Cape Town - Barrydale

Robben Island
Cape Town

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Robben Island out in the bay pictured at sunset.

Robben island is situated in Table Bay and is about 7 kilometres offshore from the Blouberg coastline and a little bit further from the Sea Point coastline. It is on this island that during the 1960's many of South Africa's political prisoners were imprisoned. The island is hostile as it has no water of its own, is windswept and dusty and is far from land.

The prison in those times was divided into a number of sectors with E being the harshest. Sector A allowed prisoners most freedom and they were allowed certain luxury items not allowed to prisoners in other sectors. To get from E to A one had to qualify for promotion by being well behaved and following rules and regulations laid down by the authorities. The prison authorities treated the prisoners very harshly and prisoners spent a lot of time in their cells in solitary confinement.

The leadership of the ANC who were behind bars at the time were kept well away from the other prisoners so that no political meetings or plans could be made amongst them. To keep themselves sane the prisoners in solitary confinement started a sports club amongst themselves. The first game they played was chess.

One might ask how they did this in prison with no chess sets or boards to play on. The prisoners were quite ingenius and came up with a plan. They collected the cardboard from the boxes of soap powders they were given to wash their clothes, opened them up and drew a chess board on the back. For pieces they cut out little circles of cardboard and wrote on each circle what it represented. WP stood for white pawn , BP for black pawn and so on.

Each prisoner had a full set of black and white pieces in his cell and would then arrange a game with another prisoner. By calling out his move both prisoners would move the same piece on his own board. This allowed both players to plan their next moves and play on.

It is said that Mr Nelson Mandela was a very patient player and that he worked his opponents over by playing very slowly. His opponent would make the first move by moving a pawn and then Mr Mandela would wait for about 15 minutes to make his first move. Enough to try the patience of any man.

As various prisoners were kept apart from each other for various political reasons the prisoners had to adapt so that they could send messages to one another. This they did by using the toilet drains. A group of prisoners would sit together on the edge of a toilet drain and move the lid so that they could get inside. On the other side of the complex another set of prisoners would do the same. A message in a small plastic bottle was tied to a piece of string and then dropped into the drain. A sign was given when the message was ready to go and a number of prisoners would go to the toilet and flush the cisterns allowing the bottle to float along the seweridge pipelines to where the other prisoners were waiting it.

The piece of string attached to the bottle was very precisely measured and it stopped the bottle directly under the drain where the other prisoners were waiting. The message was quickly retrieved, read and a return message placed in the bottle. When it was ready to go the string was given a couple of tugs and then the first set of prisoners would pull the string back and retrieve the message.

Its quite amazing how ingenius one can become when the necessity exists.

Mandela gateway

The Mandela Gateway is where tours to the island leave from

As I have mentioned above the prisoners on Robben Island had to do something to keep sane. As sport was a common denominator amongst most of them it was sport they turned to allow them contact with each other under the watchful eyes of the warders.

One of the main sports that they enjoyed was soccer. As I said earlier the island was a hostile place and there were no sporting facilities for the prisoners. After putting together a sports committee ( this was allowed by the authorities) they requested permission to build a soccer field. They were given permission and a large piece of ground was levelled and planted with grass. Kikiyu grass was used for the project. It is one of the fastest summer growing grasses and spreads very quickly. It's the type of grass that will grow in your flowerbeds and into tarmacs but not where you plant it.

It grew on Robben Island and soon the prisoners had a grass playing field. They arranged a league and matches were played amongst the various categories of prisoners. Something that was really appreciated by the inmates. The sports committee were very proactive and over the years using funds obtained from support groups inside and outside of South Africa managed to purchase the sports equipment required. All the while there were negotiations going on between various political persuasions in the country including the ANC and the other groups such as PAC.

In the 1990's with the struggle for freedom starting to come to a head the prisoners were treated better and luxuries such as TV were introduced. At that time a World Cup soccer tournament was due to be held and the sports committee obtained permission for all prisoners including those in sector E to watch the various games on TV. Permission was granted on the eve of the first match of the tournament and arrangements were made for TV aerials to be purchased and erected on the island so that the prisoners could watch the matches. As the inmates were gathered in their various sectors to watch the first match warders marched into the sector where all the political leaders were housed and called out the prison numbers of various prisoners. Those whose numbers were called were advised that they would be freed the following day. Some of them had sentences that still had six or seven years to run.

Although soccer was the reason for the gatherings on that day not many prisoners watched the first game as the good news sunk home for them. Over the next couple of months all the prisoners on Robben Island were released and the countdown to our New Democracy began.

Who will forget the 11th of February 1990 , the day Nelson Mandela was released. South Africans had heard of him over the years but no one knew what he looked like as his photograph was not allowed to be distributed or printed in the press. At about 3.00 pm in the afternoon Mr Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster prison in Paarl a free man. South Africans were glued to their TV sets watching the drama unfold. From the prison he proceeded to the Parade in Cape Town where he addressed the crowd that had gathered but also the rest of the world via television. No one knew what to expectfrom Mr Mandela.

The rest is history and South Africans are celebrating their first 10 years of democracy this year.

In the meantime Mr Mandela has decided to slow down and pass on his busy schedule to younger men and women. We wish him well as he enters a well deserved retirement period.


Contact Details
Email :  Geoff Fairman    
6 Bothma Street, Monte Vista 7460 South Africa
2015 Turtle SA - All Rights Reserved - Cape Town - Robben Island
Page updated 29.5.2015









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