President Higgins visits Robben Island ‘torture’ prison

Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail on Robben Island

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina were given a first-hand account of the methods employed by the apartheid government to break and divide inmates on Robben Island by prisoner turned tour guide Thulani Mabaso. Photograph: Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography 2014

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina were given a first-hand account of the methods employed by the apartheid government to break and divide inmates on Robben Island by prisoner turned tour guide Thulani Mabaso. Photograph: Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography 2014

 

Visiting Robben Island is essential to understanding the level of sacrifice made by the people who defeated apartheid in South Africa, President Michael D Higgins said today during a tour of the prison.

“I think to come here is to pay tribute to all of those who went through terrible adversity so that future generations of South Africans could be free of this most monstrous system that divided people on the basis of race,” he said.

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina were given a first-hand account of the methods employed by the apartheid government to break and divide inmates such as Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 of his 27 years in jail there, by former Robben Island prisoner turned tour guide Thulani Mabaso.

“I’ve been in prisons before,” Mr Higgins said, “but what strikes one about this particular prison was how systematically sophisticated the attempts at torture, isolation and degradation, and humiliation were.

“I think the lesson for all of us who are interested in human rights is to know that a prison like this is used in other parts of the world today. But here you had very deliberate sustained attempt at crushing any movement towards the foundation of the democratic society that failed.”

Mr Higgins said it was interesting to try and understand how the moral vision of a new South African society could have been forged in such a brutal place, and that the length of time inmates spent on the island had given them time to think this goal through.

He concluded that aside from the negative aspects of Robben Island, what happened there gives people an insight into something else that is very important: “that is the power of the human mind and human spirit to overcome, and the immense power of people working in solidarity”.

Last night Mr Higgins and his delegation met up with 200 Irish people living in the Western Cape at the Westin Hotel in Cape Town. The Irish delegation flies back to Ireland today.