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

2019-11-09 23:22 - Gabi Zietsman
Post a comment 0

I have been to Robben Island three times in my life. The first time I was still in school. My parents were adamant that we visit this iconic heritage site which once imprisoned the man who stayed next to us for two days in Windhoek when he was released. My most vivid memory is of the ex-prisoner telling us about his daily life while incarcerated, and how it's changed his outlook on life.

The second time was for work - filming the island at the crack of dawn and driving around to sections that were generally cordoned off to the tourist crowds, seeing more of the island's natural attractions.

The third time was the most poignant visit yet - a 12-hour vigil overnight on the island to celebrate Nelson Mandela's centenary year on the anniversary of his death, listening to stories from ex-prisoners of their perseverance and entertained by traditional dance and song. The island transforms in the dead hours of the night, where ghosts come alive in the long shadows of the prison cells, tugging at the shared soul of the country.

I always assumed Robben Island was an important site to all South Africans, a harrowing but hopeful reminder of where we've been and what we can build as a nation.

It turns out, not everyone feels that power when they visit Robben Island.

The management authority recently announced their annual price increase for 2020 - tickets for locals went up by R20 (now R400) and non-citizens by R50 (now R600) for adults. What perhaps seemed like a run-of-the-mill story sparked a heated online conversation, with many questioning why Robben Island still even exists.

One tweet specifically went viral, calling for something a little different in place of the famous prison.

READ: Robben Island announces price increase for 2020 

With thousands of retweets and likes, and resounding agreement in the comments, Robben Island might have to worry about its legacy and relationship with younger generations, especially the Born Frees. Zamo Mngomezulu from Alexandra, the 33-year-old behind the tweet, expanded on his sentiment, seeing the island as a "wasted opportunity for us".

"I went there 10 years ago with my family and I vouched to never come back. The tour buses are in a bad condition, the whole experience is a mess. The island is just for European and Cape Town tourists."

"You get more satisfaction from reading a history book than going there."

For many, it's a place of pain, a depressing reminder of what their grandparents went through during Apartheid and would it seems prefer a more positive use for the island.

Others saw the proposed change as an economic incentive, providing more jobs and bringing in more tourists. Visitor numbers declined in 2018 due to a lack of ferries able to take on the rough seas, but with a new boat introduced in 2019 and many renovations completed, numbers are expected to rise again. 

ALSO SEE: Get there faster! Robben Island ups capacity for peak season with extra ferry

Beyond this social media commentary, we conducted a poll to see how our readers feel about Robben Island. For 40% of respondents, they have no interest in Robben Island at all, while 32% still believe it's historically relevant. Only 29% believe it should be repurposed for something else - perhaps a party island.

As a white Afrikaner, I will probably never truly understand the sadness that our black, coloured or Indian South Africans feel when visiting a local dark tourist site like Robben Island - my feelings instead resonate guilt and horror at our history, dating as far back as when Krotoa was imprisoned on the island of despair.

Perhaps Robben Island is an expensive reminder of a past clung to by the old, and a new identity for the island is much-needed for the South Africa of tomorrow.

Find Your Escape by signing up for the Traveller24 Weekly Newsletter – Subscribe hereOr download the News24 App hereto receive expertly curated travel ideas and deals directly to your mobile.