Just 13 days before Nelson Mandela died, I was in Cape Town and I visited the Robben Island museum. This was the island where Mandela was imprisoned from 1964 to 1982 – 18 years of the 27 he spent in captivity.
It’s an incredible place and it requires an investment in time to see it. You can’t just step in front and take a quick photo for mates then move on to the next tourist destination. You need to take a boat trip from Cape Town for about half an hour, then a bus ride across the island to the prison itself, then a guide takes you on a tour around the prison. Then after you see the prison you need to get back again…
It’s fairly relaxed and you get plenty of time to do your own thing and take photos, but when the guides are speaking just about everyone does pay attention because the guides at Robben Island are all former political prisoners. The guide I was with this time described his own experience of a bungled ANC bombing raid during the armed struggle and some big white cops who arrested him – he ended up in Robben Island after his first attempt at violence against the state.
During one part of the tour, the guide was telling us about the football pitch and other facilities in the prison. We were in a group of about 20 tourists standing near the main wall of the prison all intently listening to him give us his own memories of being a prisoner there.
But at the back of the group one girl was chatting to a mate on her phone. It was some inane chat about a night out they had recently shared. Suddenly the guide stopped talking and just looked at the floor. Then he looked up and towards the girl at the back of the group. Then back at the floor again. He said nothing.
Eventually everyone in the group had turned and was looking at her. She hung up quickly, but failed to seem embarrassed and didn’t apologise. She was a black African girl – not that it really matters, but it felt even worse that she was a neighbour of the South Africans and possibly even a South African herself – I never actually asked where she was from.
The guide carried on, prefacing the continuation of his talk with ‘no phones here please.’
We live in a connected society and social rules are constantly changing. Some argue that the young are redefining how we communicate and when and where it is acceptable to use technology such as phones, but age is no excuse. When a political prisoner is telling you about his own life in prison, history is so much more real than reading about it in a book.
I saw someone posted a selfie recently of their visit to Auschwitz – the photo being a grinning self-portrait inside one of the gas chambers. Is this where we are heading to or is this just the digital version of rude behaviour that has always existed – you tell me?