Virtual history

A Robben Island video game aims to teach young South Africans about apartheid

By David Smith  /  The Guardian, CAPE TOWN

Mon, Mar 18, 2013 - Page 12

For decades it was a bleak enigma at the southern tip of Africa, shrouded in such secrecy that the world was denied any photographs of its most famous inmate, Nelson Mandela. Now there are plans to take Robben Island to the world through a video game, a Web site and even a mobile reconstruction of the prison cell where the struggle hero languished for 18 of his 27 years behind bars.

The Mandela 27 project, launched Thursday at Cape Town’s gateway to Robben Island, also aims to draw on cultural links between South Africa and Europe during the racial apartheid era, such as the Rock against Racism campaign in Britain and Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert at Wembley Stadium, London.

The parallel demise of communism in eastern Europe and white minority rule in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s will be highlighted. “The fall of the Berlin wall didn’t seem to be related to the release of political prisoners in South Africa,” said Roger Friedman, a spokesman for the project, “but if you take a step back, the connections are very clear.”

The initiative comes 19 years after the end of apartheid and as a “born free” generation deals with 21st century concerns rather than looking back. Its loyalty to Mandela’s party of liberation, the African National Congress, is far from guaranteed.

Mandela’s spartan former cell currently attracts thousands of tourists to Robben Island, a UN world heritage site almost 10km off the mainland, but has been criticized in some quarters for a lack of curatorship. The replicas of the cell will be a low-budget affair made of plywood but will feature information panels and multimedia exhibits.

They were described as “DIY cells” by David Powell of Swedish education partner Elderberry. “They can be made by anyone with basic carpentry.”

The cells are likely to be displayed in schools, libraries and museums. Powell added: “The target audience is quite young: we’re talking about events before they were born. ‘What was apartheid?’ is a question we’ll have to answer.”

The video game is described as a “serious game” in the style of a graphic novel. Based on interviews with former prisoners, it is based around five recurring elements of life in the remote jail: prisoners were not allowed to see children; they craved physical activity including football; education was a key pursuit; communications were heavily censored so that messages had to be smuggled; hunger strikes were used to make existence bearable. It is being developed by South African students with help from the Serious Games Institute based at Coventry University’s technology park in the UK.

Jacqueline Cawston, programs director at the institute, stayed on Robben Island for three days during her research. “The story of the cultural events hasn’t been told,” she said. “The way that we’re telling it will be engaging to an audience that hasn’t read history books and weren’t alive at this time. The whole point of the project is to get the message out there.”

The (unrelated) Serious Games Institute, at North West University, in South Africa, is another partner. Its representative, Werner Ravysewerner, said the target audience was 16- to 25-year-olds. “Serious games work very well in engaging young people in learning.”

Mandela 27, partly-funded by the EU, will also feature a Web site with an interactive timeline that includes music, theatre and poetry as well as 3D visualisations of Mandela’s cell and other locations.

Robben Island spans 518 hectares and measures 3.57km from north to south. It was used as a prison from the mid-17th century, contains a graveyard for people who died from leprosy and is home to a substantial colony of African penguins.

Organizers hope it will boost the island’s image after recent years plagued by strikes, ferry breakdowns and complaints about tour guides of variable quality and a museum that has rested on its laurels since opening 16 years ago.

Sibongiseni Mkhize, chief executive of the museum, said Mandela had not been consulted about the project but said his foundation was aware of it.