|Guide Mokgoari in a dormitory in Robben Island Prison. Picture by MR Venkatesh
Cape Town, April 13: The walls do not speak of the prisoners pain any more. Apartheids darkest symbol has been painted over, in grey and white.
Robben Island Prison, whose legendary harshness squeezed the spirit out of hundreds of black men and injected some with steel now looks like a hotel.
At least thats the word Merna, an American tourist, uses as she gazes disappointedly at the imposing building where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in confinement.
His 2m x 3m cell, behind window number four, still has the coir mat on which he slept and the aluminium plate and bowl from which he ate. A bucket-toilet stands at one corner.
But to Merna and many others, it all looks out of place amid the fresh paint the last coat was given two months ago and the bright lights.
I expected to feel depressed. But when you see this fresh paint, it doesnt show the harsh 18 years Mandela spent here. Its as if none of it ever happened, the West Indian-born accountant says.
Eugene Mokgoari, the guide, who spent seven years in the prison on terror charges, shakes his head.
The walls used to be grimy, bearing the stains of the body rub the prisoners were tortured with. There was graffiti all over they expressed the inmates despair and loneliness. Thats all gone.
Its a whitewash, someone among the crowd of tourists says. Eugene turns round, his voice taking on a mocking tone. Oh no, they call it conservation.
But he has a job at hand to tell you how life was in the prison and he does it dutifully.
He leads you through the enclosure where inmates, depending on their category, were allowed to occasionally meet visitors under very strict conditions. He walks past the censors office where all mail was read, and guides you to the typical dormitory with a row of double beds.
The water was very salty in the bathroom, he recalls. The doors were locked around 3.30pm. On Saturdays, supper was served as early as 2pm so the white male warders could have a game of rugby.
He holds up the old daily diet chart. It classifies the prisoners solely on the basis of colour and race. There is one diet for coloured Asians and another for blacks, who get only a maize meal three times a day.
The Asians got slightly better food. And if you were a Bantu, you got coffee. But no jam, no syrup, no bread, Eugene says.
You Indian? he asks and goes on to speak of one Billy Nair, sentenced to 20 years for sabotage.
A woman stops him midway. I know I can never feel your pain. But I didnt expect to come to a building that resembles a done-up lodge, she says.
Later, asked her name and nationality, she politely declines to reveal them.
They have painted it like a hotel doesnt quite look like the Hilton but not like a jail either, Merna agrees.
Eugene shrugs but keeps his concluding speech, on the fight for human dignity in horrendous jail conditions, short.
His fellow guide, Llewellyn Damo, has an easier job. He has a splendid narrative on the history of Robben Island, a 25-minute cruise from Cape Town if the Atlantic is calm.
Damo describes how the Dutch first came there in the mid-1600s to grow food, and shows the tourists round landmarks, such as the stone quarry where Mandela and other prisoners worked under terrible conditions.