repression is also uniquely South African, but I don’t know if there is correlation, causation, or merely coincidence between the two.

Robben Island is stark reminder of apartheid. Apartheid, I think our kids now understand, isn’t racism or prejudice. It is a lawful system by which race was used to segregate and discriminate against the majority non-white population of South Africa from around 1950 till 1993ish. Vivian has studied a little bit about slavery and the civil rights movement in the USA, so she has a framework to which she can attach this concept. But for poor Evan this is novel and needed more explaining. How do you explain that 13% – the non- indigenous population – suppressed the rest based on their looks? Not centuries ago, but less than 30 years back, with support from America and Britain and politicians like Thatcher and Raegan.

We drove through a few small rural South African towns and noticed three distinct parts – the clean posh European looking part where the whites historically lived in larger well-separated homes with lush nice gardens, the scrunched together shanties with rusted corrugated metal roofs held down by old tires in the “township” where black people historically lived, and the part of town where the coloreds historically lived. To describe the current situation, omit the word “historically”. Once separated by the law of the land, the land is now divided by history. History is hard to change in a mere 26 years. History encapsulates opportunities and lives and livelihoods that change at a much slower rate – at a generational pace at best. Vivian and Evan hear Jo and I wonder aloud for hours during our beautiful drives around the Western Cape province about the future of South Africa. Do poor blacks and coloreds have a path to prosperity or will only the exceptional amongst them break the historical race barrier? Can an equitable and just solution be reached without draconian land redistribution policies which seem to end very badly (as in neighboring Zimbabwe)? How do South African whites feel about their unjust historical advantage? In Cape Town our Airbnb is in a very posh neighborhood where everyone drives nice German cars. Also everyone is white except for the neatly dressed help who walked up the sidewalks to clean, cook, and babysit. Them and our Uber drivers.

I came across an interesting study reported in 2012 ( Two psychologists rig a game of monopoly for two test subjects to play. One makes twice as much money every time – at the start of the game, passing go, in rent, etc. He (or she) almost always crushes the opponent. The interesting part is studying the behavior of the winner. The psychologists report that “Putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status. During the short 15 minute game, the rigged and hence predetermined winner is initially awkward about the inherent injustice that gives him his advantage. But soon he smirks at the predetermined loser. By the end he assumes the body language of a legitimately successful winner.

This particular study was designed to understand something else (are you a bigger asshole the richer you are). But I think it helps understand privileged behavior. I know that I win only because of the system. But I am quick to claim the mantle of a true winner. I can nicely convince myself that I did it by myself and that I deserve every bit of my success.

Back to Robben Island. When we arrived we drove through the village where the guards and their families lived – an all white guard force to make sure that it could not be infiltrated – to a forlorn coffee place on the island shore. Here’s what Cape Town and Table Mountain looked like from there on a foggy spring afternoon.

We stopped at the barbed wire enclosure that housed the guard dogs and the room where Sobukwe served his sentence in isolation, far from any other prisoner. The teacher and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress was deemed so dangerous by the white state that the legislature voted to amend the laws and enact the Sobukwe clause to re-imprison someone without due process after he has finished serving his sentence.

Our tour bus drove on the streets that the families of the guards took, separate from the ones that the shackled prisoners had to use on their daily trips to forced labor at the limestone quarry. The prisoners had created an extremely complex way to pass information between them. This allowed them to study the great texts and get an education. At the quarry during forced labor, they held their “seminars” secretly under the watchful eyes of their white guards. In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls:

“In the struggle, Robben Island was known as the University. This is not only because of what we learned from books, or because prisoners studied English, Africaans, art, geography, and mathematics, or because so many of our men…earned multiple degrees. Robben Island was known as the University because of what we learned from each other. We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses…Teaching conditions were not ideal. Study groups would work together in the quarry and station themselves in a circle around the leader of the seminar. The style of teaching was Socratic in nature; ideas and theories were elucidated through leaders asking and answering questions.”

Our guide proudly announced that a majority of South Africa’s leaders since the end of apartheid had been graduates of Robben Island university. Just like Yale for American presidents : )

Our guide for the tour of the prison buildings was Peter Khube. He was a prisoner here from 1981 till the end of apartheid. Arrested and charged at 14 for two murders and public protests he arrived at Robben at 16. He spoke about the details of the prison and his daily life without bitterness. He is a tour guide here now because it is hard for him to get another job. The kids were shocked to learn that he was only 56. “Only two years older than daddy?” Evan exclaimed. Spending the prime of your life as a political prisoner at Robben Island isn’t the secret to the fountain of youth, apparently.

The convicted murderer readily agreed to my request for a photograph and embraced Vivian and Evan like a proud uncle.