Inside the Apple Boxes — Stories from Robben Island

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In the 1990s, political prisoners streamed out of the notorious Robben Island jail. And in their arms they carried boxes filled with all their possessions from their time behind bars. These materials documented their stories from prison and the meetings and gatherings of some of the most well-known political activists of the time. Upon their release, many of the political prisoners decided to donate their stories to the Mayibuye Centre at the University of Western Cape. They came in carrying the cardboard boxes that detailed the years of their lives they had sacrificed to imprisonment on this island—and nearly all of them were apple boxes.

“Kromco, Golden Delicious, Heidedal, Stallion, Cape…always apples,” a newspaper article read. But these boxes were not filled with fruit.

Thousands of documents were collected and put together by the prisoners. Robben Island became affectionately known as the “university.” Despite the warders supervising the prison, the political prisoners there began to lecture in their respective areas of expertise and debated a wide range of topics, including literature, philosophy and political theory. This “Robben Island University” became a breeding ground for learning and offered the first higher-level education some of the prisoners there had ever gotten. From these apple boxes one can find the fruits of the labor of extraordinary men.

Among the Mayibuye Archives, one can also find a list of prisoners’ numbers and the dates of imprisonment—including that for “N. Mandela.” However, the list is by no means comprehensive. The majority of men incarcerated at Robben Island were never mentioned in the archives, and many were incarcerated elsewhere or not given the opportunities to comprise such materials in their own incarceration. This is revealed in the gaps in numbering in the lists of political prisoners. A digital list of these prisoners can also be found now on South Africa History Online.

At Robben Island, now a museum, the former political prisoners give the tours. Ntoza Talakumeni is one of them. Talakumeni was cell number 58/86. The “86” stands for 1986, which was the year he was first imprisoned. He was sentenced to serve 14 years but only served four, being released in 1990 with the majority of the prisoners.


South Africa Photo Gallery Summer 2016

District 6

We took a trip to the District 6 museum, the notorious inner-city district that had been segregated during the apartheid, with more than 60,000 people forcibly removed and their homes bulldozed to rubble. Our tour guide, Joe Schaffer, grew up in District 6 but was forced to leave because his race was labeled as colored. Schaffer described how the people were classified during that time: “Only ‘white person’ had the word ‘person.’ It was psychological mind games—if you’re not white, you’re not a person.”

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Nomaliso Pakashe

One of the first places we visited was the Enfundiswa Preschool in the suburb of Nomzamo in the Strand township. The preschool, and its award-winning garden, is run by Nomaliso Pakashe. The inside walls of the school are decorated with kids’ drawings, and the kids’ faces brighten when Pakashe is around.

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Professor Herman also took us to the Kayamandi township. Herman described the township as made up of predominantly squatter communities, living in shacks, with a very high population density and extreme poverty. The primarily Xhosa-speaking people originally came from the eastern cape, he explained, and migrated to Stellenbosch looking for work. In the middle of the township is an Anglican church with a big, yellow cross.

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University of Western Cape campus

The University of Western Cape houses the Mayibuye Archives, which contained the purpose of our trip and served as our home away from home for three weeks. The campus itself is home to roughly 15,000 students, located in the Bellville suburb of Cape Town.

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