Robben Island (robben is Dutch for “seal”) is a stunning sanctuary within sight of Cape Town. This vantage point affords spectacular views of Table Mountain and its famous roiling “table cloth” of clouds. Visitors from around the globe arrive at Robben Island on a modern ferry equipped with refreshments and video entertainment. Plentiful bird flocks play in the surf and a charming village is marked by a guest house and a church built in the pleasing Cape Gothic architectural style. (Click on the photo of Table Mountain on the left for a slideshow of images.)
This picturesque beauty, however, belies the island’s three centuries as a place of extreme isolation and harsh punishment. Home to thousands of outcasts from lepers to criminals, military prisoners and finally, political dissidents from the apartheid era, its most famous prisoner is, of course, Nelson Mandela. He spent 18 of his 27 years incarcerated there, along with many others, including current South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose own stay lasted a decade.
Constitution Hill, site of Johannesburg’s Old Fort and a warren of prisons located in the heart of downtown, provides a marked contrast to Robben Island. No splashy surf or inspiring view fool one into thinking this is anything but a place to deprive people of their humanity.
Separate prisons within the Constitution Hill complex divided women from men, and blacks from whites, but not hardened criminals from conscientious objectors. The women’s prison, built in 1907, was a model of innovation at the time, using British penal reformer Jeremy Bentham’s two-story “roundhouse” design to put prisoners under the constant watchful eye of authorities. Bentham’s theory remains the basis of prison architectural design today.
Now Constitution Hill is a National Heritage Site and the seat of South Africa’s 17-year-old Constitutional Court, the highest in the land. The site was chosen to serve as an intentional and bold reminder of the country’s transgressions under apartheid. These included horrific prison overcrowding that led to unsanitary, debilitating and dangerous conditions; divisive food rations where the blacker the skin the less was given; and a wide range of humiliations such as depriving women of undergarments and forcing new prisoners to dance naked in the yard.
As many as 2000 black South Africans were sent to the prison daily, including Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Luthuli, Pan-Africanist leader Robert Sobukwe (also held in solitary confinement on Robben Island), in addition to Mandela. Even Gandhi served time in the black male prison known as Number 4, for protesting Pass Laws in the 1950s. But many more were non-activists, incarcerated for minor violations, such as making beer.
What’s so instructive - while at the same time so deeply unsettling - about visiting these former prisons is the immediacy of their history. Unlike many memorials and museums dedicated to human atrocities, South Africa’s tortuous past is too recent to offer any relief. Although Robben Island’s prison history began at the end of the 17th century, its most poignant period under apartheid ended just 17 years ago. The tour guides are among its former political prisoners, who convey first-hand the systematic brutality and degradation they experienced there.
The prisons of Constitution Hill, I was somewhat relieved to hear, were closed in 1983, 11 years before the official end of apartheid. I was in college at the time, first learning that such a thing existed. But the tour guide’s clarification quickly dispelled my hopeful assumption: the prison wasn’t closed out of recognition of its inhumanity, but simply because, in its dilapidated condition, it was too costly to maintain.
After having gone to Robben Island, I hesitated visiting Constitution Hill – after all, how much cruelty can one person bear? In the end though, I’m glad I did. As I looked up at the puffy white clouds easing gently by just beyond the barbed wire overhead, I thought that I must never forget that human cruelty is not a thing of distant history; it is a possibility alive and present in every moment. It is our awareness of its terrible consequences that helps us choose something different. This Mandela learned, taught, stood for and modeled for his country. Let us all be students of the lesson.
This piece is the third in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I, part II