Inside: Course Reviews
All day long the ferry to Robben Island had been completely booked, but I finally secured a seat on the last boat, leaving at four in the afternoon and not returning until after dark. By the time we sailed, this boat, too, had filled to capacity. Strangely enough, this forlorn little island some ten miles from central Cape Town has become one of the most visited places in South Africa.
Robben Island is of course the site of the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years of his life. The prison closed not long after his release, and today it is a public monument, where some of its former inmates serve as guides. My guide, a Mr. Muthe, explained that he had served four years of a twenty-five-year term before being released. When asked what he had done, he said, "I was fighting the evil of apartheid." When pressed, he spoke of possession of guns, land mines, hand grenades; he didn't choose to say that he had used them.
No one regrets making this trip, though you may find it hard to say quite what you learned from it. The prison is an ordinary prison, and Mandela's cell -- number five -- is a cell just like the ones next to it, like many cells. Fresh paint in ship's gray has doubtless spruced things up a bit.
It is painfully small (less than eight-by-ten feet) and empty except for the old galvanized-steel can in the corner, which the prisoner used as a toilet. A high window reveals a patch of sky. He endured -- that's the lesson. But you knew that already. To be here is perhaps not really to learn but to make a pilgrimage. The anonymous surroundings reveal nothing; they gain meaning only from your knowledge of who lived amid them. It is like seeing a piece of the true cross, or Jack Kennedy's golf clubs. But at one moment or another, the wonder of it strikes you: that you find yourself in a country that has undergone such a vast, peaceful change and can visit the former prison cell of its president. On the return trip to Cape Town, the lights of the city shine against a looming presence in the background -- the dark hulk of Table Mountain.
By day, Table Mountain is the city's prize, a massive piece of imbedded sandstone, its sheer face rising some thirty-five hundred feet above sea level, the top almost perfectly flat. Often a bank of clouds forms atop it (the "Table cloth"). A gaudy geology dominates Cape Town, not only Table Mountain but a dozen other summits as well -- the Twelve Apostles -- that stretch downward along the peninsula. (The range is primordial: 450 million years old, predating the separation of the continents.) The mountains confine settlement on the ocean side to a strip of foothills and flatland between the steep, barren slopes and the chilly south Atlantic, which rolls in to beautiful (though not very swimmable) beaches. If you drive all the way down this coast, you reach the tip of the Cape, the bottom of the continent, where people claim that in the right light you can see the line where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean.
In part because of its tenuous hold on the land, Cape Town, though almost 350 years old, still has about it the feeling of an outpost. A painting in the South African National Gallery called "Holiday Time in Cape Town in the Twentieth Century," by James Ford, depicts the city as it seemed to British eyes at the turn of this century: a little collection of Victorian buildings sporting the Union Jack, looking plucky but out of context in the wild landscape. Today's vastly more numerous buildings, in the modern international vernacular, achieve much the same unintended effect. The setting would challenge any architect; the Dutch settlers -- with their low, whitewashed stone houses -- got it about as right as anyone could.