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Here In Africa: An Island In Crisis

Robben Island, the key site in the history of the new South Africa, is facing a major crisis as Barbara Durlacher reveals.

Robben Island, that icon of the South African Black Struggle, lying six kilometres off the glittering Atlantic seaboard of Cape Town, is in a crisis.

Poor administration, lack of maintenance of the historic prison buildings, a cavalier disregard for the elementary concepts of bookkeeping, a serious lack of forward planning and other factors have put this historic site in a perilous situation.

Between February 2007 to March 2008, despite flourishing business and crowds of visitors, ticket sales were down by R4 million on the previous year. Inadequate ticket sales control systems and a lack of proper assets audits were cited as being one of the reasons for this fall in profits, and when the island’s acting chief executive and its council were requested to resign – in other words, fired - in May 2009, it was an indication of how serious the situation had become. And that’s only on the financial side.

Problems ranged from bungles over non-running ferry services to the cancellation of overseas visitors’ pre-booked tickets to the intense fury of the travel agents and the visitors. The tender for a new modern 300-seater ferry scheduled to enter service early in 2006 was also cancelled and nothing further was heard on this matter until late in 2007. Without a regular service, it became necessary to replace the old, disintegrating ferries with something else, so with no alternative the ageing boats used to carry prisoners to the island were used. Bad publicity and discontent ensued and many visitors felt that the lowest point had been reached. At last, and only after considerable pressure, the ferry service is back on track after the earlier bungles, with a hi-tech fast passenger boat capable of carrying 300 passengers making the trip. But the latest disgrace has been the culling of the thousands of rabbits and deer which have overrun the island and denuded it of all vegetation.

Named Robben, after the large numbers of robbe or seals which were found along its shores in earlier years, the island has a fascinating and chequered history stretching back many hundreds of years. In the days of the Dutch East India Company it served as a State leper colony; then as a prison for long-term offenders and again as a leper colony in the years before WW2. During the early part of the war it was heavily defended with a small Military and Naval base constantly on the alert for enemy submarines. Guns were placed around the island, and a company of highly trained gunners searched the sea for lurking enemy submarines waiting for the ships as they prepared to enter Cape Town harbour, a vital communications link with the Far East.

During all its history and up to the past decade and a half, the island was a beautiful place with the uninhabited areas thickly covered by fynbos, the indigenous Cape vegetation and wild flowers, but the inevitable increase in the civilian population over the years also brought an increase in feral cats. A very interesting article by Michael Klerk on growing on up Robben Island in the 1950s gives some idea of the charm of this unique place in the early days, (see Growing up on Robben Island www.robbenisland.org) but the situation has deteriorated markedly since then. Now wholesale culling (shooting) of the rabbits and removal of the few remaining deer to safer quarters has been necessary to save the island from complete devastation as there is not a blade of grass or a leaf for the animals to eat.

In the past few years the multiplication of the rabbits and their denudation of the vegetation has been accompanied with the network of their burrows which have undermined the foundations of the island buildings. This has made it essential to remove the rabbits as quickly as possible.

Without predators the feral cats proliferated and devastated the island’s population of wild birds, but this has been controlled thanks to a cat cull some years ago. Now it has become essential to remove the rabbits and the deer due to the complete lack of attention given by the island’s management to the devastation and the pitiful condition of the animals. The budget for feed is less than 10% of the official’s entertainment allowance – so there is no alternative to culling the rabbits and removing the few deer with any sort of life expectancy. The remaining animals will be shot.

As happens so often when the balance of nature is disturbed by man, the situation has got to the point where unless the damage these animals have created can be reversed, there is little chance that Robben Island, as the world’s most famous resident Nelson Mandela, once knew it, will return to its former natural beauty ever again.

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