Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island is so overwhelmingly the highlight for nearly all who make the choppy, 25-minute trip by ferry from Cape Town that tourists are now only permitted to stare through the bars. But a guide hands my friend Indres a chunky, medieval-looking key, we slip past a large official tour group in the grim courtyard outside and, reverently, we enter that claustrophobic, concrete shrine of modern pilgrimage, cell number five. It is bare, perhaps three paces across, with a folded grey blanket that served as a bed and a red bucket for a toilet. Mandela's apartheid-era jail cell, in fact, is like this infamous island itself: desolate, unforgiving, grey.
It is a few days after New Year and gaggles of tourists, fleeing the European winter, are milling around, slightly dazed, so it is a relief to be on a small private tour with Indres Naidoo, who as prisoner 885/63 was sentenced in 1963 to ten years for sabotage. Later, he wrote the classic account of prison life Island in Chains. As one of the early "politicals", Indres Naidoo also helped build his own jail on Robben Island.
He was caught trying to blow up a signal box near Johannesburg, so the race-obsessed warders used to call him "dynamite coolie". Today, on request, Indres will organise private tours. As a respected ex-prisoner, he can take us where he pleases. I'm with three visiting English friends and Indres soon has us in stitches. As a white South African, it still baffles me that someone who suffered beatings, torture and pitiless prison hardships for our present freedom could survive not simply without any apparent rancour, but remain unfailingly, engagingly upbeat.
"Look, you have to remember . . ." Indres begins many of his stories. For me, one of his anecdotes sums up, as we prepare to celebrate our tenth anniversary of democracy, many of the implausible contradictions that characterise present-day South Africa.
The apartheid agent who tried to assassinate Indres several times after he was released from prison rang and asked to meet him and five others whom he had tried to eliminate. The group included Jacob Zuma, now the country's deputy president. They met in a hotel and Henri van der Westhuizen, formerly of military intelligence, admitted that he had orchestrated the attempt to car-bomb Indres in Maputo, Mozambique in April 1988 which instead horribly mutilated his comrade Albie Sachs, now a constitutional court judge.
"He also told us about a time a hit squad had been off the coast of Mozambique but the mission was called off at the last minute," says Indres. "He kept contradicting himself and I think he was on a fishing expedition to find out how much we knew. He had applied for and was granted amnesty for blowing up Albie. But he referred to other murder attempts, with poison, snakes, scorpions, right up till 1994, our first election. He actually said to me: 'You are under a lucky star.' Yet he admitted they always got the wrong person. So the question is . . . who? What else has he got away with?"
Chuckling, Indres adds: "Finally, after admitting trying to kill me five or six times, van der Westhuizen hands me his card! He's a 'business consultant' . . ."
Though it is midsummer, it is an appropriately overcast day for our tour. When Helen Suzman, a lone critical voice in the apartheid parliament, was allowed to visit in 1965, she described the island as "heartbreaking. Grey, grey, grey." Indres remembers how he and other cellmates in C Section spied the stern lady MP through the bars and whistled in appreciation. "That was the first pair of female legs we'd seen in years!"
We drive off in a minivan, marked VIP, down the grey stone quay, pausing for a family of waddling penguins as Indres recalls that Hillary Clinton brought out her own luxury coach from Washington, DC when she visited, but while a helicopter was ferrying it the six miles from Cape Town the chain snapped. The coach still lies at the bottom of the shark-infested bay.
Robben Island has had a tormented history. During the 19th-century frontier wars, Xhosa chiefs were isolated here. Until 1933 it was also used as a dumping ground for the insane and lepers. Later, as Indres drives us round the island on bumpy gravel tracks, we see a poignant, derelict leper cemetery tucked away in a tangled clump of bush. Further on is the house where the Pan-Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe was interned, not allowed to speak to a soul, then the limestone quarry where ANC leaders such as Mandela toiled in the blinding sunlight, ruining their eyesight. Beyond that is a small village, with school, church, post office and clubhouse, for the white prison warders, and which today houses the Robben Island guides, mostly former political prisoners themselves.
The windswept island has an eerie, lost-world atmosphere. We spot springboks, large bontebok antelopes, ostri-ches, guinea fowl, tortoises and sacred ibises. In the centre, camouflaged among low scrubby trees, are huge Second World War gun emplacements, and the whole island is honeycombed with underground tunnels. When the last prisoners left in the early 1990s, some white business folk even wanted to turn the place into either a casino/luxury hotel complex or a theme park. Instead, today it is a World Heritage site, the prison preserved as a museum: a testimony to apartheid's evil.
"I've taken young Afrikaners round the island," says Indres Naidoo. "I think they found it incredibly liberating."
Clearly it remains his mission to share the story of the triumph of the Robben Island political prisoners. His friend and jail contemporary Jacob Zuma was virtually illiterate and spoke no English when he arrived on the island in 1964. "We taught him by writing in the sand," explains Indres. "After ten years he came out with flying colours, passing exams. It was a university for us all."
Some academics have been critical of the current emphasis on "the triumph of the human spirit", which plays down the brutality of the white warders, in the name of national reconciliation. But the political maturity and humanity of the prisoners also informed their attitude to their captors, in part explaining why those who suffered so grievously under white supremacists have emerged still so generous and forgiving.
The head warder Delport, for example, was a towering, red-faced sadist who beat the inmates ceaselessly, often until they were senseless. "He had the reputation of having killed many prisoners," recalls Indres. "We told him, 'Sergeant Delport, you'll stay a sergeant all your life!' In the end we influenced him to do his matric [school leaving certificate], helping him with maths and Afrikaans so he was promoted to lieutenant. By the time I left he'd transformed from a total brute into one of the most helpful warders."
Indres was brought up to take the long view by an intensely political family. His grandfather was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi in his early satyagraha (passive resistance) campaigns here. Some families brag of pedigrees; the Naidoos have a classy penal record. "My grandfather was imprisoned many times, as were both my parents, two sisters and two brothers, not to mention uncles and aunts," he explains. "Gandhi records at the turn of the 20th century there were 25 Naidoo family members in jail."
Such a political legacy possibly explains how a man can survive racial bigotry and barbarity with such equanimity. After South Africa's first democratic election in 1994, Indres served as a senator. He does not mention this once. He seems prouder of his role as secretary of the Robben Island Football Association. But he does not romanticise the grim prison life.
"There were assaults, torture, all the time," says Indres, who also suffered a shoulder wound from being shot when he was arrested. "There were things we simply refused to do, and so were beaten. We refused to call warders baas. We refused to do the tausa, too. Naked, you were expected to leap up, twisting round and clapping your hands above your head, then land with your backside exposed to the warder - so they could check if you were smuggling anything. The warders wouldn't listen if we spoke in English, demanding we speak Afrikaans. So we were constantly in trouble for being cheeky kaffirs and coolies.
"Once, I was charged with disobeying an order and sentenced to the whipping 'Mary' - a wooden frame with leather straps, to which you were tied, naked, with cushions strapped to your back and thighs, so the buttocks presented a clear target. There were about 30 warders there, and the one going to whip me announced, 'I'm going to make this coolie cry today.' It was like a knife cutting my backside, and Dr van den Bergen applied iodine to the slice in the skin. But the next two strokes partly hit the cushion and the warder became enraged. The fourth stroke cut in on the line of the first slash.
"They told me to put my pants on, but I knew I would faint, so I put them over my arm and walked slowly past all the warders, about one hundred yards to the cell, where I passed out."
Sometimes when I feel disenchanted - particularly with how apartheid legislators and generals got away, literally, with murder - I think of Indres and that unquenchable generosity of spirit. In particular, I remember an evening at his flat high above Cape Town last year, a few days after New Year, with two other celebrated Robben Island graduates (Mac Maharaj, a minister in our first democratic government, and Mandela's close confidant Ahmed Kathrada) plus Denis Goldberg, tried with Mandela at Rivonia, but who as a white had been incarcerated in Pretoria. These were some of South Africa's longest-serving political prisoners, yet in the early hours they started swapping prison yarns and laughing their heads off.
I went out on to Indres's balcony, with its breathtaking view over the lit-up city. Out in the dark of the bay, just visible, were the lights of Robben Island. And I remember thinking: "Yes, to have lived to experience this . . ."