Isle aisle: ‘For life’ on Robben Island ... a life of wedded bliss
Where darkness once reigned, all was light as 21 couples got hitched. We found out their stories
Robben Island last Thursday rang out with 21 “I do’s”, one “I definitely do”, a “yebo” and a rather nervous “I’ve been waiting for 12 years … and now I don’t know what to say”.
It was the 19th edition of the island’s Valentine’s Day mass wedding ceremony, where 12 couples got hitched.
While waiting at the Nelson Mandela Gateway to board the ferry to Robben Island, the 24 brides and grooms chatted, took selfies, smiled for the endless stream of press photographers and curious tourists, and patted their pockets to check their weddings rings were still there – and then immediately re-patted their pockets to make sure, and then another quick pat to triple check.
Chris Bischoff, who does PR for the Robben Island Museum, had been fretting that the Cape’s infamous southeaster, which had been whipping up skirts and blowing squirrels off branches for three days, might prevent the couples from going to the island. But the wind behaved and the sea was flat as the Sikhululekile ferry set sail to the island.
When Robben Island was turned into a maximum security prison to cage political prisoners in 1961, it ripped husbands away from their wives, but it couldn’t stop them from loving each other.
The love of Walter and Albertina Sisulu – one of the Struggle’s most famous couples – endured throughout the years when Sisulu was serving a life sentence on Robben Island. The couple never stopped writing letters to each other.
“Darling Walter … longing for you,” wrote Albertina, who described the two of them as being like two chickens, “one always walking behind the other”.
Valentine’s Day was filled with the spirit of the Sisulus as the couples waited outside the island’s Garrison Church to walk in a procession inside.
Some of the couples had opted for designer wedding dresses and suits, while others had chosen knickerbocker shorts.
There were a few in penguin suits, which seemed appropriate as the occasional curious penguin strutted by (penguins are in decline all over the continent, but are thriving on the island, according to Pascall Taruvinga, Robben Island Museum’s chief heritage officer).
Instead of security police officers, there were two marriage officers at the chapel in the former maximum security prison.
Under the watchful eye of home affairs minister Siyabonga Cwele, the marriage officers called up the couples to exchange vows and formalise their union.
There were more than a few lame Robben Island prison marriage puns (“there’s no escape now” and “that’s a life sentence”), but the morning was dominated by tears and slushy schmaltz as 11 brides and grooms and one bride and bride looked into each other’s eyes and declared their undying love – and made a lifelong commitment to each other.
This was the second time bride Busisiwe Reed, a 25-year-old barista, had been to Robben Island. She had come when she was in Grade 9 on a school tour, and when the opportunity presented itself to get married here she didn’t want to miss the ferry.
“Wow, this place is our history. We owe so much to the people who were in jail here. I’ve got goosebumps,” she said.
A short while later her goosebumps became goose boulders as her soon-to-be husband, 25-year-old Nkosinathi Nohesi, who works in a restaurant, told her: “I just want to be with you every minute … until the end of my life.”
And with a “sir, you may kiss your bride”, Nohesi swooped and embraced Reed as people clapped, ululated, whistled and cheered.
Eucliff Ramathuthu, 39, an ICT engineer, and Sandra Mashovhani had been to the island three years ago and decided it was the place they wanted to cement their 15-year relationship.
“It was once a place of despair; a place where bad things happened,” said Ramathuthu, “but now it’s transformed into a place of good. A place of hope.”
He wasn’t nervous about the wedding at the Robben Island chapel because everything was arranged.
“All we had to do was arrive, but I’m nervous about the traditional wedding I’m planning soon, where I am responsible for everything – the venue, food, music. This way you can get married in style … without any worries,” he said.
Couples need to apply to home affairs to get married on the island.
In addition to the ceremony, there’s a lunch, a tour of the island and getting to feel what it’s like to be an A-list celebrity for the day as a pack of paparazzi stalk you for photos and soundbites, and ask you: “So, why Robben Island?”
Rameez Khan had the perfect response to that question. He said he decided to tie the knot on the island because it was the only place in SA that wasn’t being load-shed. The island generates its own electricity, making it Eskom-proof. It was once a place of darkness, and now it’s a place of light.
Robben Island is also drought-proof because it desalinates its own water.
Standing outside the church and chainsmoking, 45-year-old Brendin “Spotty” Mitchell, also had a witty response to the “so, why Robben Island?” question. He said he and his bride Sarena Duckworth, 44, chose Robben Island because it was their only opportunity to get married “overseas”.
Rozeana Julius, 29, discovered the Robben Island wedding after typing “weirdest wedding venues” into Google.
“We were looking for something different, and this was different … and it was on Valentine’s Day; that made it extra special,” she said.
Rozeana and 38-year-old Marcia Jumat met when they both worked at McDonalds in 2009. They started dating four years ago, got engaged two years later, and on Thursday became one of only a handful of gay couples out of the 290 who have exchanged vows on Robben Island since the mass weddings were launched in 2000.
“Getting married on Robben Island is very symbolic,” said Julius. “If it weren’t for Nelson Mandela we wouldn’t have been allowed to be here together. Thank you, Madiba.”
Julius and Jumat have poignant sayings etched on their arms. Julius’s tattoo reads: “As long as I remember … you exist,” and Jumat’s one says: “Inhale the future, exhale the past.”
Robben Island is a reminder of SA’s past and the relentless brutality of apartheid.
It has also become a celebration of the country’s democracy and a tribute to the enormous courage of the people who lived, died and were jailed fighting for freedom. It is a living cultural, social and political museum, and was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1999.
It’s rich with symbolism, and for 46-year-old old Barry Cloete, the island is a symbol of second chances – and that’s why he wanted to get married on it.
He had been married for 12 years, but got divorced and vowed he would never get married again, but then a little over a year ago he met Ellen Visser, 52.
“We had an immediate connection,” he said. Meanwhile, Clive Poyt, 51, and 30-year-old Nombuso Dube, a couple from Durban, were ducking and diving from the television cameras. They hadn’t told their family and friends they were getting married, and didn’t want them to find out on the news.
Poyt, who is in the merchant navy, had been sent to Cape Town to work on a ship repair project and Dube came to visit him.
They had been planning to get married for a long time, and Poyt thought they should do it in Cape Town, so he went to the department of home affairs, but was told the next available opportunity was March 28.
“No good,” he said.
Dube was heading back to Durban and, although they have been together for 12 years, Poyt could no longer wait.
“Well,” the home affairs official said to him, “do you want to get married on Robben Island?”
“I do,” he responded, and then about 24 hours later, he said “I do” again – this time to become Dube’s spouse.
On Wednesday, the day before the wedding, Poyt surprised his fiancée with the news of their looming nuptials.
“I’m still shaking,” she said. “We should have got married 12 years ago,” said Poyt, “but I was busy sailing around the world. I decided it was time to drop the anchor.”
After the 12 marriage certificates were certified with the Robben Island “seal” of approval, the 12 couples went for lunch and the reporters boarded the Madiba 1 ferry to return to the Nelson Mandela Gateway.
The trip to the island had been flat and wind-free, but the wind had picked up and rocked the vessel through the choppy water, which seemed to throw up (sorry) a good metaphor for marriage. It can sometimes get rough, but if you focus on the horizon you will make it in one piece.