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The dark side of Cape Town

By DETLEF BERG

Cape Town - The catamaran journey is worth taking for the ride experience alone. It offers a spectacular view of Cape Town.

An aerial view of Cape Town stadium.Tourist boarding the Sikhululeki at Robben Island Museum. Picture: Henk KrugerRobben Island Museums finances have taken a heavy knock since its ferry broke down, forcing it to hire private vessels to take visitors to and from the island. PICTURE: THOMAS HOLDERAn aerial view of Robben IslandDuring the tour he tells visitors that Robben Island was established as a place of imprisonment by Dutch settlers as far back as the 16th century. PICTURE: THOMAS HOLDERA close up view of the lock on Nelson Mandela's cell.

In the centre, Table Mountain soars 1,000 metres into the sky, its high plateau flanked left and right by the Devil's Peak und Lion's Head. At the foot of the peak lies the metropolis nestling up the slopes.

One landmark that stands out is the futuristic Cape Town stadium with its striking silhouette. It was built for the 2010 World Cup. During the crossing the cameras are whirring ceaselessly as almost every passenger tries to save the impressive panorama for private albums.

The trip over to Robben Island, South Africa's notorious island penitentiary, takes around 30 minutes. Hardly anyone is listening to the blare from the loudspeakers which impart information about the notable sights to be seen here.

The catamaran ties up in the tiny island harbour. “We serve with pride” is the motto emblazoned across the entrance to the prison.

Derick Basson is a former inmate who spent many years incarcerated on Robben Island. Today he earns a living by showing tourists around the place he was forced for a long time to call home.

During the tour he tells visitors that Robben Island was established as a place of imprisonment by Dutch settlers as far back as the 16th century. Leprosy sufferers were once banished to the island and a cemetery bears witness to the fate of the outcasts.

Next stop is the house of Robert Sobukwe. The chairman of the Pan Africanist Congress was interned here for nine years as the sole political prisoner.

From there the tour goes on the high-security section where the political internees of the anti-Apartheid movement were confined in cells alongside prisoners convicted of serious crimes.

The most prominent prisoner of all was Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), who later became the first democratically elected South African president. Mandela spent 27 years of his life locked up in the tiny cell and describes his experiences vividly in his autobiography The Long Road to Freedom.

At least in the early years confinement conditions were bleak. Prisoners were made to toil in a quarry, wore inadequate clothing and were not given enough to eat. In 1971 they achieved some reforms, including even the right to study for college exams.

“This is Nelson Mandela's cell”, says Basson. The dungeon measures just six metres square and remains much as it was back then.

The floor is of bare stone and the only fittings are a bunk bed and a bucket which serves as a toilet. Basson recalls that the last inmates stepped off the island in 1996.

Visitors often ask the guide if he was beaten while imprisoned. “Yes, we were beaten pretty regularly,” he says almost without any trace of emotion. Asked whether he still hates his former tormentors Basson gives a measured reply: “No, I longer feel any hatred.”

The prison was also the scene late on New Year's Eve 1999 of a key ceremony to mark the new millennium.

In what was designed to be symbolic event for a reborn new South Africa, Nelson Mandela handed over a lighted candle to his successor Thabo Mbeki in former cell number 466/64. The flame stood for the spirit of freedom, something which cannot be extinguished. - Sapa-dpa

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