South Africa Tour blog

Day 5: Robben Island and Concert at St. George's Cathedral

The most wonderful and complicated aspect of tour for a lot of us is the sheer sensory and emotional overload of our packed days. Yesterday was a perfect example. The day began with a trip to Robben Island, the site of a prison known widely for its most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. We set out for the island at 8am, reachable by a pleasant, 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. By this point in tour, we were well-accustomed to stunning natural beauty, but this ferry ride was our first exposure to open water, which is magnificent in its own way. Gliding along, someone would catch a glimpse of a whale or dolphin flipping and turning in the water, and we'd rush to that side of the boat to marvel at their carefree gymnastics.

Save for a few cases of sea-sickness, we reached Robben Island in high spirits -- vitamin D-fueled, beauty-stricken high spirits. And then began our tour of the former prison facilities on Robben Island. Incredibly, all tours of the prison are given by a former prisoner, a testament to their efforts to create a vivid living history. Our guide, Jama, had been incarcerated from 1977 to 1982 on terrorism charges for his involvement in the 1976 school riots. He was 19 years old at the time. Inside the prison, Jama related basic information about the prison and answered some of our questions -- mostly about his own experiences. After that, we wandered through the cells of the prison, in which displays told stories of former prisoners and carried original artifacts. In one room was displayed the original constitution and meeting minutes for the Robben Island Prisoners' Recreational & Cultural Committee, laying out the organization's aims, objectives, and more. Some of us were struck by the level of detail and care given to the mission statement of such a group, realizing that it was a natural result of confining a number of politically motivated revolutionaries or organizers -- of course they would turn their attentions and talents to whatever was at hand. 

The fourth cell in the right, Jama told us. That was Mandela's cell. That was the cell in which Mandela served 18 years of the 27-year prison sentence that came to symbolize, for many, strength and resilience. As we approached the cell, preserved in its original conditions save for a fresh paint of pale-green paint, some of us almost expected the cell to glow with the same revolutionary and inspirational aura that is evoked at any mention of Nelson Mandela. But the cell of course was ordinary, plain, its former occupant long gone. And still, the weight of the space stayed with us, expressed in the grim smiles we shared with one another, with an unusual quiet among a group normally gregarious in our affection for one another.

On the ferry ride back, eager to digest what we had seen, lobbed questions (formed and half-formed) at one another. What did it mean to make a tourist site out of a former prison? Who all was able to visit the prison and who couldn't afford to? How could we reconcile the wild, free and natural beauty encapsulated by the whales and dolphins we glimpsed, with an island literally built to cripple men into psychological submission? What did we make Jama's plain admission that he would prefer not to be working as a tour guide at Robben Island, but financial circumstances had made it a necessity for him? These are ongoing conversations. 

That evening, it was a privilege to share a concert with the Cape Town Youth Choir, who simply blew us away with their honest and moving performances of repertoire from Duruflé's "Ubi Caritas" to Traditional Xulu and Xhosa songs. Particularly moving was their rendition  of "Homeless," a Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala piece made famous by Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the album Graceland. Their thoughtful pairing of solos and intricate ensembles harmonies made for a dynamic performance. At the end, it was an honor to jointly sing the South African national anthem, with ample support from an audience that rose to join us in proud song. "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika"