Tuesday, 15 December 2015

South Africa: Tom Moses' Robben Island experience

Robben Island
Having gotten Table Mountain out of the way on Friday afternoon, I had the whole of Saturday to do Robben Island for many reasons, most especially to get a good idea of what Apartheid was to the people the system considered criminal, inferior, undesirable, radical or reactionary.
I had decided on making out for the first possible journey on Saturday and once again, it was possible to book a tour of the island online and print out the ticket to avoid long queues.
The UberBlack taxi I ordered took me to the other side of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and note it is Alfred the second son of Queen Victoria and not Alfred the consort.
After taken directions to the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront, I went through security and found myself boarding the slowest of the ferries (The Jester) to Robben Island.
A preamble
I knew that because Thandi appeared to be the fastest which passed us on the way out and on its return and Thembikile which I boarded on my way back, left Jester in its wake even though Jester left a good 15 minutes before. The Sea Princess was in the dock, but not in service on that day, or probably it was there to service VIPs.
Robben Island has at one time or the other been a war garrison, a prison, a leper colony and now it is a nature reserve, a World Heritage Site and a very popular tourist attraction which for its use as a prison in the Apartheid times gives it prominence in the history and the stories told during the tour.
They served an abhorrent system
On arrival at the Robben Island harbour and getting off the boat to board the bus that would first take us on a tour of the island before we went to view the prisons, I could not help but notice the obviously pretentious Auschwitz-like sign at the entrance. At Auschwitz, it was Arbeit Macht Frei, here at Robben Island, it was We Serve With Pride, also in Afrikaans.
They served the Apartheid System with Pride.

Of the stories I heard of man’s inhumanity to man coloured by race, prejudice and injustice, the fear authorities have of alternative thought that refused to be subjugated to inhumane and atrociously cruel and evil law, there was no service to humanity nor pride to be had in the what happened on Robben Island.
However, Robben Island and the experience of being incarcerated there created some amazingly remarkable men who took from that episode in their lives something that exemplifies the human spirit in forgiveness, reconciliation and leadership – prominent amongst such men is Nelson Mandela who died exactly two years before on the day of my visit to Robben Island.
Through the experience of Tom Moses
People were segregated on Robben Island according to race and the black race was treated the least favourably in incarceration, they were treated lower than dogs, issued with shorts rather and trousers, had no shoes, slept on mats on the floor rather than on beds and they did the most labour intensive work of quarrying by hand and building the prison blocks in which they were housed.
The bus driver and tour guide had relationships with Robben Island as relations of people who had been imprisoned on the island. I was sad beside an Australian lady and it was poignant as an Englishman visiting the old penal colony of Robben Island to remember there that the British once used Australia as a penal colony.
However, it was the story of Tom Moses, an inmate of Robben Island who was sent there at the age of 19, from the 3rd December 1976 to the 31st May 1985, for all sorts of contrived offences as terrorism, insurrection, anti-nationalist crimes and opposing Apartheid that left us numb with shock and a feeling of helplessness at what people might have experienced when Robben Island got its rotten reputation.
One of the buildings on the island was a church which is under the care of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu family, one could not help but notice the irony of it being named The Church of the Good Shepherd it was built by lepers in 1895.
Tom Moses, a personification of the greatness of the human spirit.

One of the buildings on the island was a church which is under the care of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu family, one could not help but notice the irony of it being named The Church of the Good Shepherd it was built by lepers in 1895.
The story endures
However, the most enduring experience of visiting Robben Island was not the non-venomous snakes, the big guns installed to protect the island in WWII, the penguins that nest on the shores of the island, the dog kennels I first thought were cells for human being, the captivating pictures we were privileged to take, Nelson Mandela’s old cell, but the human story told in the voice, the person and the eyes of Tom Moses.
On one World Heritage site looking onto another captivating World Heritage site.

In fact, it was the story told in the living experience of Tom Moses, I was both honoured and privileged to have the opportunity to hear his story, a story told without bitterness, full of forgiveness and more so, a willingness to show that the human spirit might travail in the worst possible circumstances and yet triumph in ways that will humble the most haughty of men.
On leaving the prison cells, I took my own short walk to freedom and reflected on what the day was, it left me full of admiration of those who took lessons from their Robben Island experience to make the world a better place and saddened at the thought that Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, seems to have forgotten what that experience imparted to greater, more reflecting and more considerate men than himself.


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