The sight of the decaying Robben Island museum has surely made freedom fighters Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Walter Sisulu return to their graves.
Iconic parts of the museum – including the infamous Cell No.5, where Mandela (prisoner number 46664) served 18 of his 27 years in prison – are in a “saddening” state, according to a former prisoner.
“Madiba’s cell looks like a street urchin’s hiding place. The covers have been removed. This is when you see that something is wrong here because we are not taking care of something that belongs to our hearts. I get very emotional, ”he said.
“When we were prisoners, the fence was made of silver. Now it’s rusty. The floor of section E, where there was a large tree, was beautiful. This is where I was first detained when I arrived at Robben Island. Now the trees are not cut, ”he said.
The Association of Former Political Prisoners (EPPA) and the former political prisoner have accused current museum officials of seeing it collapse and destroying the legacy of the country’s freedom fighters.
“The prison itself is not what it used to be. It’s a slow death and, as a former prisoner there, I wonder what’s going on. This is very wrong. The deterioration began long before the Covid-19 [struck the country], to be honest. This has been going on for a very long time.
“They [the management team] are more interested in what they can earn from tourists than in the maintenance of the prison itself.
Other important parts of the prison that have been affected include the limestone quarry where Mandela, Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Harry Gwala and other political prisoners were forced to crush stones. While they were working, they met secretly.
EPPA National Secretary General Mpho Masemola said the limestone quarry is currently flooded and unsightly.
“I visited the stone quarry, which is decaying and full of water. Political prisoners were forced to work there to produce the rocks that built the Robben Island prison.
“For us, this is really part of our history and our heritage because we prisoners built the prison with our own hands and were imprisoned there for fighting for the liberation of this country. “
We call on Minister Nathi Mthethwa to urgently do the right thing and make public the Robben Island Museum report and the steps taken to address the concerns.
Reagen Allen of DA
Masemola alleged that the iconic Susan Kruger ferry – which carried prisoners and staff to the island during apartheid and was later used to transport tourists there – had also been overlooked. In 2017, there had already been calls to stop using the vessel, which was no longer considered seaworthy.
“[Below the deck of] this boat you will find a prison cell. They used to lock prisoners inside so that they couldn’t see what was outside. Today when you get to gate 1 of the museum you will see grass growing on the boat. It’s full of mice, it’s rotting and it’s about to sink. Nobody takes care of it. It’s like the story is deleted, ”added Masemola.
Former prisoners have expressed various concerns about the state of the museum and have written four letters to President Cyril Ramaphosa, asking him to intervene by placing the museum under new administration.
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Masemola alleged that the current management offered jobs to their friends and that the money disappeared into their own pockets, rather than being used to maintain the museum, which was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1999.
“There is a heritage manager at the museum and he is responsible for managing the tenders for maintenance. He hands them over to his friends, who don’t do the job. We’ve been complaining about him for a long time, but the CEO doesn’t want to dismiss him because they’re friends. So they are “friends for sale,” Masemola said.
“The people who should be hired at the Robben Island Museum are political prisoners because we know the importance of this place. But they have deliberately ignored us because they want to steal. They know that if we were there they couldn’t do it.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman Tyrone Seale said the president’s office had no record of communication from former political prisoners. He referred the questions to the office of Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
In 2018, ex-prisoners called on Mthethwa for an intervention. Mthethwa’s office ordered a forensic investigation into the situation at the museum, but ex-prisoners say they never received the final report.
“If the investigation report could be made public, you would understand what I’m talking about. The management of the museum is just eating money and has done nothing but bring misery to the whole situation.
“[The department] tells us they can’t release the report as it’s still ongoing and disciplinary action will be taken, but it’s taking too long now. How not to suspend the directors of the museum, when the report implied them? But they’re still there, ”Masemola said.
The DA joined calls for the publication of the investigation report.
Reagen Allen, chair of the Standing Committee on Community Safety, Cultural Affairs and Sport, said: There. It is important for the public to know what is going on at the museum. It contains a mountain of history and this lingering secret threatens its reputation.
Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s spokesperson Masechaba Khumalo said the museum was not neglected and the maintenance of the museum was carried out by the Ministry of Public Works and Infrastructure.
It’s quite disturbing that in a small place like Robben Island, the CEO earns R 2 million per year and the senior executives earn R 1.5 to R 1.8 million per year.
She said the minister released RIM’s report to the museum board.
“The Council is in possession of the report. It is the board that will respond to requests for publication of the report as commissioned by the board, ”she said.
She added: “The Council is implementing the recommendations of the report. A disciplinary procedure to this effect is in progress. Further information on the details and progress of the discipline can be obtained from the RIM Board.
Khumalo said the pay cuts that will be implemented in June will affect all employees.
“RIM management has indicated that if this decision is finally implemented, wage cuts will be applied at all levels … According to RIM management, all employees will be affected,” she said.
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Robben Island museum chairman Khensani Maluleke said the report could not yet be released for legal reasons.
“The report is one of confidential legal advice and conclusions prepared by lawyers. This is the object of the attorney-client privilege, which the museum board has been advised not to waive at this point. To waive this privilege and disclose the legal opinion would jeopardize the disciplinary process, the rights of potential witnesses and the rights of the employees concerned, ”she said, adding that a summary would be available in due course.
Employees on the island have also been warned of a 50% cut in their wages from June, following financial problems at the museum due to low numbers of visitors during Covid-19 restrictions.
The account that the buildings on the islands are in ruins is completely devoid of truth, as a maintenance plan is in place.
Affected employees have been given the option of taking early retirement or risking dismissal.
“It’s quite disturbing that in a small place like Robben Island the CEO earns R 2 million a year and senior executives earn R 1.5 to 1.8 million a year. What do they do? Now they say there must be pay cuts for other staff, but not for themselves. How can they exclude themselves when it should start with them? Masemola asked.
In a statement sent to City Press, museum spokesman Siphuxolo Mazwi said the losses he suffered due to the Covid-19 restrictions had forced him to downsize.
“The museum had to restructure its operations in order to be sustainable in the short term. The protracted Covid-19 attack has pushed the organization into financial crisis mode, and management is now considering various options to streamline operations, starting in June of this year, until there is a recovery normal activities at the museum, ”Mazwi said.
She rejected claims that the museum was currently in ruins.
“The account that the buildings on the islands are in ruins is completely devoid of truth because a maintenance plan is in place. Working with key stakeholders in heritage compliance, conservation and the built environment, the organization has developed its integrated environmental conservation manual, which guides projects on the island, ”said Mazwi.
She added that the museum had also reduced its opening days and hours and was now only open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends.