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Civil Rights

Robben Island: A view into Mandela's prison life

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison on Robben Island. These days, it’s a tourist attraction. DW’s Ludger Schadomsky visited the island and Mandela’s famous cell #5 – he also met Mandela critics there.

"We serve with pride" - these are the words above the barbed-wire gate that leads to the prison area, where speedboats from Cape Town are landing. In the 1970s and 1980s, the compound was full of sadistic prison guards who served a white, racist regime.

"Here is your brown sugar for the porridge. You know - the white sugar is reserved for us white people," Mandela wrote in describing the everyday rituals of repression in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."

During Mandela's time on Robben Island, a typical day looked like this: 05:30: Get up and clean up the cell. 06:00: Breakfast - corn porridge and corn coffee. 07:00-11:00: Work at the limestone quarry. 14:30: Dinner - every second day old meat is on the table. 15:00-06:00: Back to the cell - study and sleep.

Nelson Mandela's old prison cell. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in "Cell number 5"

Music and theater in prison

"How is it for you to be back here today, in this place of humiliation?" one of the participants of our tour group asks the tour guide, Itumeleng Makwela. Makwela is a former guerrilla fighter who served in the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), called "Spear of the Nation." Police arrested him in 1982, and after being tortured in a political prison in the capital Pretoria, he spent seven years on Robben Island.

In his role as a tourist guide, he tells the story of the jazz band and the prisoners' choir while grinning - he was a member of both. At Christmastime were all kinds of performances by the inmates. "You should have seen our Zulu dances," he joked.

In the prison yard, Makwela points at the dusty vegetable garden, which Mandela and fellow prisoners lovingly maintained. Makwela said that the prisoners used to enjoy certain privileges in later years, such as playing tennis, or theater.

They put that privilege to good use. "We opened up tennis balls and put in secret messages. We casually threw the balls over the wall into the other section - so we could communicate with each other," explained the former freedom fighter

A cell in block B is the highlight of the tour: This is Mandela's former prison cell, now known as "Cell number 5." It's about four square meters (43 square feet) big. A deep and a shallow plate, a spoon, a small wardrobe, a two-centimeter-thick (0.8-inch-thick) sleeping mat and a blanket are inside. This was Mandela's home for 18 years. His name here was “46664”.

Limestone quarry at Robben Island prison off Cape Town

Prisoners were forced to work at the limestone quarry under the scorching sun for many hours a day

Pilgrimage site

Not just the prison on Robben Island has shut down - visitors have changed as well. For a long time, the majority of visitors were mainly white tourists from other continents, such as Europe. Now, South Africans and citizens of other African countries are flocking to the island, as well. For them, the tour is a gesture to honor Mandela’s life.

Ndikho Mtshizelwa is an academic from the University of South Africa in Pretoria. He came to Robben Island because his wife wanted him to. "You know, I have a different view of Mandela," he explained, quite obviously not getting involved in all the hustle and bustle.

As for the political liberation, Mandela indeed deserves all the glory, Mtshizelwa said. But in terms of the economic liberation, the first black president failed, he thinks. "Liberating black South Africans from poverty should have been his top priority," he said.

Mtshizelwa offered his excuses that he “can’t celebrate” Mandela’s contribution to a new South Africa. These days, still only few South Africans criticize Mandela, the icon of peace, openly. But over the years, various biographers have published details that paint both positive and negative pictures of Mandela.

Madiba magic

Nelson Mandela visiting his former cell #5 on Robben Island in 1995 (Photo: TILLIM/AFP/Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela visited his former cell #5 on Robben Island in 1995.

On Robben Island, the tour group passes the small cemetery and the infamous limestone quarry. The prisoners were forced to work under the scotching sun for many hours in the quarry. After his release in 1990, Nelson Mandela forbade flash photography at press conferences he was attending. His eyes were severely damaged by the bright reflection of the sun on the stones.

Inside the island’s souvenir shop, there is a picture of Mandela and a mustachioed white man - Christo Brand. During his stay in prison, Mandela made friends with the warden, a staunchly conservative man who was only 18 years old at the time. They remained friends even after his release. These kind of stories helped to build up the image of Mandela as one of the greatest reconcilers in history.

No peace dividend

At the end of the tour, we had a chance to chat with Itumeleng Makwela, the tour guide. Does he regret being a victim of the struggle for a non-racial South Africa? "We have a problem here - the people we have fought for then got rich and powerful. They don't give a damn about us today," Makwela said. "I don't understand why they don't care about us. They are in their present positions because of us," Makwela said in referring to politicians of his own party - the ANC.

At the landing for the speed boats, Mandela critic Ndikho Mtshizelwa had one last message for the reporter. "You see," he said, carefully adjusting his hat. "Mandela spoke of reconciliation. Just imagine I would steal your gear now – just like the whites stole our mines. And then I tell you: let’s try and make our peace. But I won’t give you back your bag."

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