Tag Archives: Nelson Mandela

District 6 and Robben Island


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Saturday was a jam-packed day. We began by visiting the District 6 Museum, a museum dedicated to remembering the forcible removals that took place in Cape Town during Apartheid. The District 6 Museum is housed in a former Methodist church built in 1883 and retains many of the church’s original characteristics. District 6, in particular, was a low-income neighborhood of freed slaves, artisans, merchants, and immigrants. The desirable location led to it being repossessed so that the whites could move in. The well-established community was forced to leave their houses, often with a single suitcase, and relocated to assigned shacks in the outer townships (some of which hadn’t been built yet). In the early 1970s, District 6 was bulldozed to be completely redeveloped under the guise that the neighborhood had been dangerous and posed a threat to the surrounding white, wealthier communities.

The museum itself has established an oral history project and gone about collecting primary-source memorabilia of the strong District 6 community to stand as a counter-narrative to the untruths told about their community to justify their forced removal. A major theme of the museum, according to our guide and former District 6 resident, is that they could remove the people out of District 6, but they couldn’t remove District 6 from the heart of the people. The photographs and artifacts tell the story of a rich community life before the forced removal. To this day, the neighborhood, though redeveloped, has not regained the level of safety for children and women that residents once enjoyed.

Robben Island is a former prison, prison to the political foes of the Apartheid regime–Nelson Mandel and current president Zuma, among others. To get there, we took a 45 minute catamaran ride. I was fortunate to have Dramamine, but political prisoners weren’t so lucky. As we sailed out from the harbor into the open Atlantic Ocean, I thought about all of the prisoners who were told they would come to Robben Island to die. In addition to holding male convicts and political prisoners, the island was also once home to banished lepers–who also were taken there for a life sentence.

From uniforms to food allotments, our tour guide explained to us the differences in what prisoners were allowed based on their race. We saw Nelson Mandela’s solitary cell and the spot in their courtyard where he wrote his book, which later was smuggled out of the prison by a man being released. Prisoners were sentenced to hard labor in the rock quarries. The political prisoners were deemed the most dangerous (and rightly so), as they were intellectuals and found ways to send messages out using prisoners who were being released as conduits. They also converted other prisoners to their cause and educated their fellow inmates.

The island was huge. We took a bus tour around the island and a walking tour through the maximum security building. Our guide only mentioned two successful escapes from the island since the Dutch colonizers made it a prison in the 1600s. Cut off from Cape Town and the world at Robben Island, Nelson Mandela managed to become the face of resistance to Apartheid. Mandela led a successful hunger strike at the prison that resulted in an upgrade from floor mats to beds. His stay at Robben Island was about 2 decades before he was moved and held at two other locations. There is a powerful picture of the remaining freedom fighters (political prisoners) being released in 1991. Robben Island remained open as a prison until 1996, when its prisoners (then all felons) were transferred to other sites, and the work began to convert Robben Island into a museum and testament to the struggle for freedom.

We ended the day by visiting the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront–a promenade of shops and restaurants, mostly for tourists.

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