The Tale of Two Views - Mountain or Ocean


By Patrick Osei-Hwere and Connie McKee

We head out today to approximately the farthest and highest landmarks of Cape Town for differing views and experiences of the city. At 07:45 hours on a 62°F Monday, the vans head southwest towards Robben Island - infamously known for holding political prisoners such as the late Nelson Mandela.

Robben Island

It's a perfect day for the trip - calm seas, clear skies, and the stunning waterfront. But as the Krotoa (the Robben Island ferry named after the female political prisoner banished to the island in 1669) rolls away from the shoreline one cannot help but reflect on a similar trip - just 50 years ago; the last trip for some on board, or for others, a one-way trip for at least decades. Banishment. One last look at the waterfront - home, family, community receding. Did resolve flicker? Did they have enough to keep hope and themselves alive?

Robben Island warrants multiple trips - the first is never enough. This is Connie’s second trip and it’s still mind-blowing how recent it is and how awful people can be to people for no reason. The first time you're here it takes you aback more but the second time you are here you absorb more and get more of the idea of everything that was going on here.

For Alex who was here on the last trip, the second visit has its own unique impact. “The second time around you can really take it in more – you don’t have to take photos because you already took photos the first time” he said. “It’s different to see things from another tour guide’s perspective. It’s different to see how things differ from each time but still all in all a cool experience.”

We get a tour of the island before heading to the prison. Once again one cannot help but think about the community systematically created and "forced" to cohabit - people with mental illness or leprosy; medical staff; prison administration and guards, wives and children (what did they think of their home address? Or what did it mean for a kid to say, ‘I grew up on Robben Island’?); and the prisoners.

The prison-tour guide, an ex-political prisoner, gives 'a day in the life of' overview. "I love my job and I hate my job," he said. "I get to meet wonderful people from all over the world." What he hates - telling the depressing story of arrest, detention, torture, trial, sentencing, and imprisonment.

There are many lessons to learn – some we thought we knew and new ways of looking at what we know. During the apartheid era, Connie remembers, doing extemp (extemporaneous public speaking) and talking about this and having absolutely no clue of what was coming out of my mouth. And coming back and going “Oh wow, okay.” Now I know what the ANC was and what it really meant. You had thirty minutes to make these speeches and it could be from anywhere in the world but this was a hot topic because it was a big thing going on. You would learn about stuff from the US News and World Report but not really grasp the whole meaning of it.

We learn that in prison, education was a privilege and not a right and few political prisoners were granted permission to study. Their motivation to seek education under such circumstances (some, like Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment) gives a whole new value to education – beyond career preparation.

With our backgrounds in communication we are struck by two restrictions imposed on inmates:
  1. English and Afrikaans were the only languages allowed during visits (even for families who could speak neither language)
  2. All letters to and from inmates were censored. 
In this era of social media and access to information it's poignant to reflect on how communication deprivation is used to strip dignity and humanity.

I think information is a human necessity or a human right in the eyes of Americans. It’s interesting that nowadays we kind of self-censor ourselves. There are lots of things that people want to say but we’ve reached a point in information where your social appearance dictates what you say. We’ve reached a postmodernism idea of censorship - rudimentary censorship of ideas and phrases. If I was in that situation, it would be very hard for me to adapt to it – not being able to communicate. I think a big part of being a human is being able to communicate your ideas completely. So I think it would be very challenging for me.
Chase Brady

Table Mountain

On the trip back the imposingly majestic Table Mountain welcomes us and we can’t wait to see the view from the summit. Each finds a trail to capture the city below or the experience of being on top of the world. The breathtaking sunset, worth more than words can describe, leaves a lasting impression and an amazing way to end the day.

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