a view into the sordid life i lead

Monday, February 28, 2005

Robben Island - part 3

Part 2 of the tour, a walk-through of the prison, is always conducted by former political prisoners.

Our guide, Afrika, was interred for 11 years of a 20 years sentence. His sentence ended in 91 when F.W. de Klerk released all of the island's political inmates. Afrika's a soft-spoken guy, and uses the term "Ladies and Gentlemen" a lot. Virtually in every other sentence. It could be a bit irritating to some people, but it's rather telling about his having been a prisoner for so long. He does not have the charisma and stature of Mandela or Desmont Tutu, or any of the famous inmates. I got the impression that Afrika was one of the guys that believed in the work of the ANC, and basically was a grunt. He was not very high up on the heirarchy, but his perspective is all the more interesting for it.

Afrika starts off his tour by herding everyone into a large, dormitory-style cell, which is apparently the first stop for new inmates. There's a washroom with large basins, and long urinal in an attached room, and there are small barred windows along the top. There are a a few bunk beds, and at the end of the room is a large painting of santa claus carrying a bag with large dollar signs. The heirarchy and distribution of gangs in South Africa's prison system (and probably outside) is quite interesting, and you can get more information at: The santa claus was a territorial mark of the 26 gang. There's vehemence and condescension in Afrika's voice when he refers to the gangs, but I did not delve any deeper.

Afrika says that the beds were added in the mid 80's. The inmates were expected to sleep on the concrete floor, and were issued one blanket a piece. As an aside, Afrika mentions that when he got out of prison he was very surprised by the number of ex-inmates that were dying of respiratory illnesses. Basically the cold of the prison got to them.

Afrika had a couple of large placards (3ft x 2ft maybe), one of which was an enlargement of the prison checkin, and the other an enlargement of the ration specification for the inmate. Each inmate was segregated by ethnic background (eg. Hindu), and this defined the rations they would get. The idea behind this was to keep the different groups in conflict with each other. Coloreds and Indians would get more to eat and different rations than blacks. It's a way to demoralize the inmates. All the inmates are made aware what the others are getting and what preferrential treatment is going on. I asked Afrika about what effect this had, and whether there were issues related to this. He said that the strength of the brothers (referring to all the political prisoners, regardless of ethnicity) was so great that he never knew of the segregation tactics to work. It's a pretty big testament to the kind of stock the leaders of the political came from!

Afrika's personal connection to the place comes through on his tour - it's a bit strange to talk to a person about his history in a place like Robben Island as a tourist. I keep thinking that Afrika must think we're all complete idiots to come to this place and treat it like an amusement ride. But he comes across as completely genuine. He told us about solitary confinement; the respect that the political prisoners accorded the leaders (making sure that the hallways were always clean and presentable when the leaders came round); the interaction with the guards; the fact that the individual cells in the political prisoner section do not have toilets, but instead only have buckets that are taken out daily, or sometimes after several days if the prisoner is to be punished; about lack of warm clothing - which eventually led to the death of several prisoners after their release in 91 due to respiratory illnesses; about the lack of protection against the elements when working in the limestone quarries - no moisturizer of any sort, not even vaseline to deal with the skin drying out; the lack of soap, to the point where you can't tell if you're clean or dirty any more after bathing. The stories are not sensational. Afrika does not appear to intend to elicit sympathy, which is more heart-rending than I can possibly describe. His manner is totally matter-of-fact. One of the tourists asked how he maintained his spiritual health (and I think he meant it more as a way to stay sane than as a question of religion). Afrika's answer was that the underground university system that the political prisoners had set up was a great way for them to constantly keep occupied and grow.

I've heard repeatedly about the truth and reconciliation process that South Africa went through. It's hard for me to understand. I know all the Gandhian talk about non-violence and love and peace and all that, but when you're subjugated for meaningless reasons, and in obviously brutal ways, it's hard to turn the other cheek. I thought it was all bullshit until I heard Afrika's explanation.

Afrika told us that the political leaders discussed numerous imaginary scenarios for the post-apartheid era. Pretty forward thinking bunch, I think :-) Apparently they started more than 15 years before the actual fall of apartheid - quite optimistic, considering that the ANC and the other political organizations were banned and heavy crackdowns were taking place all the way up to about 1989, and the picture was quite bleak for a very long time. Maybe these guys really believed Ghandi's addage: "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and you win". A key aspect of the discussions was that the ills of apartheid were not solely faced by the non-white population. In spite of the apparent benefits to the white population, the ANC leaders clearly recognized that just as the black population was disadvantaged by the economic exclusions, similarly the white population was culturally disadvantaged by racial segragation. It sounds like a facetious argument, but it's probably one of the most profound ideas in the path to desegregation.

Prisoners at Robben Island were not allowed to possess any kind of writing material or educational material. The only reading material was a bible. So the question comes up as to how the underground university could exist, and how there could be growth and organization in the politics. It turns out that some of the most active and involved members of the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement were white Afrikaaner South Africans. As Afrika tells it, the fatal flaw in the apartheid philosophy was characterizing people solely on the grounds of their ethnic background or skin color. The prison guards, wardens and the entire management system of the South African penal system, specifically the political penal system, were Afrikaners. They had to be members of a group called the Broederbund (the brotherhood). This affiliation theoretically ensured a pre-screening of all applicants. Obviously the system was not fool-proof. The prison wardens, guards and management were instrumental in assisting the ANC - bringing information into the prison, and getting information out. The ANC was led by Mandela while he was in Robben Island, for 27 years. The only way this was possible was for the jailers to conspire with the jailed.

These are all contributing factors to the way South Africa's path, post-apartheid, has come about. Afrika told us that many of the terrorist acts in South Africa - bombings of electrical facilities, carbombs, etc., - were performed by white sympathizers to the ANC cause. The apartheid regime, blindered as it was, was unable to think beyond their strict biases. Whites were not searched, and blacks were. The inability to deal with a system where you're unable to contain revolt to clearly defined groups ultimately is what brought the system to its knees.

Towards the end of the tour Afrika told us he had been told just that morning that this was his last day as tour guide, and he would have to start "scouting for work" starting the next morning. He had been told by the management of Robben Island that his contract had ended, and had not been renewed. Afrika was on a 3 month contract, which is the way the management deals with the tour guides. Jonii and I were flabbergasted. I could not comprehend how the system that came out of Robben Island, and wanted to remember it so that it could not be repeated, could treat a survivor of that system so callously. And riling Jonii up is not a good thing to do :-) We expressed our condolences to Afrika, gave him a decent tip (R20), and thanked him profusely for his excellent presentation of the prison.

As we walked back towards the pier to catch our return ferry, we struck up conversation with one of the other tourists, and comiserated on how silly the Robben Island management was, then veered off into good places to eat and the best vineyards around. Honestly, if you're surprised by all this, you really don't know us well enough yet - food takes priority above all else, dammit! This girl, Michelle Miller, apparently is on chummy terms with Desmond Tutu, and was going to ask him what it was all about.

As we approached the ferry boarding area, I accosted one of the administrators of the Robben Island tours - a pretty young lady. I asked her, quite diplomatically and civilly, about Afrika's plight. She said she was equally aghast about the situation, and launched into a tirade about the stupidity of the management, and the lack of vision, and the lack of respect for this man who had spent so much time for the betterment of the country, and how the beaucrats were treating these prisoners almost as if they were still pariahs. Watching Jonii and this girl, Tenjiwe, who was just as heated up as Jonii, both vehemently denouncing the beaucracy was quite a spectacle! Tenjiwe told us that we could speak to the administrators on the Capetown side, but that we'd probably get some run-around story about the contract, and nothing else. Of course, we're not that easily disuaded. So we told her we would do what we could and jumped on the ferry just as they announced last call.

When we got back to the mainland, we marched off to find any of the managment flunkies. There's a reception area in the basement of the Robben Island tours building. We had worked out our story: we are independent journalists that had just visited Robben Island and had just been told about Afrika; we are inspired to find out what the other side of the story is. Jonii asked the receptionist for any of the directors of the place. She told us that everyone was out to lunch. Keep in mind that it's about 2.30pm now. Interesting how beaucrats are always out to lunch when there are hard questions, isn't it?! After giving us all kinds of excuses, and making us wait about 20 minutes, during which time it became more and more apparent to the receptionist that we were not going to leave silently, teh receptionist managed to get in touch with one of the administrators, who came out of whereever she was hiding.

Let's just call the administrator Shannon. We explained our story, and asked if she could possibly give us the other perspective. Shannon's explanation was that they had used Afrika several times, and that he was very helpful to them, but that the program was set up with some full-time and some part-time ex-prisoners. The part-time'ers were clearly told that they were on a 3 month contract when they started. She also was quite clear to indicate how his situation was just such a shame, and the reason for the termination was that they were switching to their winter schedule soon, and therefore required fewer people and there were fewer tours of the island.

There's a hazard to working in government agencies. You can start with the best of intentions, but after you're exposed to the beaucracy and start getting that sense of power in your head you start looking at everyone as a moocher and low-life. That air of condescension and patronizing oozes out whether you're aware of it or not. I have no idea what Shannon's history was, but that beaucrat vibe started coming through loud and clear with her explanation. The other trait that gets well set in, along with the "eau de beaucrat" stench, is inability to accept responsibility. As soon as Jonii took the lady's name down and we start asking to quote her she backed off and said she would rather not have her name in print, and would rather refer us to the marketing manager, Plesa Murudu, for whom we got email and a phone number.

I got the sense that we were just getting brushed off, but decided to give Shannon our contact information, as Asian Social Network journalists, just in case that made any impact. Beaucrats always leave a bad taste in my mouth - they lose their humanity as soon as they get their jobs. We got the sense that South Africa had moved quite strongly to meet the rest of the third world. Kick out the colonists, and take back the reins of beaucracy!!

We received the following email about a week after we returned to Chicago:

Subject: Thanks
From: Afrika masoeng
Date: Tue, 8 Mar 2005 02:17:56 -0800 (PST)

iam very glad to have this opportunity to dot down these few words to you, the support you gave me on the 28 of febuary this year , they have taken me back for another three months. after this i have to squat for employment,let say that i will always hold you at the highest esteem. my intention is to open a company of my of own. thank vey much.


Post a Comment

<< Home