Changing of the Guard: South Africa's Robben Island Prison

Travel Features South Africa
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Vusumzi Mcongo is a former political prisoner, who served 12 years on Robben Island, which is 5.5 miles offshore from Cape Town, South Africa. He was arrested at the age of 26 and released in 1990. He is a small, gentle man, who speaks so softly you have to lean in to hear him. He is also a tour guide at the Robben Island Museum, which was once a maximum-security prison, where he, Nelson Mandela and 3,000 other prisoners served time for everything from petty theft to political protest during Apartheid.

I was lucky enough to walk with him through the Robben Island Museum as he shared the details of his captivity.

It was hard to believe that this gentle man who walks slowly and keeps his hands politely folded in front of his stomach or behind his back could have been accused of incitement, sabotage and terrorist activities. With a smile on his face, he welcomes travelers to this island, which was once a symbol of the harsh and cruel treatment African people like himself suffered during Apartheid. “There are regular homes here, and it is a very nice community,” Mcongo said when asked about moving back to the island, where prisoners were treated like animals on from 1961 to 1996. “I moved off Robben Island after I was released for a while but when I started working here it made sense to live here, and it is less expensive than Cape Town.”

As he led us through the narrow hallway lined with tiny cells, silence echoed. He stopped in front of the cell Mandela once occupied and Mcongo told us that he lived in a similar one. The cell, seven by eight feet, was the size of a small bathroom, with room for a bed and a small table, where we could only imagine Mandela spent time writing A Long Walk to Freedom.

We peppered Mcongo with questions, trying to grasp what it was like to live here. He had answers prepared for the standard questions about Mandela. “What was he like?” and “Did you know him?” But we were fascinated by him. The fact that Mcongo lived through this and was willing to share his story made him the celebrity in our eyes.

“You have to recall that prisoners are not prisoners only,” he said proudly. “They were people outside as well and many of them were officials elected by their people. They were going to continue the fight when they got out, and they were still fighting from inside.” He shared that it was the support of his fellow prisoners that kept him and others sane during the 12 years he spent imprisoned. The belief and knowledge that some of them would be released and would continue fighting.

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As we exited the building, we asked about his release. “We had to adapt to the situation outside because things had changed drastically, especially in the areas we once lived,” he said. “When I came out, I got lost. I was looking for my parent’s house and there were now so many squatters around the area.” Mcongo, who worked in the kitchen on Robben Island, couldn’t get a job because people did not trust former inmates. They believed them to be too influential, therefore too risky to the system they wanted to keep in place. He remained unemployed until the museum opened seven years after his release.

We walked to the communal hall, which was once a dormitory, and far too small for the 50 or so people kept there at one time. It housed prisoners who had just arrived or were being punished. There were thin mats for them to sleep on.

Mcongo pointed out the window to the field where they were given free time. He recalled time spent outside, with a wall separating his section from Mandela’s, where the more dangerous prisoners were held. Mcongo and his comrades would throw a ball over the wall to get Mandela’s attention so they could talk, mostly about the movement. “The authorities would be very agitated when we were talking to them,” he said lightheartedly, as if recalling a time he was sent to the principal’s office for flying a paper airplane. “This is the way we used to communicate.”

As we exited the communal room, we crossed paths with another tour. Mcongo recognized the other tour guide, stopped mid-sentence and went over to hug him. They shared a few words and laughter. When Mcongo returned, he told us that they served in prison together. “The prisoners always supported each other,” Mcongo explained. “If it weren’t for some of the people here, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

“When we were released from Robben Island, the ex-prisoners came together to discuss the future of this place,” Mcongo continued. “It was a conference that we held in Cape Town where we discussed capital punishment and Robben Island. We were deciding whether or not Robben Island should remain a prison or become a museum. We decided to turn it into a museum.”

They then had to decide who would work here. “Mandela, myself and others decided those who were prisoners here would work here, so that this story could actually build a nation and we could warn people never to go back to that path.”

With tears in our eyes, new knowledge in our minds and inspiration in our hearts, my group arrived at the prison exit. Standing under a sign that says “We Serve With Pride,” Mcongo waved us on our way with a smile on his face—another group of travelers better equipped to understand the past.

Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor.

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