You Can Put Out a Candle, But You Can’t Put Out a Fire

Saturday 19th June 2010 published Saturday 26th June 2010

As I sit on the rather large twin hulled boat waiting to depart Robben Island for the mainland, I have mixed emotions. The best of people and the worst of people. The best bit is easy, having seen where the political prisoners of the 1960’s were incarcerated was shocking to the core. Those prisoners who took a stand against Apartheid and stood up for freedom. This was the reason we made the short 30 minute journey across the bay from Cape Town for a three hour tour around this sparsely populated island. The worst of people, well we will come to them later.

The departure station in Cape Town was beautifully constructed and had an air of class. Football or Soccer had played a major part in the lives of the inmates, and all the teams are listed as well as colour pictures of their shirts on the walls. There were some great team names, ‘Old Crocks’, ‘Happy Boys’, ‘Hotspurs’, ‘Blues’, ‘Gunners’, ‘Fighters’ and ‘Rangers’ and it gave a real flavour of the love of the game by the South Africans.

On the way across the bay, we chatted to a father and son from Sussex who were doing the World Cup together. The older gentleman was in his eighties and his son probably my age. They were having a ball, and we just one of many father and son teams out here, enjoying the football together, reliving earlier days no doubt, but above all doing what fathers and sons should do. More power to them all. I wonder how many of the prisoners on Robben Island could ever have enjoyed such precious times?

As we docked on Robben Island, the boat gently played out the South African hymn Nkosi sikelel iAfrika which forms part of the new National Anthem of the country. This was a song sung by those who fought and resisted the apartheid system and is an amazing piece of music. Even as I write these words on a warm morning a week later in Johannesburg, I can’t stop the tears rolling down my face. To think that such inhumanity to men by fellow men could take place so recently, still makes me equally sad and angry. I have never been a massive fan of authority, and those that know me know this, but cruelty and injustice are the two things that would make me take up arms and fight. For that reason alone, the trip to Robben Island was significant.

As we passed the hundreds of Kelp birds feasting on the delights between sea and shore, we were directed to waiting buses by our guides. No such luxuries for the prisoners who arrived in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who would have been marched off to their cells, incarcerated and forgotten.

Our guides were Tabo (MC on the mic) and Serge (driver). Tabo was laid back, gently spoken with a razor sharp wit and cheeky sense of humour. The game against Algeria the night before had been turgid in the extreme, and even I had struggled to find anything redeeming about it. Being positive, I had watched the whole miserable 94 minutes again that morning on TV and we did look better than we had done ‘live’ or allegedly live at The Green Point stadium. Tabo extolled all the English on the bus, which was 99%, indeed he asked us how many British on board, which got a howl of derision and he duly corrected himself to refer to us as English, to ‘ show some love for South Africans in the bus.’ He went on to say,’Don’t give up on England, otherwise all hell will break loose’. I think those days are largely over, one can but look on the brightside after all!

Tabo talked us through the history of the island. It had been a leper colony in 1840 and there was a cemetry containing the graves of 900 lepers alongside a church and a small hospital. Robben means seals in Dutch, and the island had become home to the notorious prison to convicted criminals. In 1960, the political prisoners joined the convicts.

Tabo showed us where Robert Sobukwe president of the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) had been kept for 9 years (1960-1969) in solitary confinement. He had actually been released in 1963, but had then been held arbitarily under a new clause in South African law called ‘the Sobukwe Clause’, such was the randomness of justice and law in that era.

Tabo then delivered us into the care of Sparks, a former inmate and member of the ANC who had served time from 1983-1990 under the Terrorism Act, Section 29.

Sparks’s number was 1981 5683. He showed us the communal cell he lived in, with no glazed windows, just holes, zero heating or proper beds. They just had two blankets one as a base for their bed, and one as a pillow or cover, their choice. Two idiots, from North West England, jumped into the solitary bunk beds, more to the astonishment and amazement of Sparks. They did not need to be told to pipe down, something about this eerie place just suggested that behaving like a pair of chumps really did not work.

We were showed the ration sheets for black political prisoners and the difference between the rations for coloured prisoners and the convicted criminals. There is a picture in this blog which show you the difference. Unbelievable.

Later we were shown the exercise and labour yard which Nelson Rolihlaha Mandela had hidden his book, The Long Walk to Freedom, behind a vine. We were told how the prisoners had passed information inside tennis balls, over the walls, and some even becoming decent players! When the younger and more radical and violent ANC members joined the penal colony, the older and wiser members, such as Mandela, often used the message passing system to calm the young ‘uns down! Furthermore, the political prisoners actually politicised the criminals much to the dismay of the authorities.

The final part of the tour saw us pass Mandela’s cell. Small, tight and depressingly stark. To think he served 27 years of his life sentence in this room was poignant. Meanwhile, the two English idiots, now joined by two fools from Brazil were gaily chatting about football whilst Sparks was telling us the detail. The Brazilian boys also could not contain their giggling everytime Sparks pronounced Mandela’s name. Perhaps nerves got the better of them. Dear oh dear.

And so our few precious hours on this eerie island came to an end. You’d think that the experience may have had a calming influence on everyone. It did, but there’s always a few. The American woman who sat behind Kirsty and droned on did not help things along, nor did the numerous idiots trying to take all measure of pictures through windows, doorways and portholes. At one point the idiot Brazilian and English from earlier had entered a beach reserved for penguins despite clear and frequent signs. They went on to to knock cameras out of each other’s hands rushing to get a picture of the confounded football stadium. Although the Green Point stadium does resemble a gigantic Bose speaker, it really does not warrant a undignified scrabble reminiscent of those god awful first day of the January sale.

But fortunately for us, those simpletons did not provide the final lasting memory. As we entered the bay, we saw another of the peaks to the side of Table Mountain, The Lion’s Head. It’s funny, but I could see Madiba’s head laying resting, his nose, eye lashes and a wispy cloud looking like his greying hair looking up to the sky, at peace. A truly moving and inspiring afternoon. One that the Dutch football team had given up a training session for and one which the England team had passed on that very same day. Let’s hope that is not a sign.

‘There are few misfortunes in the world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and necessary skill.’ Nelson Mandela

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