July 31, 2011

I went to Robben Island today, where Nelson Mandela and many other political organizers were imprisoned by the South African National Party during Apartheid. It was a humbling experience, to say the least.

We took a ferry from the Cape Town waterfront to the island. The views of the city from out in the water were remarkable, marred only by all of the tourists snapping photos in the foreground (though I was guilty of this too).

All of the Robben Island tours are led by former inmates. Our guideís name was Sipho, and he was imprisoned on Robben Island for five years in the 80s.

It was fascinating to hear Sipho talk about how the prisoners structured their days in an effort to keep their minds sharp. There were classes on everything from reading, writing, and mathematics to politics and government. They sang a lot, and danced. A whole slew of newspapers and political literature was smuggled inside, as well as missives from Mandela (who spend 27 years in solitary confinement.) The guards knew what was going on, but also knew that there was very little they could do to stop it. They instead funnelled their energy into prisoner beatings, which took place regularly. This was accompanied by more formal punishments, which almost always included an increased sentence.

We visited Mandelaís cell on the tour, an 8x8 concrete room, filled only with a mattress and a couple of wool blankets, a small table with a bowl and cup, and a bucket for the toilet. Mandela spent his nights in the cell, and his days doing back-breaking hard labor. He wrote a book during his time at Robben Island - Long Walk to Freedom -- the pages were smuggled out of his cell and buried in the exercise area.

Upon Mandelaís release (and under the latter part of de Klerkís presidency), many white South Africans fled the country, fearing retaliation. Itís honestly amazing that the transition of power from the National Party to the African National Congress was not filled with violence. Instead, Mandela tirelessly pushed for reconciliation. Given what he had been through under the Afrikaner government, this is absolutely astounding. Itís easy to see why Mandela is worshipped by so many people. In a recent email, Adar recommended I watch a documentary on Mandela and Tutuís Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called A Long Nightís Journey Into Day, which I will definitely see when I get home.

Unfortunately, the ANC has struggled under new leadership, and South Africa is still in need of massive rebuilding, especially when it comes to issues of poverty, crime, housing, and education. I have a feeling this country wonít really start to heal until many of those who lived under Apartheid are dead and goneÖ until young people like the ones I saw on Long Street are in power.

After arriving back on the mainland, I met up with Leah, and we watched a South African menís a capella group sing on the waterfront before heading off to dinner. There was lots more catching up to be done, and we talked all the way until it was time to go to bed.

Tomorrow: Durban

archive