People will tell you South Africa will change your life and it will. It’s something people told me the first time I visited. It’s something I now tell first time visitors. I’ve gone back twice since and each visit brings a new revelation.
As a museum and World Heritage site, Robben Island is one of those places on South Africa’s list of places to see. I’d wanted to check it out on previous visits but for one reason or another hadn’t gotten around to it. I’d be in Cape Town managing a conference and built in the opportunity to take a group there, so off we went.
You travel to Robben Island by ferry and you want to go when the sea is calm–which is hardly ever–so it’s best to get the first transfer of the day. We arrived the waterfront early, boarded the boat and settled in for the thirty-minute sail across Table Bay. A private group tour had been arranged and an eloquent and engaging gentleman from South Africa Tourism greeted us.
He led us on to a small, white bus with the slogan “Driven By Freedom” emblazoned across it. We sat silent as our guide recounted the story behind this isolated island once used as a leper colony and hospital but whose main function, and what earned it notoriety, was as a prison camp.
You can see Cape Town from Robben Island but for the men imprisoned here it must have seemed a million miles away. The waters that surround it are rough and uninviting. It was sunny, about 50 degrees but chilly, as the bus rolled slowly along the sandy roads through the rocky, bone-white limestone terrain. Seagulls swooped and screeched overhead. A clear blue sky contrasted against the brightness of the island rock and sand and there wasn’t much shade. By all accounts it was a beautiful day for us but it wasn’t difficult to imagine the desolation felt here. It must have been hell for the men confined to this unforgiving environment in bitter cold winds or in the high heat of the African sun.
Our guide spotted a group of jackass penguins and the bus stopped so we could snap photos of these little creatures with their donkey-like bray. With their black-webbed feet, they waddled around the acacia shrubs like they were on their way to garden party. For a moment it was easy to forget what this place was all about. The protection of mammal and bird life on Robben Island contributes to its status as a World Heritage Site. It would have been a plus to see the other wildlife but our time was limited and we were here for the cultural significance. We were here to see the maximum, security prison that held Nelson Mandela.
About five square meters, we could only enter the cell two at a time for about a minute. On the floor, a thin mat served as his bed. A bucket served as the toilet. A small, barred window offered a meager view.
It felt strange to stand here and one by one the collective mood turned somber. Being confined to this space had to change the way you looked at things but there was no way I could fathom what Nelson Mandela’s life was like here for one second, much less 18 years. “My bathroom’s bigger than this,” observed one of our group members in disbelief. Our guide recounted the dehumanization and degradation endured by Mandela and his fellow political prisoners. We all had a general knowledge going in of what happened here, yet to learn the details while moving within these walls somehow made it different. The bleakness of it was overwhelming. Standing there, it was almost impossible to reconcile what happened on Robben Island with the man we’ve all come to know through the media. With the graceful man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. With the man who would go on to become the president of South Africa in 1994.
“Take a look to your right, that’s Robben Island University,” instructed our guide. We saw nothing, just a pile of rocks. But what only appeared to be a lime quarry to us was the underground college Mandela developed through limited conversations with other high-level prisoners.
On top of all the other hurt and humiliation, they were deprived the most basic but essential human connection—communication. Those men worked that rock in severe heat, biting wind, driving rain, and at the same time found a way to secretly discuss and engage in a discourse on free will, apartheid, their constitution and all sorts of literature. They learned self-respect, how to practice it and how to earn it. That this could happen said so much about the human spirit and spoke to the understanding that the cultural rules and expectations of how to navigate life and opportunity only apply if you think they do. I recalled the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and realized the strength of that simple phrase. It got me thinking about freedom, what is really means, what it really is and how Nelson Mandela experienced more freedom in his mind then most of us ever will. It also got me thinking about education, the price we pay for it in the U.S., how it’s taken for granted, and how those men most likely got the true essence of its best information but at a very high cost.
Robben Island has become a return trip my mind takes every now and then. It’s the sort of place everyone should visit. The time and lives lost by the men imprisoned there because of apartheid can never be made right. It’s a sobering experience but it also shows the light and spirit man can discover within himself, and others, in the hardest of circumstances and that is a beautiful thing. The words “driven by freedom” echo many meanings to me now.
How will South Africa change you life? That’s something you’ll discover when you get there. Already been? I’d love to hear your story.