Robben Island at UWC

I would argue that most individuals describe Robben Island as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. This is a true statement; Madiba spent 18 years on “seal island.” Before departing Cape Town, I am certain that I will tour the island. After reading Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, I would be disappointed if I passed up the opportunity.

Where do you think that the majority of archives of the Robben Island Museum are housed? Most people would intuitively guess the museum itself. However, if this were correct, my blog post would be pointless. I was surprised (and impressed!) when I recently learned that the University of the Western Cape (UWC) houses a large and diverse collection of artifacts, documents, photographs, art, personal papers, and audio-visual materials from Robben Island.

To get from the Mayibuye Archives from my office on the third floor of the Student Centre, I navigate through the red-brick-covered Freedom Square, down a flight of steps, and then left. The exterior facade does not capture the power, emotion, and intensity of the archives. Visitors are greeted with two simple black and white signs that mirror the color of the campus cats that call the sunny space their home. The faculty, staff, and students clearly do not mind the cats. Two or three small wooden cat houses even sit perched in a small garden near the steps of the entrance.

I have been to the Mayibuye Archives on three occasions. My inaugural visit was for a meeting with student leaders who were planning an exhibition and event as part of Youth Day. In South Africa, Youth Day is a national holiday that celebrates the role that youth have played and continue to play in the fight for democracy and transformation. The students in the Advanced Leaders Programme joined me for my second trip to the archives. The experience that the archives provided was an ideal follow up to our tours at the District 6 Museum and the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. Today, I swung by for my third time to coordinate a Mandela Week event. In the spirit of Mandela and his fight to spread freedom and justice, we are hoping to create a space and an opportunity for the UWC campus community to become part of a global movement for change.

The Mayibuye Archives is neither huge nor modern. The space that is open to the public is not much larger than my 900-square-foot apartment in Bowling Green, Ohio. The powerful collection masks the dull grey carpet, inadequate lighting, and tape-covered creme-colored walls. Visitors first walk through a brief temporary exhibit (that currently highlights the youth movement during the apartheid era), and then through the permanent gallery that captures the oppressive apartheid system and social life during this era. The aims of the archives are to recover elements of South African history that were neglected in the past and to create a space for cultural expression that will aid in the nation’s transition to a democratic state.

I feel fortunate to be working at a campus that houses such a significant piece of South African history. And, as I will write about in a future post, I am thrilled to be working at a campus with a rich and dynamic history. My colleagues and I will try to make the most out of the Mayibuye Archives as we move forward with our planning for Mandela Week.

Enjoy the pictures below which hopefully provide you with a more vivid impression of the archives.

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