Robben Island welcomes the world

2015-04-26 18:00

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Struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada is the face of a new Robben Island virtual tour launched on the historic island last week.

This was somewhat ironic as the 85-year-old admits to being technologically illiterate and barely able to operate an ATM. After all, he was imprisoned on the island at the dawn of the age of computers, and the technological revolution passed him by.

The virtual tour, a partnership between global internet giant Google and the Robben Island Museum, will use Google Street View technology paired with video, audio and archival photographs.

The video tour is overlaid with narration by Robben Island tour guide and former prisoner Vusumzi Mcongo.

The launch was an odd marriage of hipster flamboyance and South Africa’s raw past. The lunch served in the courtyard outside Section B and the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela was housed, consisted of pesto popcorn risotto balls and wors chakalaka salad served in tin cups.

This was the courtyard where Madiba, labelled a Bantu prisoner at the time, ate breakfast. He also gardened there and secretly began writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

On Wednesday, Kathrada prompted giggles from the assembled techies when recalling how a warder told him that a fax ordering their release had arrived.

His first thought was: “What is a fax?”

As chairperson of the Robben Island council, Kathrada is eager to promote the island’s legacy whenever he can.

Inside the avocado-green and cream dining hall adjoining Section B, Kathrada said: “When it came to food, being an Indian, I was given slightly more sugar than Madiba, but less than Denis Goldberg, who is white.”

Kathrada’s tour was full of emotion, beginning with the cold, rainy day they first landed on the island. He spoke tenderly of the island’s youngest inmate, 15 years old at the time. Dikgang Moseneke, who matriculated on the island, became deputy chief justice.

Kathrada recalled how inmates were not allowed to watch movies in which prisoners escaped. He laughed at how they one-upped the warders one evening by getting hold of and watching the 1963 US war epic The Great Escape.

Robben Island Museum CEO Sibongiseni Mkhize said he hoped the online tour would lead to more offline tourist visits.

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