The rot reaches Robben Island

Andrew Donaldson says not even this shrine to the liberation struggle has escaped ANC decay


IT is a worrying time for Robben Island. There has been much chatter that this world heritage site, perhaps the most iconic of our liberation monuments, is going to ruin. On April 25, as the country prepared to celebrate Freedom Day, City Press reported that the museum there is in a derelict state; its current management having stood idly by as it fell apart, destroying “the legacy of the country’s freedom fighters”.

One such fighter, unnamed, was quoted as saying: “The prison itself isn’t what it used to be. It’s dying a slow death and, as a former prisoner there, I ask myself what’s happening. It’s very wrong. The deterioration started long before Covid-19, to be honest. This has been going on for a very long time. [Robben Island Museum management] are more interested in how much they can make from tourists than in maintaining the prison itself.”

According to Mpho Masemola, the secretary-general of the Ex-Political Prisoners Association, it wants sprucing up. He told City Press: “I visited the stone quarry, which is decaying and full of water. The political prisoners were forced to work there producing the rocks that built the Robben Island prison. To us, it’s very much a part of our history and heritage because we prisoners built the jail with our own hands and we were imprisoned in it for fighting for the liberation of this country.”

Masomela claimed the Susan Kruger, which ferried passengers to and from the island, is in a shocking state. Back in 2017, there were already calls that the vessel be withdrawn from service as it was unseaworthy. Little has changed. “[Below the deck of] that boat, you’ll find a prison cell,” he said. “They used to lock prisoners inside it so that they couldn’t see what was outside. Today … you’ll see that grass is growing on top of the boat. It’s full of mice, it’s rotting and it’s about to sink. Nobody’s taking care of it. It’s as if history is being deleted.”

The question, of course, is whose history, exactly, is being deleted. 

First, though, we should note that its management denies the museum is “falling apart”. A month ago, it arranged two press trips to the island. “On both occasions,” RIM council chairman Khensani Maluleke later claimed, “the journalists were pleasantly surprised by the functional state of the museum. They also interviewed numerous visitors, both local and domestic, who expressed the sentiment that visiting the facility was a beautiful experience that touched visitors from the senses to the soul.”

Maluleke, writing in City Press, said he was bothered by “the narrative that this World Heritage Site has been allowed to degenerate, completely desecrating the sacrifices of our freedom fighters, continues to be driven by a small cohort of disgruntled stakeholders. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

“The truth is that the allegations of an island in ruins are a populist narrative perpetuated by an individual or individuals with an ulterior agenda, peddling outrageous hyperbole to anyone who cares to listen. I have said before that, through a process of cooperative governance, we remain committed to preserving one of South Africa’s most iconic landmarks of the fight for freedom, a fight that continues today.”

Such language, the verbal equivalent of straining with constipation, is of course a reliable indicator that something is very much amiss. 

Maluleke further claimed that “outdoor relics” predating the Second World War would “certainly show signs of weathering”. He also pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic, which had adversely affected maintenance plans. “With nearly no revenue for the past 13 months,” he said, “certain projects have had to take priority over others.”

The museum was in the news again this week with the announcement of a disciplinary inquiry into the conduct of two unnamed RIM officials. This follows complaints that were first raised in November 2018. No further details were forthcoming, but as Maluleke was at pains to point out, the museum remains fully committed to transparency. 

In April, however, the Sunday Times reported that RIM’s financial problems “went way beyond Covid-19” and were linked to irregularities listed in a forensic investigation by chartered accountants Morar Incorporated. They recommended disciplinary action be taken against RIM CEO Mava Dada for breach of contract. Despite the findings, Dada remained in his R2.4-million-a-year position while “disciplinary processes are under way”.

This state of affairs comes as no surprise. It is very much in keeping with the manner in which the country’s assets are mismanaged. 

Not to be too cynical, but our hindsight remains as sharp as ever. We now realise the first signs of trouble emerged soon after it was decided that the island was to be a monument to the history of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. Not just any history, mind, but one specifically shaped by the ANC. 

The organisation aimed to hijack the island’s narrative and present it as its own; the cultural centrepiece of their liberation. In this they were considerably aided by Nelson Mandela’s cult status and powerful presence on the global stage.

According to Annie E Coombes, the island’s future was “the subject of a fraught debate” from the get-go. Re-reading her History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Duke University Press, 2003), it appears that, of all those who put forward proposals about the island, it was the Pan-Africanist Congress who may have been the most sensible. 

Coombes cites a Sowetan article by then PAC deputy president Motsoko Pheko, arguing that a “true history” of the island would reflect the diversity of those who had been imprisoned there since the late 1600s. These unfortunates represented every shade of troublemaker to the various powers that were. They ranged from political upstarts, quarrelsome local chiefs, religious leaders, runaway slaves, guerrillas and insurrectionists to the unwanted, the insane and the sick.

“The history of Robben Island must not be desecrated,” Pheko had written. “Africa and the world owe it to African posterity to tell the truth about Robben Island as it is; not to manufacture tales intended for political misinformation and the mutilation of the history of Robben Island.”

The PAC’s beef was legitimate. In May 2000, the academic Xolela Mangcu visited the island and later complained in the Sunday Independent that non-ANC prisoners like PAC leader Robert Sobukwe were marginalised in favour of the Rivonia defendants. Guides drove by the house where Sobukwe had been detained in solitary confinement for six years with what was described as “cursory acknowledgment”. Mangcu later returned to the house on his own and found it in extreme disrepair: “spider webs, cockroaches and an unbearable stench”.

There was a stench alright, one far more malodorous than that of decay and neglect. Here were a corruptible presence that actively sought to betray the past for profit. Coombes, for instance, points out that many international leftist groups on both sides of the Atlantic had invested heavily in the fall of apartheid. Their desire to “participate in the history of South Africa’s liberation” was therefore understandable. But it contributed to a narrative that “closes off as much it opens up the prospect of a new national history that encompasses the experience of all South Africans”.

Aware of the potential for international revenue, the island was swiftly retooled as a cash cow. Mangcu described this as “a classic example of how our obsession with foreign investments and markets distorts our political culture”. He bemoaned “the triumphalist chimera of ‘reconciliation’ [which] has become our biggest cultural export. Cultural institutions such as Robben Island are marketed as symbols of this miracle.” If these institutions are “nothing more than saleable products for the consumption of international cultural elites, who shall provide us with the self-understandings, symbols and meanings that are the basis of modern nationhood?”

All this was more than two decades ago, when South Africa was another, more optimistic country. We are in a different place now, and we may have no need for a “mythic” Robben Island in our present narrative. We are done with that place. Besides, if we can’t look after it, let the mice have it.

But if it’s symbols we need to understand our modern nation, then why not the vulgar pile of kitsch that is the Sandton home of Gupta associate Iqbal Sharma? He has no need for it at the moment seeing as he’s currently a guest of the state following his arrest last week in connection with a R24-million fraud and money laundering case. Bail has been denied and his home and all its contents have been attached. 

For a small fee, members of the public would be able to wander about this tacky monument to greed and gawp at the glitzy shit Sharma and his Bollywood actress wife Tarina Patel have stuffed in its many rooms. This, I imagine, may not only touch visitors from their senses to their soul, but will offer fresh perspectives on the ongoing liberation struggle.

Ratel the cage

The public intellectual Eusebius McKaiser’s campaign to foster interracial harmony continues apace. Most of us consider him a tireless campaigner in this regard and are in awe of the thoughtful manner in which he has confronted all the important issues of the day. But not many will be aware that the years of crusading have had a terrible impact on his health. 

Writing in the Sunday World at the weekend, McKaiser reveals he has a cardiac problem. His heart, he says, is broken because “the children of the hegemony” appear to have been excused from having “a conversation about race relations”. 

This is puzzling. Surely there’s not a single moment in our public life when “the children of the hegemony” are not subjected to ceaseless haranguing about their privilege and the sins of their fathers? In fact, a “conversation about race relations” may just be a good thing. If, that is, anyone can get a word in edgeways. 

But, and lest his Sunday World readers also be confused, the great beef chief put it thus: “Why do the white kids not come to our homes in the townships? Why do the white kids not take an interest in gqom, kwaito or amapiano?”

Okay, the latter question first. These are forms of dance music. Admittedly unfamiliar forms as far as you and I may be concerned. 

But, like all dance music, its primary function is to encourage certain rituals at parties and clubs. To wit, rhythmic bodily movements that are expressive of deeply primal instincts and which often result in frenzied copulation. To suggest, then, that white kids have no interest in such hormonally charged behaviour is to render them sub-human and, as such, is profoundly racist.

Which brings us to the first, more troubling question. Troubling only because there are many answers. It could be that white kids simply have no wish to visit homes in the townships. Perhaps they heard it was dangerous to do so. It may be all that gqom that’s blasting out everywhere. It could even be the risk of yet another stern lecture about their irredeemable privilege. Who knows? 

However, this line of inquiry raises a question of my own: why does McKaiser not take an interest in badgers?

In South Africa, the honey badger is listed as a “near threatened” species. The Nature and Environmental Conservation Ordinance of 1974 lists it as a Schedule 2 protected wild animal. Despite this, many commercial beekeepers in the occupied Western Cape admit to killing these fiercely independent creatures. It is relatively simple to render hives badger-proof, yet beekeepers prefer to put down the animals, a course of action for which there is no rational justification, whether ethical or economical.

Perhaps McKaiser could urge his followers to boycott the “100% natural honey” from China now cluttering supermarket shelves. These are said to be diluted with rice and corn syrup and may contain dangerous antibiotics. Consumers should instead opt for local honey labelled as “badger friendly”. 

Silence in the face of the badger situation is morally equivalent to complicity in sustaining anti-badgerism itself. McKaiser should do the good thing and speak up about their plight. It will do his heart the world of good. 

And remember, after badgers, it could well be elephants…