The Cape Express: 5th stop, Robben Island, the wind and what happens in bar!
For now, all these visits throughout Cape Town had a small taste of lightness … Yet it’s been barely 20 years since apartheid was abolished and the Robben Island Prison closed its doors and today, I was going to visit it. As the wind that’s been blowing over Cape Town for two days eased slightly, boats to the island resumed their ballets. From the V & A Waterfront, Robben Island is hardly distinguishable as the island is rather flat. My ticket in hand (note that advanced reservations – online – are highly recommended), I’m queueing for the ferry with the feeling of having an appointment with history. Robben Island is the prison where big names of the anti-apartheid struggles were sent to: Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, Jacob Zuma (the current President of South Africa) and the most famous of all: Nelson Mandela.
After 20 minutes, we climb aboard the ferry beneath a perfectly blue sky. I put myself in the shoes of former prisoners … Like them, seeing Cape Town gradually fading away. Thinking perhaps that the road to exile and being locked up is ironically beautiful and finally, feeling despair growing up as the pier on Robben Island gets closer and closer. An hour later, we arrived and a voice from a speaker ordered us to move towards a bus. Seems like their system is working well! So here I am sitting comfortably while our guide (all guides on Robben Island are former prisoners), will show us around the island. During the course of the visit, he will ask all the passengers where they are coming from and tells a story of how our countries have participated in their fight. I will not know his name… just that he was not a member of the ANC and he spent time fund-raising for anti-apartheid movements. Before a small house surrounded by barbed wire, our guide turns serious and then tell us the story of Robert Sobukwe, whom the government had wanted to make an example. Considered extremely dangerous, Sobukwe was put into complete isolation in this cabin, with no possibility to communicate, even with the guards. After three years of this treatment, he was sent into internal exile in Kimberly, having almost lost the ability to speak. Most other prisoners were employed in a mine. The mine was to become a real open-air university because that is where the prisoners perfected their education. After the island tour, the bus drops us off at the entrance of the prison itself and leaves us in the hands of another guide. This one is more serious and looks sadder. He asks us to follow him and we are walking the main alley leading to the prison. I feel my head imperceptibly bowing down. We enter.
The narrow and gray corridors are surrounded by tiny cells. One is set up exactly like it was 20 years ago: that of “Comrade” Mandela. A mat and a bunch of blankets laid on the floor, a small table with a iron bowl and cup and a trash can are the only furniture inside the cell that was “home” to the one who will become the first black president of South Africa south. We visit the rest of the building quietly. Our guide opens a small door and leave us out. Somehow, I’m breathing a little better. Half an hour later, I take the ferry back to the Waterfront. The wind began to blow again and access to Table Mountain is closed… Too bad! I call a “Rikkis” for taking me back to Camps Bay. The “rikkis” is a collective taxi. It takes you wherever you want but you have to call it, wait and share the taxi with other passengers. Advantage: the prices are half cheaper than taxis and you get a chance to chit-chat with the other passengers!
The sun is shining but the wind blowing the sand so hard it just whips the skin with force. I feel like my whole body is being sanded. Strolling or sunbathing is out of the question! Fortunately, small lawns directly behind the beach is provide a shelter from the sand and I can spend a few hours relaxing. The silver lining of all this: The ocean is stirred by the wind and foam is sprayed into the air so strongly that small rainbows are forming over the water. After sunset, I take a mini-van to return to the city center. This is the least expensive and most common transportation all across Africa. The only two things to know is where the stops are and what are the routes. My little advice? Go at the corner of Long Street and Strand Street or at the junction of St George’s Mall and Strand. The driver drops me off at Long Street and I decide to stop at the “Café Mojito“. It is almost 8pm and the bar is already full. I sit at the counter, order… a mojito (just to see if the bar is worthy of to carry the name) and while I’m about to get my iPhone to check if there is a wi-fi network, a voice said: ” What you gonna do with your cellphone? And this big book? You’re going to read? You’re in a bar, talk to people. ” I found a tall guy before me smiling. He pulls his seat close to mine, calls a buddy and starts the conversation. My new friends areZimbabweans… and experts in Belgian beers. I’m really surprised. After the comparison between Orval and Tripel Westmaele, the conversation takes a turn to their country. One of my interlocutors attempt to make me understand that Robert Mugabe is not such a bad after all. “But why did you emigrate here then?” “I thought I’d have better opportunities in South Africa. Finally, I find myself at the same point as when I arrived. And return empty handed, never! . During that time, a third friend, a South African, was listening, looking a bit distracted or bored. I do not know if it’s because he has heard this speech a hundred times before or if he was tired of hearing his two buddies complaining about South Africa. Two hours later, I left the bar with a strange feeling of levity but also rich in the knowledge of another reality.