Robben Island

By Hannah Orth

Education comes in many forms and continues throughout the life of each person. Whether it be learning skills for a profession or learning how to better interact with people, learning never ceases. Even when sentenced to prison, the political prisoners of Robben Island learned from each other and essentially developed many of the ideas present in the South African democracy today. The Basotho’s focus on education has been woven into Mandela’s writing and our tour of Robben Island and the prison. The prevalence of education at the prison is shocking and enlightening and reveals how education plays a role in various phases of life.

We learned about the various uses of Robben Island during Apartheid while on tour including a makeshift education development type of program started by the prisoners. Separated from the rest of the prisoners, the political leaders were all grouped together in B section allowing a massive think tank to occur among those imprisoned. The dining hall became the classroom as people would huddle and discuss the movement against apartheid together. Prisoners additionally would stay up late talking in the bathrooms attempting to further define and develop their ideas about politics and the apartheid. While in the courtyard, we learned about the note passing system from one wing to another inside of tennis balls. I find the ability to bond and develop government within the walls of a prison after having been there for decades extremely inspiring. The ideas and conversations that must have been had in that prison founded the new South Africa. I was very humbled to be visiting a place with such secrets hidden in the walls and in the memories of the political dissenters. Many of the prisoners continued on within their political education to take positions in parliament or among leadership in the government, and I am sure that many would attribute their prison discussions as a factor in their professional careers.

Not only were men educated by political discussion and planning, but also prisoners who came in with little education were able to learn in the presence of peers. Ernie Daniels, entered prison with a grade eight education and while working in the quarry, was able to leave with a Bachelor of Arts and Commerce. The second highest judge in the South Africa government learned to read in prison by tracing letters in the sand. I find these stories a true testament to the unique environment of the prison. The amount of education taking place within the walls was interesting to learn about not only during the bus tour, but also in the prison tour. I believe that this general education was a supplement to the education that black or colored students should have been getting in the schools during apartheid, but were disadvantaged, because of the Bantu Education laws and many of the restrictions placed on them like the Land Act that restricted their movement. Even if they could afford a better school than that offered in a Black area, they could not go to it, because of the Pass Laws and others. I really admire the tenacity of these men to achieve and overcome their difficulties when they were oppressed in all ways of life.

I find the forgiveness of these men to be the most surprising. I wonder if I could have forgiven my oppressors the way Mandela did. I think that the blatant degradation of black prisoners really demonstrates the pervasiveness of apartheid. Prisoners were not even seen as equals as a whole within that setting. They were given shorts versus the colored person’s pants and shoes and different food rations. The way they built the prisons were intended to make the living conditions miserable in terms of temperatures and overall atmosphere within each individual cell. I really admire the capacity to forgive such a monumental display of inequity. Even in Mandela’s writing, he refuses to talk negatively about anyone, demonstrating his belief in the significance and mutual respect for all humans. Mandela’s thoughts developed as he matured and grew, and I am sure that at the beginning of his sentence, he was very unlikely to forgive the oppressors, but as he grew older, he was able to recognize the benefits of forgiveness for both parties and for the overall well-being of South Africa. Formal or informal, education is necessary for people to grow and develop and unlocks a wealth of knowledge and ideas.

Additionally, while reading through the stories of prisoners on the cell walls, one was about the fact that education in the prison was a privilege, not a right. I was surprised by the accessible education to political prisoners, especially black ones. Because it was a privilege and not a right, which I wholeheartedly disagree with, it could be taken away. One story was of prisoners protesting working in the quarry, and as a form of punishment, lost “education privileges,” but a book on table tennis remained, where this prisoner, Jacob Sikundla, was able to master table tennis and win the tournaments inside the prison. The object left in the cell was the certificate of his championship over the other prisoners. Education, regardless, was a part of Jacob’s life in the prison, and provided a distraction from the downtrodden atmosphere of the prison. I find this story very inspiring. Education can come from any source and be about anything, even table tennis, and I admire his commitment to learning a new skill in such a dire situation. Learning adds dimension to all aspects of life, and I believe Jacob demonstrated that perfectly.

Learning in the prison happened as well, as told by Sindile Mngaibisa. He said that they “started education on the island with cement bag paper.” They made books using the cement bag paper hiding everything under rocks in the quarry. If caught, everything would be burned in a drum. In Sindile’s account, he says that they eventually allowed the prisoners to buy paper and pencils, often sharing them with each other. As time progressed when Colonial Willemse came to the island, education shifted as the prisoners began educating the guards. I find this to be extremely surprising especially because of the power differences between guards and prisoners. Sindile stated that, “So the foundation of education on Robben Island was brown paper cement bags. You finished your Standard Ten and then moved into C section – that became the University of Robben Island.” Sindile’s reflections about education in the prison are important in understanding the environment in which these prisoners were able to brainstorm and create political ideas that ultimately shaped the foundation of South Africa’s democracy.

In Mandela’s Unaccompanied Man chapter, he explores his experiences in the prison system of South Africa while he was held as a prisoner for 27 years in total and 17 on Robben Island. Mandela’s cell remains as a testament of the brave men who overcame such hatred in order to become not only a better man, but a better leader for the people of South Africa. His opinions and thoughts about prison and education come tie together when he writes a letter to the Minister of Justice in 1969 asking to be treated as political prisoners. In this letter, he states that political prisoners, “implies the freedom to obtain all reading material that is not banned and to write books for publication,” demonstrating Mandela’s influence on this process and the importance of these prison political think tanks.

The trip to Robben Island was one full of history and growth. To see the place where many political leaders spent time considering different ideas and developing new ideas was a transformative experience. It sets an example in the way that the prisoners forgive, accept, and use those memories to contribute to society, like the tour guides at the museum. I find that I am inspired by Mandela and our tour guide to forgive more easily. If those men can forgive their oppressors, I definitely can reflect on that in my own life. In addition, the education present in the prison demonstrates how much of a privilege education really is, although I believe it should be a right. They found it so important that they continued to learn even when they were doing hard labor and being ostracized as prisoners. I learned a lot from this experience and am looking forward to continue examining education and its role in the development of South Africa.



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