As the boat moves away from the southern tip of Africa, out into Table Bay, the ocean is a little rough.
Nothing worthy of an Adamastor monster, or anything that would disturb the Portuguese sailors who braved these ends of the world.
Gradually, the table mountain walk away. It is set against a predominant blue sky. The distance makes Lion Head peak submit to it and reveals a dazzling caprice of the weather, a dense blanket of clouds that covers the Mesa, but not the Cape Town houses that sit at its foot.
This is the majestic scenario that we see expanding to the south. To the north, we glimpse a mere tenuous line above the marine plane, a strip of land that has long intersected with the history of South Africa.
Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to sight it, in 1488, during his pioneering and successful expedition around what was then known as Cape of Storms.
The boat we were on continues to approach. The stain on the Atlantic blue becomes a growing mantle of green, made of bushes and low trees, from which rises the white and red tower of a lighthouse.
The east of the island unveils single-storey houses imposed on the vegetation.
At a certain point, we were left with the island and part of its houses between us and Table Mountain.
The boat skirts a pier made of large quasi-prismatic cement blocks, colonized by hundreds of cormorants.
Robben Island: Anchoring in the Darkness of South African History
On the other side, we enter waters isolated from storms and the final destination of the crossing, the Robben Prison Island dock.
A photographic mural summarizes the motto of the visit we were about to start: “Freedom cannot be handcuffed – Repression, Liberation, Resurrection”.
There were several men imprisoned and released on Robben Island, almost all Africans, Indians, of non-white ethnicities.
Three of them would later be elected President of South Africa.
Nelson Mandela and the Resistance against Apartheid
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the first, stood out like no other, to the point that he is still idolized as the Father of the South African Nation and one of the greatest sufferers and fighters for freedom and racial justice of all time.
During the winter of 1964, in the midst of Apartheid imposed by successive “white” governments in South Africa, Mandela was captured and sent to serve time on Robben Island.
He was forced to cross the same portal that we crossed in the meantime, under a sarcastic welcoming inscription “Welcome (to Robbene Island) – We serve with pride".
Since his student days, Mandela had been involved in the politics of African nationalism and anti-colonialism.
He was already practicing law in Johannesburg when, in 1943, he joined the ANC party (African National Congress) and helped found its Youth League.
Five years later, the Nationalist Party, of racist philosophy and white supremacy, instituted Apartheid, a regime of segregation and racial discrimination that relegated all non-white ethnic groups in South Africa to a subordinate status vis-à-vis the white population.
Confronted with the malevolent Apartheid, Mandela and many other members of the ANC assumed that their primary objective was to dismantle it.
As Mandela rose through the ranks of the party, he intensified his role in the fight against the Apartheid, made exceptions in its pacifist principles for successive sabotage actions against the South African state.
As a result, he was taken prisoner in 1962. Shortly after, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
As the portal suggested, Mandela served the pen with pride.
Proud of himself and of his and the ANC's intention to overthrow the Apartheid🇧🇷 To make South Africa a democratic and tolerant multiracial nation.
We cross the portal. On the other side, we boarded a bus.
On board, a guide guides us through the vast prison grounds. By a rugby and football field, flanked by watchtowers, sealed by fences, the outer ones, crowned with barbed wire.
The South African flag waves above a central section, the one that brings together the cells and the playground.
Another guide, a former prisoner, takes us to the cell wing. There he shows us a card that emulates the prisoners' records. He leads us to Mandela's cell.
There we see a metal cup and saucer, a rubbish bucket and a bunch of blankets.
It was cold, especially in the winter months on the southern edge of Africa.
Prisoners suffered double in the early days, when they had to break stone in the local quarry and collect seaweed in the icy waters of the South Atlantic, later sold to the Japanese who used it as fertilizer.
Robben Island: the prison island where Nelson Mandela also stood out
We pass to the courtyard. It shines as an equally vegetal example of the special treatment that, due to his self-esteem and discipline, Nelson Mandela deserved.
A whole corner of the cement wall that isolated the prisoners is planted and landscaped, with cacti and even a small climbing vine that seeks relief from the sky.
The elevation that Nelson Mandela showed in his dealings with other prisoners and authorities made the guards allow him this and other whims.
Shortly after entering Robben Island, Mandela took up the challenge of learning Afrikaans, in practice, the language of his captors and he insisted on knowing how to speak with the guards.
One of countless other examples of his dignity and hope of uniting the South African nation was the visit of the South African Minister of Justice and Prisons, Jimmy Kruger.
Kruger asked Mandela if there was anything he could do. To which Nelson replied “well, you can always release me”.
After the moment of humor, Mandela took the opportunity to make it clear that he had nothing against the Boer ethnic group as a people: “Look, the collections of Opperman, an Afrikaaner poet, are not in our library. I could figure out a way to put them there.
I appreciate it very much.” Shortly afterwards, the publisher of Opperman's work offered them to the prison. Mandela wrote to thank him.
Our tour of Robben Island also passes through cemetery, which, like the quarry, Mandela resisted.
Robben Island in Early Colonial Times
Continue to the northern edge of the island, hit by a sea full of such kelp frigid, inhabited by colonies of penguins intrigued by the sudden attention paid to them.
Penguins are one of the few species that the Dutch found when they landed on the island in 1652. The other animals were seals.
Inspired the naming of Robben (seal) Island.
It was also the Dutch who, during the XNUMXth century, inaugurated the long use of the island as a prison, where they managed to keep the royal families of Ternate and Tidore, ancient kingdoms located in the Molucca Islands, in prison.
At the northern end of Robben, an identified frame with GPS coordinates frames the distant Table Mountain and Cape Town, the civilization the prisoners dreamed of.
While the authorities kept them alienated from everything that happened in South Africa and in the World.
In the eighteen years of Mandela's captivity in Robben Island Prison, the world has evolved.
In 1982, Mandela left the “chained island” for Pollsmoor Prison, in Cape Town, where he served another six years of sentence, dramatized by having contracted tuberculosis.
At the end of 1988, he was moved to Victor Verster Prison where he served the final two years to which he had been sentenced. The Berlin Wall fell.
Following the opening of his predecessor PW Botha, Frederick de Klerk, the seventh president of South Africa concluded that apartheid could not continue.
Robben Island: From Prison Island to Cape Town Museum Island
Freed Mandela and several other ANC leaders and former leaders. Without the function that had given it meaning, Robben Island prison was deactivated and turned into a living museum.
Contrary to what used to happen, the museum is open to visits throughout the year, except for days with bad weather that the ferry that serves it cannot face.
It's not long before we return to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront from Cape Town, through Table Bay, now windier and more agitated.
Mandela lost eighteen years of his life in freedom on the “chained island” of Robben. Upon visiting it, we discover how fate condemned him to lead and unite South Africans.
And to inspire respect for democracy and racial equality in around the earth.