Transcending prison as a metaphor of apartheid

Keyan Tomaselli, Maureen Eke, Patricia Davison

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


We examine film representations of prisons, with specific reference to the meaning of Robben Island in South African history. Topologically and symbolically, the Island represented the outer margin to which African resistance was banished. In liberation discourse, however, the Island was articulated into a symbol of defiance, a government‐in‐waiting, a temporarily inhabited territory. The central esthetic for black South African writing is the “tyranny of place”, as represented by the Island. Black writers must have place, as their expression depends on their commitment to territory. Two different conceptions of South African jails emerge from the intertext of pre‐1990 anti‐apartheid films and videos. One is of the totally brutalizing environment of police interrogation, as narrated in the reconstructed experiences of Steve Biko in Cry Freedom [1987]. These interrogations take place in police holding‐cells. The second conception of prisons is described in Robben Island. It was this location that permitted opportunities, intended or otherwise, for Mandela and his fellow inmates to continue their work ‘inside’. The difference is between arbitrary detention by Security Police, with no legal representation; and formal charges, often followed by imprisonment, but with legal representation (as heard about in Robben Island). This distinction is important when viewing Robben Island and other films which mention the role of prisons in enforcing apartheid. The paper examines the film, Robben Island, in terms of principles of visual anthropology, exploring not only the clandestine making of the film, but also the esthetic of the image and crew‐subject relations within the image. Music and audience reception are discussed briefly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-300
Number of pages16
JournalVisual Anthropology
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - Feb 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology


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