In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela says, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones — and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”
I have looked forward to many things about South Africa: natural beauty, delicious food, living history. I fully agree with all those who describe the stunning scenery of Cape Town. The food has been delicious, and this past Saturday we were treated to a fantastic dinner by neighbors in Yzerfontein. They served us Yellow Tail fish they caught from the Atlantic, Wildebeest sausage, and Springbok biltong (a type of dried and cured meat similar to jerky). These have been wonderful beyond words!
But it is the living history that most attracts me to South Africa, and Robben Island is the place that I most wanted to experience.
We traveled to Robben Island on a clear, sunny day. I was struck by the irony of such a beautiful place also being the setting for long and cruel imprisonments. The island is about eight miles from Cape Town, and the views of the city are incredible.
As our boat approached the island, my son said with surprise, “This looks more like a resort than a prison.” Mandela himself made the same comment on first seeing Robben Island.
To prepare for this visit, I read Mandela’s book, Long Walk to Freedom. In his book, Mandela describes long days filled with hard labor and difficult conditions. I felt a pit in my stomach looking at the quarry where prisoners worked five days a week for years on end. I listened to our guide, himself a former politcal prisoner at Robben Island, describe the apartheid system even in prison in which prisoners were treated differently based on their skin color. Black inmates, for example, were issued inferior clothes and given less food than prisoners from other racial backgrounds.Despite the unrelenting challenges, Mandela and other prisoners found ways to maintain their hope. Just outside the cell block, you can see the courtyard where Mandela eventually planted a garden and also hid parts of his memoirs in the soil (before they were discovered). In his book, Mandela describes creative ways prisoners maintained communication with one another and the outside world despite officials’ attempts to keep them isolated. I was most deeply moved to see Mandela’s cell. In this tiny place where he spent so many years of his life, Mandela remained committed to the cause of a free South Africa. He entered prison at age 44 (the same age I am now), and his commitment to the cause of freedom never waivered.
In his book, Mandela says, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of our guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure and keep me going. [Human] goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
Thankfully, Mandela’s story — and that of South Africa — does not end at Robben Island. It continued after his release from prison and his time leading the country. Now following his death, it continues in the lives of people committed to reconciliation and justice.