Robben Island 'silent disco' cancelled after social media backlash

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The Robben Island Museum.
The Robben Island Museum.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • A "silent disco" has been cancelled at Robben Island after a social media backlash.
  • The event was intended to be a fundraiser for ecological work needed at Robben Island.
  • Meanwhile, a Cape Town events organiser was fined for holding a rave on SANParks property over the weekend without a permit.

A "silent disco" event planned for Robben Island has been put on ice after it received widespread criticism on social media.

Robben Island Museum (RIM) said the event had been cancelled to "give sufficient time to engage all relevant stakeholders".

The silent disco had been an attempt to "reposition" the Robben Island Museum, said CEO Abigail Thulare.

In a social media post, the organisers, Silent Events, said they had been approached by Robben Island to hold a fundraising event. However, the announcement of the event was met with strong criticism.

In response to a tweet that has since been deleted, many said the event was disrespectful to the memory of political prisoners imprisoned on Robben Island.

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According to Silent Events, the silent disco was planned with the "provision that it would have no negative impact on the sensitive ecology of the island, be mindful of the respect the history of the island deserves, and that a large percentage of the profits would be gifted to its indigenous tree planting programme".

"This event was planned in good faith, with the aim of bringing people together and we thought that the initiative would be recognised with this intention.

"We have seen and heard much reaction to the contrary, and as so in agreement with RIM, have decided to cancel the event and apologise for any offence that the idea may have caused."

Matt Roberts, events organiser and owner of Silent Events SA, said that the company had cancelled the event as soon as they realised the depth of people’s feelings about it.

"We appreciate the vitalness of the struggle heritage and it’s importance," he said. 

"However, Silent Events SA expresses a different view about the silent disco being hosted on Robben Island and questions the backlash and criticism that the event received on platforms such as Twitter."

Roberts said the event was supposed to celebrate liberty, while remembering the sacrifices of political prisoners.

He added that it was a shame that the event had been cancelled, and that people on social medai had been caught in a "negative echo chamber" where they did not fully understand what a "silent disco" meant.

"It is a family show. People from two years old to 80 years old were expected to attend. I think people have a vision of drunk, vomiting teenagers but it is not that. It is a joyful event, not a crazy party or groove festival."

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Roberts said the event would have hosted 100 people, 2km away from the prison, and that attendees would stay within the space allocated for the event.

"I wonder if the political prisoner would like the idea of the event, the culturally diverse crowd who would be dancing in silence, and if they would find it quite funny. It is not in the spirit of freedom for which these political prisoners died to have people pushed or bullied on Twitter," he said.

“We would have raised tens of thousands of rands for the project. We understand the important heritage, but there is 500 years of history. The government needs a national asset which is making money and not losing or costing the country [like Robben Island]."

RIM held numerous events on the island, including corporate, cultural, and educational events, said Thulare.

"RIM constantly looks for opportunities to make the island more accessible to South Africans and those from far beyond our borders, and wishes to assure South Africans that this will be done in a manner that does not undermine its historical and heritage significance," she said.

RIM was "redeveloping its business model to ensure a more agile, responsive and relevant entity in a post-Covid society". However, "repurposing infrastructure must not and will not be done in a way that detracts from the museum’s core mandate" or in a way that "disrespects the legacy of those who gave their lives for South Africa’s liberation struggle".

"It is worth mentioning that Robben Island has a multi-layered history that goes way beyond its status as a place of incarceration for South Africa’s political prisoners. This multi-layered history includes the fact that it was once a leper colony, which separated inhabitants by gender. This gender separation notwithstanding, lovers found their way to each other, with even a few babies born on the island," said Thulare.

"We want to assure South Africans and all our stakeholders, with all the exciting times that lie ahead in terms of repositioning RIM, meaningful stakeholder engagement will be central to this journey."

Meanwhile, a Cape Town event organiser has been fined by SANParks for holding an event over the weekend without the necessary permission.

Events company Kindred CT was fined thousands of rands by SANParks for hosting a rave on its land without a permit, according to organiser Matthew Loots.

The event, which took place in historical ruins near Chapman’s Peak in Hout Bay, saw 300 people attending a rave at the ruins of the East Fort.

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Loots said the company was unable to contact SANParks in time to obtain a permit. There had also been a spike in attendance, as the company had originally planned for 100 to 150 people to attend the event, he said.

"Kindred CT is an event that is trying to grow organically by building a community with a positive love for music," Loots said, adding that the company would continue to consult with SANParks in the future to ensure compliance with regulations.

He said they always tried to pick iconic spots such as the one in Hout Bay. "We want to celebrate the beauty of the bay and show off its splendour." 

When asked about potential damage to the ruins located in such places, Loots said they always cleaned up before and after setting up equipment. He added that they came back in the morning to check whether any equipment or waste had been left behind.

SANParks spokesperson Lauren Howard-Clayton said they did not grant permits for events within the East Fort section of the park, as it was a "historical site with significant heritage and environmental value".


She said rangers had escorted the crowd from the area, and had issued a fine of R9 000 to the organiser, "in line with the National Environmental Management Act of 2008".

"SANParks does not condone illegal events of this nature and appeals to event organisers to follow the correct film and events permitting channels."

Howard-Clayton added that there had been a fire risk, as a generator was being used with no fire extinguisher and no drip tray.

The size of the gathering had also posed a safety risk, she said.

"With an event of this nature, [they need an] emergency medical plan, which they did not have or submit to us through our permitting office.

"They were in the dark with alcohol. If anything [had] happened to anyone, we would not have known that there was an event to begin with, and getting help to them would've been a struggle."

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