Robben Island, South Africa in Nadine Gordimer’s “Amnesty”

Robben Island Prison. PHOTO CREDIT: Harvey Barrison. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Nadine Gordimer, the first South African writer to win Nobel Prize in literature, died peacefully in her sleep on Sunday, July 13, 2014.  Read her obituary in the Guardian.

“He said, That’s what I’m on the Island for, far away from you, I’m here so one day our people will have the things they need — land, food, the end of ignorance. There was something else — I could just read the word “power” — the prison had blacked out. All his letters were not just mine; the prison officer read them before I could.”1

Nadine Gordimer’s short story “Amnesty” examines the struggle of black South Africans to challenge apartheid. The story focuses mostly on the imprisonment and eventual release of an African worker who leaves a farm to earn money in the city.  While there, he is arrested for supporting the union and placed in Robben Prison for being a dissident. However, the plainspoken voice of story’s narrator, the woman who would have married the worker, captures another dimension to the struggle.  Against the backdrop of the social inequities that Gordimer so gently but clearly presents, we are given the story of a young woman whose humble ambitions are thwarted by those inequities and her lover’s innate need to confront them.

Robben Island is never specifically described in the story.  The narrator and the worker’s parents travel to Cape Town but are turned away for not having a permit when attempting to board the ferry to the prison.  Instead “the Island” comes to represent the sacrifices made by the worker and felt by the narrator.  The Dutch, taking advantage of its isolated location more than four miles off the coast of Cape Town, began using Robben Island as a prison in the late 17th century.  In the latter half of 19th century the island was also used as leper colony, but its role as a prison for political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, from 1961 into the 1990s is the reason for its inclusion in Gordimer’s “Amnesty.”

Take a virtual tour of Robben Island and read more about its history on Wikipedia. Find out more about “Amnesty” in Jump and Other Stories and Nadine Gordimer on Amazon or at a local library.

1Gordimer, Nadine. “Amnesty.” Jump and Other Stories. New York: Macmillan, 1991. 251. Print.

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