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

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

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.

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