WATCH I Back for the first time: An emotional day on Robben Island with a former political prisoner

2019-12-05 11:22 - Marisa Crous
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“They told me 30 min before leaving, that I was being released.”

Former political prisoner, Joseph ‘Dede’ Ntsoelengoe was imprisoned on Robben Island for 7 years from 1984 tot 1991.  

“The first thing we wanted to do when we got to land, was to walk up Table Mountain.” 

Talking to him, and listening to him explain the anguish of living in isolation is gut-wrenching. You’ll never see Table Mountain the same after seeing it through the eyes of a Robben Island prisoner. From the island, the mountain is almost like a beacon of hope. A dream, that might one day be realised. Like their freedom. 

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island

(PHOTO: Marisa Crous) 

WATCH: A pilgrimage of memory to Robben Island 

5 December 2019 marks six years since the passing of uTata Nelson Mandela and what would have been Robert Sobukwe’s 95th birthday. In celebration of this day, we went to Robben Island by helicopter. For Dede, this was his very-first time back at the visitor centre since his release. 

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island

(Joseph ‘Dede’ Ntsoelengoe. PHOTO: Marisa Crous) 

It was an emotional experience, to say the least.

“This is not a nice place.”

READ: 'Demolish and create our own Ibiza': Has Robben Island lost its reverence? 

His chatty mood changes, and he goes back there. To that place. 

“You see, they played mind-games with us.”

He recalls an incident. His mother had travelled all the way from Soweto, to Cape Town to Robben Island to see her son for a visit. Visits were only allowed every 6 months, so prisoners and loved-ones were really excited about the rare opportunity to see each other. On visiting day, the guards told his mother, who arrived on the island by ferry, that he doesn’t want to come out of his cell to see her.

The guards told him that she never arrived. 

Twisted guts.  

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island

(PHOTO: Marisa Crous)

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island

(Visitation booths. PHOTO: Marisa Crous) 

The unspoken layers of trauma peel away as you experience the reality of everyday life in prison alongside someone who lived it. The bad food, the lack of warm clothing, the 18-year-old guards, boys, who treating these academics, activists and political leaders like they were nothing.

A bucket was one symbol of the dehumanisation they suffered as prisoners on this island. It can be found in the 46664 cell that Madiba resided in for 18 years. And in many others. A bucket was given to prisoners to relieve themselves, instead of a toilet.  

But Dede says that they would not, ever, let this break them. The guards couldn't touch their self-respect. They had them behind bars, but could never claim ownership over their minds. 

*Marisa Crous was hosted by the Robben Island Museum, in partnership with NAC Helicopters.

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