Robben Island story in the spotlight

Meziwa Esau Tsholoba, ex-inmate of Robben Island, shared his views on the story told on the island.

Members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), who visited Robben Island to honour their late comrade, Philip Kgosana, earlier this month, were unhappy about the story told by the tour guide, saying that important information had been omitted.

The tour, organised by the PAC in conjunction with Robben Island Museum, was also to commemorate freedom fighter Robert Sobukwe, one of the apartheid government’s most feared political opponents and founder of the PAC.

During the tour, members of the PAC stopped the tour guide in the middle of her narrative to ask her why they left out parts about PAC members, and that they didn’t want to hear about Nelson Mandela, as there were members of their party who had been incarcerated for longer than we had.

PAC member and ex-Robben Island tour guide Yasien Mohammed responded to the crowd, accusing the Robben Island Museum of telling people a false story.

He said while there were mostly PAC members incarcerated on the island, the museum only told the story of the ANC and Nelson Mandela.

PAC veteran John Sipamla said the story of Robert Sobukwe and his life was buried underground.

“The first prisoners on the island were PAC members, but we will never hear that story. They kept that information quiet.”

Meziwa Esau Tsholoba, an ex-political prisoner who was incarcerated in the 1960s, said Nelson Mandela was not the only prisoner who needed to be highlighted.

“In the lime quarry, others were working there too. I’m not against the mention of Nelson Mandela, but Robben Island needs to give a true reflection of what happened. People should know that it’s not only the ANC that fought for freedom.” w

During the tour of the island, he said, “people only get one side of the story”.

“For example, the lime quarry, where prisoners worked and what they called the ‘Old Jail’ was known as the two hells of Robben Island, yet the Old Jail is not part of the tour. Some parts of history is not told here.”

The chief heritage officer at Robben Island, Pascall Taruvinga, who spoke on behalf of the Robben Island Museum CEO Mava Dada, said the day’s events had been planned to deliberate on the role Robert Sobukwe played in the struggle for liberation.

He said that the party should remember Mr Kgosana, who led 30 000 people from Langa to Parliament during the struggle, had formed part of the programme before his death. He said the tour had also formed part of Robben Island’s 20-year anniversary programme.

“Liberation did not have one political party; it had many, and in the narrative told on the island, we need to tell these stories.

“We are willing to walk with the PAC and with any other parties to tell the full story of the history of the island and interpret it the right way.”

He said that Robben Island had made progress with this by documenting the life of ex-prisoners.

He said one of the challenges was that the tour guides who were ex-political prisoners were not getting any younger.

“We have engaged with the ex-political prisoners to train tour guides and have them shadow our ex-inmates to learn the history of the island.”

He said so far, Robben Island’s story had been biased, but they were working towards including all voices.

“This is why we had this visit from the PAC today. This is the beginning of a new era – we will diversify our story.”

Billiard Seth of the PAC said even though Robert Sobukwe had played an instrumental role in the struggle and even though he had been interviewed by many publications during his time on the island, even in his death, his voice “was still in prison”.

“We need to find that voice. It is needed in the country, for our history and for future generations.”

Mr Taruvinga said that the exhibition Remembering Africa, documenting the life and times of Robert Sobukwe, has been showcased at the Robben Island Museum since February, which marks Sobukwe month. During the tour, a poster commemorating Robert Sobukwe read: “In 1999, Nelson Mandela described Robert Sobukwe as one of the giants of the struggle in South Africa, but Sobukwe’s legacy remains neglected in the histories and narratives of post- apartheid South Africa.”