ITS nearest shore lurks 6.9 kilometres from Cape Town’s mainland. It is 3.3 kilometres long and 1.9 kilometres wide. It squats low and seemingly insignificant in the inadequate realm of reality. But it has loomed over the essential unreality of the South African experience since the middle of the 16th century.
It is Robben Island.
For centuries it was used to imprison those deemed a danger to the colonial establishment, often because of the questions they asked of the self-proclaimed civilisers. Now it holds nothing less than fears for the future in a city and a country that is not nearly as democratic as it tries to think it is.
The island, in certain light a smudge of land, in another a spit, in still another a turd floating on the ocean, rattles and hums with the wrong kind of darkness.
Robben Island has become the prison of the minds of the elite, a place that proclaims with its constant presence on the horizon the razor-edged fact that the rich and powerful are not truly free. Instead they are forced to think about the fragility of their position in society, about how it could all go to pot so easily if enough people get angry enough.
For those kind of people the island, in certain light a smudge of land, in another a spit, in still another a turd floating on the ocean, rattles and hums with the wrong kind of darkness.
Nelson Mandela’s 18 years there taught us that putting someone out of sight does not at all mean they are out of mind. Quite the opposite: the idea of them and their ideas balloon in our minds and are burnished and embellished to a quasi-religious degree.
Thabo Mbeki is alone among South Africa’s first four presidents in this nominally democratic era not to have been cast away on Robben Island, and he remains our only president who has been recalled by his political party — although his father, Govan, was of the island.
Instead of going to prison for what he believed and how he was prepared to defend and propagate those ideals Thabo Mbeki was spirited to England, where he was turned into an African’s idea of an Englishman; pipe, slippers, masters in economics from Sussex University and all.
That mattered when, in September 2008, the African National Congress decided it had had enough of the fake foreigner and recalled him. He wasn’t, they didn’t need to say, enough of one of us and he had to go.
Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s successor, spent 10 years on Robben Island. But you won’t hear that often from the legion of enemies and detractors Zuma has amassed during his term — not least because it would lend credibility to a man who is corrupt and incompetent in equal measure.
Mandela is the most celebrated of the Robben Island alumni, but many other notables knew every hated inch of its cells.
Autshumato, a Khoi tribal leader of the Goringhaicona who discovered Dutch coloniser Jan van Riebeeck on the beach in April 1652 and became an early agitator for justice for South Africa’s indigenous people, was held there for a year-and-a-half before escaping in a rowing boat. To whites he was known as Herry or Harry de Strandloper.
At the age of 12 Krotoa, Autshumato’s niece, became a servant to the Dutch and lived in their fort, where she was renamed Eva. She rose to become an interpreter and a trusted advisor to Van Riebeeck, and married a Danish doctor, Pieter Havgard, in a Christian ceremony.
But, following Van Riebeeck’s departure in 1662 she fell foul of his successor, what the Europeans called the “governor” of the Cape, Zacharias Wagenaer, a vicious racist even by the standards of those benighted days.
So, in February 1669, a year after Havgard had been murdered while on an expedition in Madagascar, Krotoa was dragged off to Robben Island on spurious charges of immorality. Closer to the truth was that, in the throes of a drunken rage, she told the colonisers exactly who and what they were.
What Autshumato and Krotoa represented to the Europeans — that mere savages could learn languages like Dutch and Portuguese, offer valuable advice, and become, at will, one of them — frightened them.
Almost 400 years later that fear has gained a transparent veneer of illogic: that people who are different to the dominators are inherently bad. Of course the fear has not dissipated. In fact it’s stronger than ever.
On good days in Sea Point, days when estate agents have to step over comatose homeless people on the pavements to lead their clients into properties for sale at ever more outrageous prices, you can smell the fear.
And through it Robben Island, the repository for that fear and its tangible representation, broods like a bad dream.
It’s only 3.3 kilometres long and just 1.9 kilometres wide. But it dwarfs everything, and it will for another 400 years and more. ♦