Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Postscript : S. Africa's Alcatraz Gets New Life as Tourist Trap : The former home of Nelson Mandela hosts voluntary guests now. But the legacy is controversial.

October 13, 1992|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa — Maj. H.A.K. van Niekerk, the spit-and-polish warden of Robben Island's maximum-security prison, greeted his visitor with a formal handshake and led the way without a word.

Large keys were produced, unlocking four steel doors as Van Niekerk marched deep into his prison. Finally, he stopped at Section B, Cell No. 6. The cell's iron bar door stood ajar.

"This was his cell," Van Niekerk said.

His cell?

"Yes. Nelson Mandela's cell," the major added.

And there it is: a concrete room, 6 feet by 8 feet, bathed in fluorescent light with yellow-painted walls, a single, crisply made bed, a wooden table and a small barred window. Through the window is a walled courtyard, with sea gulls squawking in the sky above.

This is the Alcatraz of Africa, where three decades of white-minority governments in South Africa locked up thousands of their black political opponents. The most famous of those opposition leaders, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 prison years on this kidney-shaped island. It is separated from the mainland by three miles of Atlantic Ocean water--water chilled by Antarctic currents, infested with sharks and 200 feet deep.

That ugly era in South African history is coming to a close. The last remaining political prisoners are being freed this month.

But, here on Robben Island, prison officials can't seem to decide whether to be proud or ashamed of their infamous penal colony, whether to remember or try to forget the place called "Mandela University," where generations of black leaders learned their liberation philosophy from the African National Congress leader and his esteemed faculty.

While the wardens try to make up their minds about the past, the island has quickly become a popular tourist destination.

"Everybody wants to visit," said Warrant Officer Chris Kleinhans, the prison official in charge of public relations for Robben Island.

Foreign visitors are his favorites. Expecting to find a dreary, rat-infested apartheid prison, they are surprised to discover a small, clean institution in the middle of an island filled with blooming flowers, penguins, springboks and, of course, sea gulls.

"After we show them the island," Kleinhans said, "they're quite happy. They're not angry with us anymore."

In fact, Robben Island is one of the more controversial legacies of apartheid. And the island's future remains a sensitive matter, both for the whites who created it and the blacks who did time on it. For now, though, the white-minority-led government is holding it "in trust for all South Africans," the prisons service has said.

The island, a flat, sandy tract just 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, was discovered in 1488 by Portuguese explorers. For two centuries, the large colonies of seals and penguins were a source of food for European seamen rounding the Cape of Good Hope en route to the spice islands.

Then, in the mid-1600s, the first Dutch settlers of South Africa named the island Robben, from the Dutch word for seal. And they sent prisoners to work in the slate quarry, harvesting stones for the first buildings in Cape Town, six miles away.

The prisoners later were removed and the island became a repository for lepers and the mentally deranged. It wasn't until 1961 that prisoners again returned. Two years later, Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants were sent here to serve life terms.

"Prison was a shock to my system," recalls Walter Sisulu, 79, one of Mandela's co-defendants and now deputy ANC president. "The shouting and the indignities heaped on (us) in those first few days are never forgotten."

Mandela, Sisulu and other political prisoners staged a series of hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, but the government often retaliated.

One particularly brutal incident "was embedded in our memory," said Ahmed Kathrada, 60, another of Mandela's co-defendants. On a winter night in 1971, a group of white guards, many of them drunk, rounded up Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada and other hunger strikers.

"They stripped us all naked, made us face the wall with our hands against it and carried out what they said was a search," Kathrada remembered. "It was just a way of humiliating and punishing us. It did not end the hunger strike, though."

A stint on "the island," though, was a badge that many black anti-apartheid activists wore with pride. They relished the opportunity to learn from Mandela, who even behind bars was a regal presence.

Prison conditions began to improve slightly in the 1970s and 1980s after appeals by the Red Cross and foreign governments. Prisoners were first allowed contact visits with their families in the early 1980s. And newspapers, although censored, also became available to prisoners.

Today, the island remains under government control as a prison and wildlife sanctuary. All political prisoners on Robben Island were transferred to mainland jails last year, but the island's two prisons still house about 600 ordinary criminals.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|