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A Tale of Two Prisons: NI & SA

Stacked sections of the old Robben Island fence. (Photos: David Harrison, M&G) - Call it Apartheid porn

The Maze & Robben Island

The ‘Maze Prison’ stands neglected, deteriorating and splits public opinion over its meaning and the best way to tackle it, whilst Robben Island has been adopted by UNESCO, well maintained and has become a successful tourist destination promoting the “triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism” (UNESCO, 2009). Interestingly, the local communities associated with both these sites still appear deeply divided.

The Maze Prison, Lisburn near Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK, and Robben Island Prison, four miles of the coast of Cape town, South Africa. These sites offer a valuable comparative study, analysing to what extent if any, do memories around each of these sites with perceived histories of violence have impact on the social or political relations in the urban space where they are located.

One could argue they share the same genetics. The ‘H-Block Prison’ or Long Kesh / Maze, a prison for paramilitaries near Belfast, Northern Ireland until 2000, which is a partially demolished and heavily contentious reminder of an ethno-nationalist conflict otherwise known as ‘the troubles’. And Robben Island, a maximum-security prison for political prisoners in South Africa until 1994 which is a remainder and reminder of the struggle against the system of institutionalised racial segregation established in 1948 by the National Party, known as Apartheid


The Maze

The Maze prison (fig:1) is a remainder and reminder of the Northern Ireland conflict, one of the longest running post World War II conflicts, otherwise known as ‘the Troubles’. The conflict involved many armed and political actors and was primarily an insurgency against the state by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) with an objective to promote a country united and independent from the United Kingdom. In opposition to the IRA were the British army, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and the UDR (Ulster Defence regiment). During the conflict the British converted a redundant Royal Air Force base called Long Kesh into a prison, which opened in 1971 to house the growing number of paramilitary prisoners. It was an early example of a ‘modern conflict’ that started in the 1960s and continued until the signing and ratification of the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement 1998[1] which has given rise to the current peace accord (McAtackney 2014, p10), an agreement which is still in place. However, the community still appears deeply divided when you consider that, “93% of children in Northern Ireland, they go to predominantly segregated schools and live in predominantly segregated communities” (Easton, 2019).

The prison site consisted of a reinforced concrete perimeter wall with corrugated iron cladding, steel framed guard towers which overlook a predominantly single-story prison infrastructure of Nissen huts and brick-built administration buildings which serviced eight ‘H’ Block prison buildings, a hospital and a number of chapels. It was according to experts “a unique example of late 20th century emergency prison design. The compound prison displays the organic development of a temporary internment camp, reminiscent of WWII POW camps around the UK” (Flynn, 2011).

The prison became known locally as the ‘H Blocks’ and housed many thousands of paramilitary prisoners[2], and the site where new techniques known as “deep interrogation” were applied marking the beginning of what many called ‘The Dirty War” phase of the troubles, as many Maze prisoners underwent, “Sensory deprivation,” wherein the brain is deprived of the constant supply of oxygen and sugar it needs to function; the “bread-and water diet” to weaken physically; being “hooded” to confuse the senses; being deprived of sleep to tire the brain and body, and to lessen physical resistance to interrogation; and such apparatus known as the “Wind Machine” and the “Music Room” (Feldman 1991) (Dwiggins, 2016). Therefore, the site became a familiar visual backdrop used in the media when presenting many of the conflict’s political narratives and an array of public disputes regarding the inmates’ political status, the notorious ‘hunger strikes’ of the 1980s, the biggest prison escape in British history, brutal sectarian killings and later for the role it played in the facilitation of peace treaties in the 1990s. It became widely understood to be one of the principal iconic sites of the Troubles (McAtackney 2014, 10).

Since the Troubles officially ended in 1998, the site’s presence has been a ‘bone of contention’ within the surrounding communities which appear still alienated and at odds over the past. A division signified by the growing presence of “physical barriers between the Protestant/Loyalist community and the Catholic/Nationalist community in certain areas in Northern Ireland” (, 2019) otherwise known as ‘Peace Walls’[3], which McAtackney suggests “demonstrate a reality that society at grass-roots level is not blindly following the rhetoric of political leadership towards forgetting the past and moving forward together” (McAtackney 2014, 4).

More recently, the neglected site has appeared vulnerable from deliberate ruin and destruction, a “Creeping demolition by stealth” according to MacAtackney who goes on to explain that, “[m]ost of the physical infrastructure of the prison has been demolished in recent years. As of 2011 only a small section of the prison – the former administrative area, one H block, one Nissen hut, the prison hospital and one of the prison chapels remain standing. Visitors to the site currently find what is effectively a ‘brown field’ site, facilitated reversions to wilderness, and even remnants of the foundations of previous cell blocks and Nissen huts have been mechanically extracted from the ground” (McAtackney 2014, 5). This is a process that according to some, “aims to render people without a built central record. The built record of a people acts as an evidence of their history, as nourishment for their evolving identities, and as containers of their memories” (Akawi and Kolowratnik, 2013). For Belfast Telegraph journalist Liam Clarke, the destruction reflects the political complexities and social awkwardness of sites that are imbued with memories of violence and suggests that, “[t]he mass disposal of sites so intrinsically linked to the conflict, without any significant or public engagement, follows a discernible trajectory of post-Troubles political culture that steers towards an official forgetting of the past rather than attempting to uncover and engage with painful truths and accepting responsibilities” (Clarke 1987, 2). A set of processes which for many constitutes a clandestine process of creating a “deliberately neutral or forgetful landscape ……in an effort to attract financial investment and tourism” (McDowell and Braniff 2014, 1)

The deteriorating site remained disused, a remnant of the past conflict until 2005 when “Minister Ian Pearson approved a plan to build a new £55m sports stadium” at the location (BBC News, 2016). This was later rejected by the Sports Minister Gregory Campbell in 2009. However, in those three years a controversial practice of demolition had been established. McAtackney suggested that the prison site suffered from, “swift attempts to eradicate the physical remains of the Troubles, often coupled with the dubious justification that demolition signalled a material progress towards a peaceful, post-conflict state” (McAtackney 2014, 4).

In 2010, a new proposal was submitted, and legislation was passed. This time the site was to be redeveloped as a Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation (MLKDC) project, “[i]n summary, the corporation’s vision was to see the 347acre site transformed into a landmark development of local, regional and international significance, delivering unprecedented social and economic value whilst providing a platform for prosperity for future generations and creating an exemplar model for societies emerging from conflict” (, 2016), to be initiated by 2013. A “£300 million redevelopment of the whole site which included a showground designed by architects Studio Egret West”. A redevelopment featuring an £18 million European Union (EU) co-funded project, a structure called ‘[t]he Peace building and Conflict Resolution Centre’ (PbCRC) (Hopkirk, 2013). A redevelopment initiative called for by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, himself a former leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). The PbCRC’s building’s design was proposed by internationally famous architect Daniel Libeskind, noted for projects such as the 9/11 Ground Zero memorial in New York and the Jewish Museum in Berlin (Devenport, 2012). It was a design proposal which some felt was a formulaic standard approach to conflict related, redevelopment architecture. In an opinion piece for The Architects’ Journal, deputy editor Rory Olcayto was quoted as saying, “Now that Libeskind has become the go-to architect for clients seeking buildings that commemorate tragic events, there is a sense he believes all conflicts are much the same” (Peck, 2013).

However, the EU funding programme and its offer of financial support was withdrawn. Despite the loss of EU support the redevelopment project continued to evolve. Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness explained the plans for the Peace Centre as a "shrine to peace", a tourist attraction akin to Robben Island and a base to help resolve other intractable conflicts (, 2016). It was a project which others argue, “could render the Maze/Long Kesh redevelopment a public liability for Northern Ireland rather than a peace-building public asset” (Flynn, 2011). For many in the local communities, the project, a ‘shrine to the IRA’ has been poorly conceived and gives little consideration for local social and political concerns. “Widows of RUC officers murdered by the IRA called for the project to be halted over fears the peace centre could “glorify” their husbands’ killers” (Hopkirk, 2013) whilst the “The Ulster Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice, alongside UKIP, have launched a Northern-Ireland-wide petition opposing the centre, which they claim Sinn Féin will turn into an "IRA shrine" (McDonald, 2013).

The plans to redevelop the site and to build a Peace Centre eventually stalled and the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society was given permission to purchase the site and implement a 25 year plan to redevelop the site to become an events space hosting events such as the “Belfast Championship Dog Show and NI Leisure Show, while new international events including the World Tattoo Festival and the European Indoor Archery Championships are also confirmed at the venue for 2019 and 2020” (McKeown, 2018).

Despite the plans for the site the communities surrounding it appear to remain divided and troubled by the past narratives of violence associated with the prison and the conflict, “[n]ever far beneath the surface of day to day life, the undercurrent of Northern Ireland’s troubled past remains strong” (Capener, 2017). It is a complex relationship that appears to have found expression through various forms of narration including a number of high profile films such as Steve McQueen’ film ‘Hunger’ in 2008, about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (The Guardian, 2008) and the ‘Maze’ in 2017 by Stephen Burke, a film about the prison breakout in 1983 by 38 IRA prisoners, making it the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II (Roy, 2017), and also academic articles, radio, television documentaries and the arts. Recently in 2018 it was the focus of a project called “Dispersed Presence: Transforming Long Kesh/Maze” exploring the future of the site by artists Martin Krenn and Aisling O’Beirn as part of TRACES[4] a three-year project funded in 2016 by the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme[5].


[2] Over its thirty years lifespan the Maze Prison held approximately 1700 inmates at a time

[3] For further information on peace walls please refer to the Northern Ireland Foundation

[4] TRACES, is a programme that investigates the challenges and opportunities raised when transmitting complex pasts and the role of difficult heritage in contemporary Europe website

[5]For the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme please refer to:


Robben Island

Like the Maze, the prison on Robben Island in South Africa (Fig 2) was a maximum-security prison for political prisoners of a modern conflict. It is a remainder and reminder of the struggle against the system of institutionalised racial segregation established in 1948 by the National Party, known as Apartheid. A system that, “divided the population by alleged racial groups: Africans, Coloureds, Whites and Asians” (Clark and Worger, 2013). Apartheid was an official consolidation of legislative racial practices that were widespread in the country since the Union of South Africa in 1910 (Deegan, 2008) and characterised by, “an authoritarian culture based on ‘baasskap’ or white supremacy” (Mayne, 1999). A culture that passed divisive legislation that included laws that prohibited mixed marriages or sexual relationships across racial lines and classified all South African nationals into the four racial groups, “based on appearance, known ancestors, socioeconomic status and cultural lifestyle” (Caliendo and McIlwain, 2011). These classifications determined residency and resettlement and underpinne criteria for public segregation, on public transport and in areas of leisure and recreation. All aspects of political, social and cultural life in South Africa were governed in accordance to these racial classifications.

During the period of Apartheid, to enforce these laws, “South Africa essentially acted as a police state, any opposition was quickly supressed” (Clark & Worger, 2004). Those that did oppose the state and its legislation were brutally disciplined, whilst some of the more prominent members[1] of the opposition were incarcerated in institutions like Robben Island, a site that became an internationally recognised symbol of the struggle against Apartheid and a facet of its memorialization.

With the end of Apartheid, the island ceased its historic career as a place for imprisonment, the maximum-security part of the prison for political prisoners closed in 1991 and the medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed five years later.

Unlike the Maze, Robben Island’s prison buildings have been kept in their original state, maintained, adopted by UNESCO and the South African government, rebranded and represented as, “Robben Island – from incarceration to liberation. From the punishment of the body to the freedom of the spirit” a site quintessentially understood as a symbol to the successes of transitional justice and “an icon of the universality of human rights, hope, peace and reconciliation” (USECO, 1999). The site has become a museum and one of South Africa’s most popular tourist destinations. It is managed by Robben Island Museum (RIM), which operates the site as a living museum. Since 1999 and the declaration of the island’s status as a World Heritage Site thousands of visitors have taken the ferry from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town for tours of the island and its former prison buildings. Many of the guides are former prisoners. All land of the island is owned by the stae of South Africa except for the island church. Perhaps, part of the difference in fortune between the sites and certainly a reason for its listing by UNESCO, is the fact that Robben Island has a long history of being used for incarceration by a variety of nation states. For example, after a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, the fifth of the Xhosa Wars, the British colonial government sentenced many combatants and African leader Makanda Nxele to life imprisonment on the island and the Dutch used it as a prisoner of war camp in the 1600s. And whenever, the island wasn’t being used to detain prisoners, it was “a colony for lepers, paupers, the mentally unfit and the chronically ill, an animal quarantine facility and whaling Station” (South African History Online, 2017).

Robben island and its history has featured in many documentaries and films about the prisoners of Apartheid, such as the documentary Voices from Robben Island in 1994, which looks at the Islands history through the eyes of the people once imprisoned there. And also the Hollywood film Mandela: Long walk to freedom in 2013. Like the Maze, Robben Island’s prison continues to play a part in the memorialization that represents their respective conflicts. And despite the differences surrounding the use of the sites physically, both sites have been the focus of various political and social expressions of memorialization. Expressions that have recognised the memory of imprisonment through the music from bands like ‘The Robben Island Singers’[2], and social media and the arts. Travelling exhibitions showing artwork by Nelson Mandela and other inmates, and even the materials used to enforce their imprisonment have made their way to the galleries in the form of what Thamm calls “Aparteid Porn”. Artwork by Chris Swift[3] made up of the “fence that once surrounded D Block Maximum Security Prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated for much of their lives, would have ended up in a landfill where it would have rusted into oblivion” (Thamm, 2014) It is an interesting use of the sites’ material to develop an artistic narrative , all the more so, when one considers, that is exactly where a lot of the Maze prison buildings and fences have reportedly ended up, in landfill.

[endif]--The Robben Island case is particularly interesting as, like the Maze prison, it is a representative of a past conflict and yet the communities that surround it still seem deeply divided. The South Africa Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) reported in 2018 that, “South Africa is the most unequal country in the world - with 64% of black South Africans, 41% of coloured people, 6% of Indian people and 1% of white people living in poverty” (Modise, 2019). The country’s capital according to Henri and Grunebaum from the Direct Action for Peace and Memory in 2005, “is a city that remains at war with itself. It is a war that exists through the silences and in the cracks that allow complete histories and realities to slip through. At the same time this city is called the success of Europe in Africa. It is a city that lives the violence and genocide that has been its history through Apartheid dating back to Dutch and British settlement three hundred and fifty years ago. Cape Town is a city that continues to be shredded by the complexities of division and violence” (Grunebaum and Henri, 2005). In 2019 The Guardian published an online news article called ‘Divided Cities: South Africa's Apartheid legacy photographed by drone’ (Fig 3) featuring aerial photography of Cape Town showing a city divided and reporting that “[d]uring apartheid, segregation of urban spaces was instituted as policy,’ …. ‘Roads, rivers, buffer zones of empty land and other barriers were constructed to keep people separate. Twenty-two years after the fall of Apartheid many of these barriers, and the inequalities they have engendered, still exist” (Miller 2019).

Fig 3, Manenberg, Phola Park, Cape Town. by J.Miller 2019

[1] The most famous political prisoners that spent time on Robben Island included Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary that after 18 years’ incarceration became president of South Africa 1994-99, Jacob Zuma president of South Africa 2009-18, ANC activist Walter Sisulu and leader of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress Govan Mbeki. For further information please refer to the link

[2] The singers explain that “The Robben Island Singers film and performance project evolves out of a CD called Prison Songs, Cell Stories that Spitz found in 2000 at the gift shop of the former prison island, now South Africa’s most popular heritage museum” (SHEZ, 2019).

[3] Please refer to the article: Robben Island fence art: Apartheid porn, political kitsch or salvaging history?


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