In the annuals of history, there have been numerous inhumane prisons where men have banished other men for crimes and “non-crimes” especially militant, political activities, the latter became known as political crimes. Robben Island, off the coast of South Africa, has served as a breeding ground of political activities for Black men of South Africa whose only crime had been resistance to tyranny (apartheid). The island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, became the first president of South Africa during the country’s first nonracial election when all the citizenry were allowed to vote without hindrance.
However, it is important to understand and reflect on these phenomena relative to Robben Island, colonialism, imperialism, exploitation, oppression, repression, apartheid and political prisoners. Why is it that in many African nations, leaders would emerge from prison to lead their countries that were usually ruled by Europeans and the Western World, or those with leadership qualities would sometimes meet violent ends at the hands of the ruling regimes or their surrogates. Names synonymous with leadership, political activities, independence, arrest, imprisonment and assassination include Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana); Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya); Patrice Lumumba (the Congo); Gamal Nasser (Egypt); Abubakar Tafewa Balewa (Nigeria); Ahmed Ben Bella (Algeria); Sam Njumo (Namibia); Chief Albert Luthuli, Steve Biko, Govan Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Ahmed Kathrada, Jeff Masemola, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and the new president, Kgalema Motlanthe (South Africa) and many more. Those named South Africans were once imprisoned on Robben Island as political prisoners, except Biko, who was murdered instead by the apartheid regime and Luthuli, who was mysteriously and unexplainably killed.
To understand why Robben Island—as most political prisons—nurtured political activism, one has to understand the nature of the European incursion into Africa, the devastation and destruction wrought by their presence and the latent effects that are still present. The media, particularly the Western media, would like the world to believe that since Mandela and F.W. de Klerk (the last president of apartheid South Africa) jointly received the Nobel Peace prize; and that in 1993, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the first “free” election, the problems caused by apartheid have been solved. (That is analogous to believing that when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the slave conditions actually ended. Blacks in America caught as much hell for the next 100 years, and remnants of that era persisted throughout the 20th century, notwithstanding, at the dawn of the 21st century, Senator Barack Obama is on the threshold of becoming the next president of the United States). The stain(s) has not been completely been erased; scars still remain.
In his autobiography, Mandela explained what life, on a day-to-day basis, was like on the island. Political prisoners were only allowed to see their relatives once every six months for a period of about 30 minutes, and what they really came to understand and accept was that life on the island was merely an extension of life under the apartheid regime on the outside. In other words, their world outside was just a prison without walls. The comradeship and kinship that existed, despite obvious physical hardships, helped to maintain their humanity under the most inhumane circumstances.
It is inextricably impossible to properly describe or discuss Robben Island as the respite of evil without contrasting the jailers and the jailed. The dark era of Mandela’s imprisonment, along with many of his comrade-in-arms, was intended to obscure them from the outside world including the world outside of South Africa. But it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and though it took a generation to reach fruition, their struggle for humanity mushroomed worldwide. The intent of banishment to Robben Island was supposed to signal the end of the line for political prisoners, yet Mandela and others survived the rigors of hard labor and mistreatment, and emerged as a powerful symbol of national reconciliation. His ultimate triumph was acclaimed around the world and after 27 years, he rose from the grave of banishment, snatched from the jaws of death. Support from around the world gave the apartheid regime a set of unintended consequences and they gradually released most of the high-profiled political prisoners from Robben Island.
The island is an oval shaped land mass comprised of metamorphic rock about seven kilometers off the coast in Table Bay, South Africa. But to its occupants, it may well have been on the other side of Mars because contact with the outside world was virtually non-existent. The name, Robben Island, was derived from the Dutch for “Seal Island” being close to Antarctica, it apparently was populated by seals before being used as a prison. The rock formation of the island provided ideal conditions for the hard labor that was imposed on prisoners including breaking rocks and mining limestone.
The physical aspects of hard labor were obvious but it was only one of the many barbaric conditions that were imposed on the prisoners. They were literally a captive audience and involuntary guinea pigs for some of the most brutal experiments carried out on human beings. The apartheid regime used the island prison as a place to concoct plans to exterminate the Black population of South Africa. According to the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), a U. S. organization, an English eugenicist, after spending two years in South Africa, observing the government’s treatment of the Black citizens, said, “These savages court slavery. You engage one of them as a servant and you find that he considers himself as your property, so you become the owner of a slave. They have no independence about them.” Needless to say that the social atmosphere of apartheid, of which Robben Island was an integral part, lent itself to these kinds of observations. Furthermore, in 1995 Dr. William Tutman said, “To oppress a race, and then label its reaction as a mental illness (at a minimum) is not only morally wrong, it is criminal and a fraud.”
There is long-standing link between apartheid and psychiatry. (In addition, apartheid is only restricted to South Africa by name, not in its implementation or application. The system it promoted has been utilized in many parts of the world by different names). Throughout the world, as on Robben Island and mainland South Africa, non-White ethnic groups have endured tremendous suffering via the use of psychiatric and psychological extremes propagated by the false idea of Black inferiority, sometimes through the use of culturally biased intelligence tests and other means.
Robben Island was fertile ground to institute the insidious use of psychiatric genetics because since apartheid was the law, it did not have to be hidden, or it could have been hidden in plain sight. Nobel laureate, Bishop (emeritus) Desmond Tutu, commenting on the comparison of his work in South Africa with that of another Nobel laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the U.S., said, “ Dr. King was trying to get the government to obey the law and treat all citizens equal according to the U.S. Constitution that all men are created equal. But in South Africa, the government was obeying the law. The law was apartheid.”
As a maximum-security prison, Robben Island, in many ways, resembles Alcatraz Island, U.S.A.; and Devil’s Island, French Guiana, South America. The last of the prisoners left Robben Island in 1996 while Mandela was president. The island was closed and designated a tourist (sic) attraction. All three former prison sites have now been converted into tourist destinations and ironically, the tours on Robben Island and Alcatraz Island are conducted by former prisoners, men who understand the attraction and knew the terrain.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.