Heritage crime: Has the Robben Island Museum been left to decay?

After recent reports about the neglected state of the Robben Island Museum, Eyewitness News visited the World Heritage Site to see for itself.

FILE: A view of a guard tower and Table Mountain behind some of the former prison buildings on Robben Island. Picture: RODGER BOSCH/AFP

CAPE TOWN - In recent weeks, there's been some controversy regarding the Robben Island Museum and its apparent neglected state.

Having been used as a maximum security prison for political prisoners during the apartheid era, Unesco declared Robben Island a World Heritage Site in 1999.

Following recent media reports, the Ex-Political Prisoners Association (EPPA) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Western Cape have weighed in on the matter, highlighting their concerns about the decay and deterioration of assets on the island.

The EPPA even called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and conduct an oversight visit.

In a recent interview on CapeTalk, the association’s Mpho Masemola said those who had been appointed to look after the assets on the island had let them down.

He said the association had received a number of complaints from visitors and former political prisoners concerned about decaying structures on the island.

However, Robben Island's Siphuxolo Mazwi stressed that the narrative that its buildings were in ruins and decay was completely devoid of truth.

Eyewitness News reporter Lauren Isaacs recently visited the island and shares her experience of the excursion.

On the day I visited Robben Island, the catamaran passenger ferry Krotoa, was out of service and we were transported to the island on a chartered blue and yellow ferry called Madiba 1.

With the capacity to carry 200 passengers, the boat was almost full but masked visitors were sure to practice social distancing.

The ferry was clean, comfortable and modern and equipped with air conditioners and televisions that played a video of must-see destinations across the city - from wine farms in Franschoek, to the best surfing spots in Llandudno.

While I am severely prone to motion sickness, it was a pleasant 20-minute boat ride and once we arrived on the island, tour guides were already waiting to greet the visitors and show us to our buses for the tour.

Outside, the grounds appeared to be neat and clean and there were ample rubbish bins and notices to refrain from littering. The original wooden posts used by the prisoners who played soccer are still standing today.

On the exterior of prison buildings, the original marks created by a chisel and hammer can still be seen. Prisoners had to use these tools to cut stones to build the prison.

After spending seven years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, Sparks Mlilwana has been a tour guide there since 2003.

We spotted animals like steenbok, penguins and tortoises.

Inside, the prison buildings and courtyards were spotless. The polished floors shone and all exhibitions and relics were placed neatly and carefully. Several new exhibitions were being installed.

Image: Eyewitness News/Lauren Isaacs

Stands with bottles of pink hand sanitiser attached could be found in each section of the prison.

Cleaning staff, armed with brooms, mops and other cleaning supplies could also be seen working around the premises.

White and blue paint appeared to be peeling off some walls and ceilings inside the prison, and later, towards the end of the tour, we were taken past World War ll relics, of which the doors and window covers were rusted by the salty sea air.

I chalked this up to showing the age and authenticity of the World Heritage Site - instead of poor maintenance.

In all fairness, I've only visited the island once before, on a primary school excursion. But judging by the recent accounts of the supposed state of the Robben Island Museum, I expected to see it in a far worse condition.

Towards the end of the tour, we passed homes of the island's residents, the John Craig Hall built in 1943, the school and the Garrison Church erected in 1841 where couples gather to tie the knot on Valentine's Day every year.

Again, what I saw, didn't particularly shock me.

The highlight of my visit is that my tour guide was a former political prisoner and could share his first-hand account of what life was like on the island. This made for an interesting, gripping and emotional experience.

As did the visit to Nelson Mandela's cell - with his blankets folded neatly on the floor on the right-hand side, a bucket he used to relieve himself in the left-hand corner, and a small green table with his stainless steel bowl and cup in the centre.

On the way back to the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront, I chatted to some people to hear their observations of Robben Island and the tour.

One teenage girl said the only thing she didn't particularly enjoy was that members of the tour group were not given enough time to ask questions.

A woman, on holiday from Pretoria, said she found the tour to be educational. She said she had a pleasant experience and found the island to be clean. However, she'd hoped there would be more original relics in Nelson Mandela's cell, such as his shoes and clothing.

A visitor from Kenya said she was happy she could finally cross the visit to the Robben Island Museum off her bucket list.

"I've always wanted to come here. I thought the tour guide did a great job, but I had a lot more questions. I feel like we should have been given some more time for this and also maybe had the opportunity to meet more ex-prisoners.

“The Robben Island Museum looked newer or more renovated then I had imagined...very clean and painted. I honestly thought it would be more run down, I expected it to look older,” she said.

While Africa Day is observed on 25 May, the Robben Island Museum is celebrating the entire month, with group ticket discounts of up to 25%.

Mazwi said they were pleased to see an increase in young people visiting the island, and encouraged youth groups, civic organisations and social clubs to take advantage of the reduced ticket prices for groups.

Mazwi said while group visits were encouraged, strict COVID-19 protocols remained in place both on the ferry and on the island, with COVID marshals continuously monitoring the situation.

Visitors are also encouraged to purchase their tickets online, via Webtickets, to avoid queues.

The ferry operates on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 11am.

Regular local ticket prices are R400 per adult and R210 for children under 18.

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