Robben Island

the fight for the island: status and recovery...

Robben Island today. Table Mountain in the background; looking almost due West.

 

 

 

 

Below is the letter that was published in our local Cape Town newspaper in June 2008, and which resulted in my being interviewed on the television programme, Fokus with Freek Robinson and Danie Hefers.

 

The Editor,  The Argus 

I am deeply saddened by reports of the struggling fauna on Robben Island.  

After my father, together with the department of Nature Conservation, shipped the animals over in 1958, I myself reared some of the original orphaned babies, together with the help of some of the prisoners who walked the island freely in work-details in those days. How ironic that today visitors are barred from walking around, enjoying less privilege than some prisoners themselves, then. 

The truth is these starving animals are symbolic of the island itself. Many reports testify to the lack of good management and the sad state of the island itself. Even at grassroots level this is true: unless one is lucky enough to get a sociable guide (there are a few), one is often subjected to a condescending ex-prisoner who psychologically harasses those on tour; the bombastic and embittered manner in which international & local visitors have been treated over the years, as evidenced in many letters to the press, is indicative of a lack of appreciation for the islandís true meaning and value. Any museum or historical site I have visited overseas is a revelation. They proudly feature touch-screens and interactive display boards everywhere, affording one a deep appreciation of the heritage, and encouraging an educational journey of discovery Ė I speak in particular of the Port Arthur prison/museum site in Tasmania that was a moving experience for both myself and my children Ė a place where prisoners suffered as much, if not more than those on Robben Island.  

In stark contrast Robben Islandís famous quarry which has huge historical importance to Cape Town, and also housed our most famous and beloved citizen, was littered with cans and plastic bags on my last visit, and what is more, it actually refuses entry to visitors, many of whom would give anything to be able to walk around in deference. Most of the island is closed. Why? This smacks of fear and exclusion, reminiscent of our last regime. In truth, there should be children running down its main road singing songs, families camping overnight on the beaches; teams of singing locals celebrating the view of Table Mountain across the bay, and the release of the island itself from its own historical restraints.

Instead, on a visit a few years ago I was forced to guiltily sneak away from the tour in order to visit the Anglican church with my ageing mother, and to kneel with her at the altar where she married my father 57 years ago. In some ways it is more of a prison now than ever, and far from being a place where families and children can explore (what else is a museum about?) it is instead a sad reminder of so much of Africa: considered unsafe, and overflowing with wretched neglect.

Shame on you who suffered so much on that small piece of land: all that many of you have done since taking control of it is to fight over money and politics. Shame on you, I am able to say, having spent more time as a child on the island than some prisoners, that it was better maintained under the reviled Apartheid regime than under your management.

 I do not think you understand that while parts of the island are indeed a reminder of gross inhumanity, the island itself can also be a place of revelation, education and celebration. Viva, Robben island, Viva! 

Michael Klerck  [Wynberg]   

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

 

 

November 2008.

I am happy to report that three top officials including the CEO have been discharged of their "duties" and are now facing charges of corruption, fraud and mismanagement. A great triumph and a direct result of the efforts and prayers of many people. It's just a pity it has taken so long. The Island will take years to restore. At the moment SPCA officials are busy with the culling of more than 10 000 rabbits that have been allowed to lay waste to the Island, and have also been the indirect result of the death of almost every other animal there.

 

2011 - See pictures and info about the spectacular restoration of the world's only semi-operational 9.2 inch gun on Robben Island.

 

 

 

 


 

There is an urgent request for information about the military history of the Robben Island - if you do have any information please email Colonel Crook at resfcape@mweb.co.za

He is looking for information relating to the following:

Major General Moodie and his Coastal Artillery School on the Island (1942-47)

5 Heavy Coastal Artillery (1942-44)

AS WAAS (1942-44)

CAPE COLOURED ARTILLERY CORPS (1942-44)

ROYAL NAVY (SWANS) (1944-47)

ROYAL NAVY (DEGAUSSING)

ALL THE OTHER AUXILLARY UNITS ON THE ISLAND DURING WW2 (SIGNALS, AIR FORCE, MEDICAL CORPS, SPECIAL SIGNALS (RADAR)

SA MARINES (1951-55)

SAS ROBBEN ISLAND (1955-61)

 

 

 

 

 


If you're a little depressed, take heart - I do think things will come right. And you can also visit my Memories Page for pics and lots of emails from USA to Kenya with personal stories.


The Possible Way Ahead: Port Arthur, Tasmania.

I am not sure what will transpire, but I can offer an example of what Robben Island might be. I had the privilege of visiting Port Arthur in Tasmania, an island of much cruelty and suffering, not least of all reflected in the section reserved for children. However, it has been lovingly and respectfully restored and is an absolute delight to visit.

I would take my children there again tomorrow; there is so much to learn and do, with touch-screen displays depicting its history, models of rations (the prisoners got better food than the warders, as the prison was a working farm), maps and interesting anecdotes, illustrations and activities for the kids.

The truth, as we all know it, is that Robben Island is a valuable asset, with millions of people who would like to visit; but it does not entice people to do so; it's lack of good management has resulted in people seldom wanting to go back, with only a few guides offering a memorable and pleasant tour. My letter above clearly states this and highlights its plight:

"In stark contrast Robben Islandís famous quarry which has huge historical importance to Cape Town, and also housed our most famous and beloved citizen, was littered with cans and plastic bags on my last visit, and what is more, it actually refuses entry to visitors, many of whom would give anything to be able to walk around in deference. Most of the island is closed. Why? This smacks of fear and exclusion, reminiscent of our last regime. In truth, there should be children running down its main road singing songs, families camping overnight on the beaches; teams of singing locals celebrating the view of Table Mountain across the bay, and the release of the island itself from its own historical restraints.

Instead, on a visit a few years ago I was forced to guiltily sneak away from the tour in order to visit the Anglican church with my ageing mother, and to kneel with her at the altar where she married my father 57 years ago. In some ways it is more of a prison now than ever, and far from being a place where families and children can explore (what else is a museum about?) it is instead a sad reminder of so much of Africa: considered unsafe, and overflowing with wretched neglect."

In contrast to this, Port Arthur is a wonderful day excursion and provides a fantastic educational opportunity, as it should be. Many buildings have been restored and one can visit, for instance, the pastor's home, that of the chief warden, and many of the prison cells also, giving one a good idea of the life there. Sadly Robben Island's buildings are in a state of poor neglect, with PWD doing little if anything to maintain them. On a recent visit someone working on the island told me that the person in charge of maintenance, seldom if ever leaves his home!

I would recommend a committee sending a delegation to this museum in Tasmania to get some idea of what a living, working, educational museum might look like. Only then can might Robben Island truly deserve its world heritage site status.

 

A day spent here at Port Arthur is a day to remember, with people in period costumes, and knowledgeable guides who delight in telling you the history in an unbiased and interesting way.

 

A walk through the old church was an even more moving experience than had it been fully restored; when we were there, wild flowers had pushed up through the grass, giving us a carpet to walk on. Many people get married here; many visitors can't wait to get off Robben Island and seldom if ever return.


 

Home page:

Memories page:

Gun Restoration page:

 

 


If you have any memories of the school on the island, please contact: Irene.

Right Click and Open In New Window to see the Youtube media report on the WCED's intention to close the 3rd oldest school in the WC, which probably means the country.