Robben Island fails to seize the day

Tools for maintenance
Restricted spend on maintenance by the Department of Public Works.

Robben Island maintenance

I’ve come to accept that South Africa as a multi-party democracy may be staring down the barrel of one-party statehood modelled on Cuba.

That thought did not grow out of the news that 24 Cuban engineers are arriving to solve our water and sewage treatment challenges. Nor was it based on the top-up of our medical fraternity some years back by a team of Cuban doctors and the arrival of more doctors from the island nation to provide much-needed help with our Covid campaign.

I even rejected the thought that our Department of Public Works (DPW) should beg our Cuban colleagues to dispatch a working party to patch up Robben Island. You may remember from recent reports that Robben Island needs more than a simple lick of paint. As it did some years back when negative reports about poor maintenance and funny ferries floated to the surface.

What filtered through my memory like the bubbles in a glass of aerated water was the assertion by political analyst Prince Mashele’s in an article published in biznews four years ago. That column is still doing the rounds of social media today.

He stated baldly that South Africa is returning to its roots as an African country.

‘In a typical African country, people have no illusions about the unity of morality and governance. People know that those who have power have it for themselves and their friends and families.

’The people who think we have come to the end of SA don’t realise that we have actually come to the beginning of a real African country, away from Western illusions of exceptionalism.’

To place the column in context, Mashele penned the piece when former president Zuma was jack booting his way over the moral slag-heaps he’d created in his single-minded quest to enrich himself.

Mashele’s assertions began to override my ‘Western’ perceptions. At last, the neglect of one of South Africa’s most venerated heritage sites began to make sense, sort of.  

Yes, we know that Robben Island is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.  The Department of Arts and Culture (now also responsible for sport, I note) lists the island as a national heritage site.

Those weighty classifications should ensure the maintenance of an international standard to safeguard the island’s rightful status as an international and national treasure. Certainly, the team of former prisoners who act as tour guides believe so. Free of mismanagement. And hopefully, so do the RIM board and team. Possibly with an exception or two?

I don’t think that too many people can argue that maintenance would never attract a winner from Africa were the activity to be among the Nobel Prize awards. Further afield, with a few exceptions, the buildings in the Cuban capital of Havana fail to attract the products of paint companies.

Some years back I spent many hours on the island writing articles on the activities being undertaken by the Robben Island Museum (RIM) executive as part of a rehabilitation strategy. The decrepit state of the island’s infrastructure had drawn a threat from UNESCO that Robben Island was in danger of losing international heritage site status.

That lit a fire both literally and figuratively under someone’s posterior. As a start on the aesthetics, swathes of weeds and long grass covering hectares of the Robben Island village were cut back. The historic cemetery and the rugby pitch could be seen for the first time in years. Two enormous dumps of building and non-recyclable materials left in place by the DPW were culled. The disposal process included a massive on-site fire controlled by Cape Town City’s fire department.

A start was made on a comprehensive environmental plan that included the placement of penguin A-frames at strategic points to provide shelter for breeding pairs that for years had populated the rugby stadium and surrounds. Safe sites were selected to ensure that penguins more focused on procreation than road safety were kept well away from the unforgiving wheels of tour buses.

Formal training of former island prisoners who act as tourist guides was launched and tourist information media was upgraded, as was the tourist shop at the island harbour.

A start was made on developing a concept for an environmentally friendly sewage plant to replace the sewage works that was pumping untreated milled effluent into the Atlantic Ocean. A brief was being prepared to reduce the island’s dependence on two heavy-weight diesel-powered generators used to produce electricity. Talk of solar power was mentioned.

All good news at the time.

In February this year, the thought trickled into my mind that an updated article was called for.

I read the Department of Arts and Culture’s 2019/20 annual report, the Department of Public Works annual report, browsed RIM’s website, made a few calls, chatted to the RIM media liaison folk and set the process of information gathering in motion. The squall on the horizon was an investigation into the awarding of a contract for a new Robben Island ferry costing R90 million, give or take a few million.

Then I hit a dead end. All went quiet.  Follow-up calls went unanswered.

A few days later the squall had developed into a force five gale. The RIM council chairperson said in March that a report covering the forensic investigation undertaken by MacRobert Attorneys into allegations of mismanagement would not be made public at present. The report would be released, according to an IOL article quoting the chairperson, ‘once the disciplinary process and or other legal proceedings were finalised’.

RIM is one of many institutions or businesses internationally relying heavily on income generated by tourism to fund its operations. Sixty-five per cent of RIM’s income is derived from tourism. Tourists finally began trickling across to the island in September last year. Funding from the central government is tight although RIM receives the second-highest grant from the government for a heritage organisation.

In my cloistered world, Robben Island is the crown jewel in South Africa’s heritage ensemble. Everything possible should be done to uplift the site, market its remarkable history, and develop its attractions. The crass should be banned forever. This is not a Disney World playground. But we might be slightly too late in some respects.

My bit of desk research earlier this year uncovered a call in a RIM media release issued on 1 October last year for partnership and programme support from potential investors for three unique RIM initiatives. The request was hidden away below paragraph 13 of the release that headlined the fact that the timeline for the investigation into malfeasance had been extended.

Financial constraints and limited research capacity motivated RIM to reach out to potential investors, the release said.

The three programmes are the ex-political prisoners – life history project, natural and built heritage conservation, and the memorialisation project.

The first-named project is self-explanatory. The conservation of natural and built environment refers to the ‘competing and overlapping conservation needs that require careful mapping and management that include the island being a world heritage site with a marine protected area, a cultural landscape, significant biodiversity of species, and also a major tourism destination. The memorialisation project is aimed at remembering and honouring the different groups of people who lived on the Island.

Perhaps investors will look with a modicum of sympathy at the tribulations of the Robben Island team. Do the projects open a creaking door to allow thoughts of public/private partnerships (PPPs) to step in? I’m not sure that’s the African way but we’ve had a number of PPP initiatives in South Africa in the past.

Perhaps the only person who could provide insight into the PPP possibility is the Robben Island Museum Council Chairperson Khensani Maluleke. If your interest is piqued, think of exploring this opportunity. Give Mr Maluleke a ring. He might even take your call.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. Brilliant and insightful piece. Your opening paragraphs and the statement from Prince Mashele are sobering, but oh-so-spot on.

  2. Thanks so much Niki.
    Candidly, I’m devastated that the cadres can’t keep their hands out of the till at what’s supposed to be South Africa’s heritage showpiece.
    I don’t enjoy the idea of the island being used as a wedding venue. Would that usage be allowed at Lilies Leaf in Rivonia? That venue needs the money.

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