The silence was pregnant with reverence and the fear of being confronted with the violent, brutal and racist apartheid era palpable.
There was also the discreet shedding of a tear or two as Channel O Prize winners and media personalities from across the continent joined a group of predominantly white tourists on a Robben Island Museum SA Tourism sponsored excursion recently.
Although there were no Muslims to pay homage to the first landmark we were introduced to, the Kramat, a sacred site built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu, an Imam( priest) who died there in 1754, the mood had already switched from the exuberance of exploring the captivating CapeTown Sceneries such as the spectacular views on Table mountain, to sombre, right from the start.
The tour guide,Sipho Msomi a former prisoner himself however did a great job in depicting the Island which was once nothing but a place of hardship, suffering and death as an emblem of pride in the strength of the human spirit.
This was despite the heart wrenching story of how Robert Sobukwe the Pan-Africanist Congress President, who was arrested after the Sharpeville anti-pass campaign of 1960 and detained on the Island for six years in solitary confinement until he apparently lost the use of his vocal cords because he had no one to speak to. Sobukwe later died in house arrest, we were told.
Renowned South African statesmen mostly from the African National Congress(ANC) such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Gavin Mbeki who occupied neighbouring prison cells for two decades seemed to have left their indomitable spirits lingering on, both to humble and to inspire the tourists.
But with less than three weeks to go before the ANC holds its elective conference in Mangaung, listening to Msomi tell the story of how prisoners in large cells (President Jacob Zuma served in one of those for 10 years) used to eat fruit obtained by a few through a doctor’s prescription in turns until each prisoner has had a fruit a month begged the question; what went wrong with the ANC?
What exactly killed that spirit of comradeship that overcame unimaginable brutality, oppression and hardship is a question that sprang to mind in the midst of disturbing headlines in the South African media such as ‘Nkandlagate deepens,’ “Zuma feels the heat as Mangaung nears” “ANC branches revolt” and a lot more that depict the sad state of the party whose Liberation Struggle Movement image has been gnawed at by by jostling and fighting for positions, corruption scandals and failed leadership in the past few years.
Msomi, himself a staunch ANC supporter answers that question candidly but with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
“Money is the root of all evil.” he says.”They are fighting for the power to award themselves big tenders. Back then there were no tenders and no money involved. My prayer for the party at this stage is that there will be no fist fights at Mangaung because it seems very possible that the comrades might stoop to that level.” He says at the end of the tour.
At this point I was reminded of how our erstwhile tour guide, Snowy Materra had described the economic set up of South Africa on our way to Hartebeestpoort in the magnificent Magalisberg Mountains from Sandton. She had called it: “Irish Coffee Glass. Black at the bottom, White in the middle with a sprinkle of dark chocolate on top”
Aboard the SiKhululekhile boat back to the comfort of the Table bay Hotel in Waterfront, there wasn’t much chatting and I wondered whether everyone was pondering as I was on George Orwell’s famous allegorical Novel which chronicles how wickedness and greed corrupts the revolution and agonised on why every African state that seems to have potential to truly liberate its people both politically and economically seem to eventually deteriorate into the Animal farm fracas.
I also couldn’t resist to think on whether Zuma who looks favoured to win in Mangaung will actually retain his position and much more importantly if both Mr. President and his party will survive the Auditor General investigations into the alleged corruption surrounding the use of the taxpayers’ money to build his homestead and even if they did, will they win the 2014 general elections?
And if they did win, which is pretty much likely, what would it mean for those at the bottom of that ‘Irish Coffee glass’ and for Africa’s image in general?