Robben Island – A trip worth taking.


I could feel my thoughts and emotions start drifting as I entered into a space so far  removed from my own, the maximum security prison. The cold corridors of the building sent chills down my spine…a place were education was regarded as a privilege rather than a right for the Indians, Coloureds and Blacks. They were not allowed to study politics. What made my stomach turn was that when they arrived on Robben Island they were given a card and uniform according to race.
Henri Fazzie 1965 – 1982(release date0 wrote about an experience with a young Afrikaner soldier who started teaching them carpentry and started talking to them to find out why they were in jail. He was shocked because he was told he was going to a place where ruthless killers were imprisoned, our tour guide mentioned that many young Afrikaner soldiers were brainwashed into believing that the freedom fighters/ANC politicians were killers. He said that even his grandfather taught him that black people are from the devil. The young soldier was shocked to find that all that he was taught was false. In fact many were torn between truth and loyalty as a soldier to their country and follow orders.


Inside the prison cells they have set up information plaques written by the prisoner who stayed in it. There were also pictures of the prisoners with the DOB and DOD. Many did not make it out and died in prison because of a lack of nutrition and from the cold. Below is a write up by Billy Nair a former political prisoner 1964-1984 (release date). He mentions how cold it was. Section C of the prison was where many of them died.


They were allowed to send letters but they were never private and were opened and investigated first. All positive letters or political info or even positive news from family was crossed out with black felt pen. They would then hold the letters towards the sun and they were called ‘window letters’. The wardens soon discovered this and then they started cutting out parts of their letters.

See below an example of the cut away letters.


They only had one doctor a week and if you did not get a chance to see him then you had to wait. They were only given panado for every ailment and many died from the common flu.


Above is how food was rationed according to race. This literally made me ill inside.


This is an enlarged example of the prison ‘dompas’.  You were never called by your name but called by your prison number, which is another form of dehumanization.

What was the ‘dompas’ within South Africa at that time? This was a form of identification (pass law) which allowed non whites (Coloreds, Blacks and Indians )access to white areas and certain parts of town mostly because they were working in that specific area. If you were asked to produce your card and you did not have it you would be arrested. Colloquially, passes were often called the dompas, literally meaning the “dumb pass.”


This is how they slept for many years on the floor with a mat. Below are pics of the actual prison of former and late President Nelson Mandela.


The red bin in the corner was the toilet.


Closer to political change in South Africa, changes were made in the prisons and a very successful jazz group called the ‘Roots’ started in the prison and the music was allowed to be played through the speakers of the cells. When on tour you can press the intercoms in the prison cells and one of them played the jazz sounds of the members of the group. Other prison cells would be the actual prisoner telling his story.



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