Sunday, December 9, 2018

South Africa 2: Going to Robben Island, Nelson Mandela's prison

       "There are personal actions each of us can take within our sphere of influence and expertise to help... No one of us can do it alone, but there is power if we leave old factions behind and build bridges to work together..."
                                              --Sharon Eubank

    "The world is truly round and seems to start and end with those we love."             --Nelson Mandela 

     "It is easier to change society than it is to change yourself."                     --Nelson Mandela


Robben Island, with Table Mountain in the background and penguins just behind us.
As the plane left the ground of Cape Town, South Africa for my return home, I reflected on the many lessons I learned in the almost two weeks of being there. I thought of the stare down with a male ostrich and how when I got back in my car at Table Mountain National Park, I would forever see animals in a different way. I was just taking his picture, but his iron-will eyes communicated to me the determined love he had for his family behind him--that he would protect them--at any cost. 

I remembered holding an elephant's trunk with my son who has autism and how we all joyfully walked through a field together. Again, an animal's eyes looking at me, but this time with a beckoning for friendship. Seeing playful flapping of whales dancing together in the Atlantic Ocean brought a majestic magic that made me feel like I was ten again. With many whales surrounding the boat and then on a cliff above them, I was riveted with their every leap. I will not forget the wonderful and creative people who I met--our conversations which I have played in my head again and again. But the overarching lesson came from a man who South Africa celebrated his 100th birthday this year--Nelson Mandela.

You cannot miss Nelson Mandela's influence all over the country. His face is ubiquitous-- on almost every paper currency, signs, and artwork. Quotes from his life are also everywhere. Yet, it wasn't until I went to Robben Island where he was imprisoned for about 18 years, and then for another nine years in another jail, that I began to understand, perhaps, just a little, the meaning of the word Forgiveness.  Mandela not only preached but pleaded for the new nation, without apartheid, to reconcile, to forgive. There were many who wanted him to preach revenge. Mandela refused. Instead, a man who had been long-suffering for 27 years envisioned something far greater--a country of peace, without divisions.

Mandela endured, along with the other political prisoners years of sleeping on a cold cement floor--devoid of medical supplies, proper food, hot water, newspapers, or a radio. Up until 1973, he was only able to see a visit every year for 30 minutes. He was not allowed to see his children until they were 16. His letters were only to be 500 words or less every six months. Yet, he did not complain or regret his decisions to be there. He earned an advanced law degree after ten years of struggling to get the textbooks.

With all that he outwardly, publicly endured, his inward transformation is what intrigues me the most. In a tiny cell, he even praised his ascetic living, calling it "an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings." The austerity, he added, "gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you."


The jail cell Nelson Mandela would be known as #44364. He was the 443rd prisoner the year of 1964 and was known by that number all the 18 years he was at Robben Island.

South Africa dismantled apartheid over two decades ago now. Fifty years of apartheid took its toll on the country, but what astounded me was that it was in Robben Island where Mandela, the lawyer, called the prison "the university of his life." In the most unlikely of places, often times lonely, and afflicted with heat and disease, he learned even harder lessons of the soul--how to forgive. His fellow prisoners were the professors, all learning from one another.
He would have solitary confinement for months, little food. Before 1973, he was able to see a visitor for 30 minutes once a month, and write and receive a letter every six months. Nevertheless, he taught, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." His first words out of prison were the insistence of forgiveness.

He came to the prison in 1964, and would not walk out a free man until February 11, 1990. After years of trying to peacefully disband apartheid, in the early 1960s, he began to think violence was the only way. But after being in "the university prison"--listening to illiterate men who had not received the education he had, men who came with different opinions and persuasions, they decided peace and reconciliation were absolutely the only way to bring democracy to South Africa. Mandela's first words out of prison were:

  "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here this day. I, therefore, place the remaining years of my life in your hands."

Later when he was released after 27 years, he befriended some of his prison guards at Robben Island. In 1993, both he and F. W de Klerk, the president of South Africa, received the Nobel Prize together, the man who had released him from prison. They were political rivals who needed one another: their unlikely successful negotiations saved a civil war in South Africa. Mandela's resolute will to peacefully carry on dialogue changed his country and the world. 

His example made me desire to resolutely desire to freely forgive. And when I think I am in a tough place, learn from everyone--to create a university where everyone around me are my teachers. 




A boat of political prisoners arriving into Cape Town from Robben Island, about a thirty-minute boat ride Cape Town.
Mandela invited 1,000 former prisoners five years after they were released from prison, in 1995. Every person picked up a rock to make a memorial to commemorate "the human spirit." Every tour guide at Robben Island is a former prisoner, adding to the impact of the tour.

Tom Moses, our guide, telling about his prison experience. He knew Mandela and thought of him as a father figure. He said to us that when they came back to remember their time as being prisoners, Mandela told them, "Let us never be sad here. It is a place where the human spirit has triumphed. 
  
With our tour guide, Tom Moses, who has vowed to educate and help others to always remember the political prisoner experience at Robben Island.

The prison halls...

Outside the cells where the prisoners would play soccer and sometimes tennis. Mandela was supposedly an expert tennis player.

The place where they had the occasional meeting

Political prisoners, depending on how dangerous they were deemed to be, had different diets.

During the tour, you can go to several dozen prison cells of other prisoners--the community of people who mentored  each other in their "university/prison."

Another prison colleague with Nelson Mandela

In each cell, there were signs about the prisoner. This story shows the compassion and forgiveness  that was engendered in the "prison/university,"
The prison buildings at Robben Island

More pictures of the prison ground

    Some of the very few pictures of Nelson Mandela we saw around              Cape Town


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